Product-related Decisions
Designing for Equipped vs. Underserved Students
How do I design courseware that includes the learning needs of low-income students of color?
Educators today are aware of the increasing need to address demographic inequities in student learning experiences. The majority of the instructional courseware market will be won by better serving the needs of "new majority" learners.

This phrase refers to the changing demographic of college-goers, 38% of whom are now over the age of 25. One third are the first in their family to go to college. Organizations (and institutions) that work to meet the needs of these students will help them achieve greater success. With two thirds of jobs predicted to require a postsecondary degree as soon as 2020 (some forecasts say 2025), the job market will require well prepared “new majority” graduates. This important group of students requires special attention from courseware providers.

Many current tech professionals benefited from the traditional higher education experience: four years on a residential campus when they were between the ages of 18 and 22. Therefore, courseware design often assumes the points of view of people who’ve had the means—including financing, reliable internet access, family support and community acceptance—to succeed in college. However unintentionally, these assumptions become embedded in courseware and make usability and learning difficult for underserved students. Sometimes, design assumptions can limit an underserved student’s ability to even use the product, let alone succeed in the course.


Consider educating vendors serving your institution about your student body, faculty and staff. What background, demographics and challenges would be good context for the provider to keep in mind when building or delivering their product?

The Next Generation Courseware Challenge (NGCC) grant specified the creation of high-quality courseware to improve outcomes for traditionally underserved students by inviting the voice of the institutions that serve these new majority learners. Grantees learned to think more deeply about the needs and learning contexts of underserved students and apply the insights to make courseware more accessible to learners from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some went beyond implementation, as shown in the Smart Sparrow case study (below). The grant was also engineered to make available high quality courseware that was more affordable (less than $50 per student) than most products already on the market. Affordability is becoming a key focus in the market, with indicators such as shifting business models to inclusive access.

Wendy Wright, Professor of Business Administration at Cerritos College

Challenges for Underserved Students
Device Access

Many students cannot afford a laptop of their own, so they have to use school computer labs or borrow from a friend in order to do coursework or any task requiring a computer.

Black and Hispanic U.S. adults own laptops at lower rates (66 percent and 60 percent, respectively) than their White peers (83 percent).But all three groups own smartphones at similar rates (between 72 and 75 percent). Source: Pew Research

Internet Access and Bandwidth

Underserved (and home-insecure) students may face unreliable access to the Internet or weak connection bandwidth, due to attending a school with limited resources, or because their home doesn’t have sufficient access.

Fewer Black and Hispanic homes have access to broadband (65% and 58%) than White households (78%). Source: Pew Research

Financial Concerns

Many students who are reliant on financial aid experience delays in funding, which can affect their ability to purchase materials and prepare for the start of each term. Even if they have money, students may forgo purchasing anything until they know they won’t drop the course.

Overall spending on required course materials has been decreasing. Students spend an average of $555.60 per academic year. Source: NCES data

Sense of Belonging

Because underserved students generally come from groups that are still underrepresented in academic and professional fields, they may struggle to feel accepted and able to succeed in the college or field of study they’re pursuing.

In fall 2015, 42 percent of all full-time faculty at degree-granting institutions were White males, while only six percent were Black and four percent, Hispanic males and females. Source: NCES

“When it comes to teaching underserved students, often the thing that you’re fighting is this idea that [science] is not for them, that they don’t belong in this course. An image is so we always tried to have representation of the students [in the course content].”

Jacqui Hayes, Product Manager at Smart Sparrow

The challenges listed above by no means include everything that providers must take into account when designing courseware to be effective for underserved as well as typically “equipped” students. Use them and the best practices below as your starting point. Design so that underserved students using your platform can succeed as well as any other students.

Best Practices
Designing for the Equipped vs. Underserved Student

Design for mobile. A mobile-friendly solution will allow students without a personal computer to access their lessons and complete coursework more easily

Build low-load products. Products with quick load times will allow students who are accessing content on a mobile phone or on a slow connection to complete lessons and coursework efficiently.

Provide offline access. Create a client version of your product so that students can download and upload content when they have an Internet connection, and then study or do coursework offline.

Source affordable content. Leverage open educational resources to alleviate your course development expenditures and ultimately help decrease the cost to the student.

Provide immediate course access. Immediate access can help students avoid falling behind in class in the first few weeks.

Accept alternative payment methods. Expanding accepted forms of payment beyond debit and credit cards assists students who have access to neither.

Build with inclusivity in mind. Utilize pictures and case studies that showcase professionals and experts from different demographic and economic backgrounds-- especially underrepresented groups.

Build relevant and relatable content. Write content that is relevant to the students you’re serving. Enable them to see their own life experiences in examples and story problems.

Hire diverse staff. Hire curriculum, media, and platform developers who have experience with underserved students. Have them flag issues in current courseware and watch for “bias creep” in future products. Let them be a source for creative, multicultural content approaches.

Case Study
Reflecting a Community

Smart Sparrow hires staff who’ve worked with underserved students in an instructional capacity. By bringing such expertise in house, they ensure that their products can be evaluated for accessibility and content suitability at every stage of development and implementation. To create a stronger sense of belonging in traditionally underserved students, Smart Sparrow designs narratives and case studies that reflect students’ real-life experiences. For example, the Sickle Cell Anemia Module, a case study in their courseware recommended by a biology instructor, is about a disease that disproportionately impacts African-Americans. In the module, students must find the right blood donor match to help Jamal, a 21-year-old Ghanaian who has the genetic disease.