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Course Design

Access and Equity for Online Learning

April 20, 2020
Dominique Vargas

The sudden shift to online learning can deepen existing inequalities.The digital divide (uneven distribution and access to technology) combined with the implications of a global pandemic for different socio-economic and racial groups means that many students will be disproportionately affected by the shift to remote work. For instructors, this means that we need to think about logistical and technological concerns as inseparable from pedagogical ones. Considering all of the factors that may be affecting student performance also means curating an inclusive pedagogy that prioritizes equitable access to the learning environment. 

Inclusive pedagogy asks us to consider how we can help all students succeed. Facilitating inclusion in the physical classroom often means creating spaces where students feel valued and included, setting clear expectations, and making learning and assessment accessible to all students. Though the online shift can complicate these strategies, the principles remain the same. Adapted to online teaching contexts, inclusive teaching and learning requires transparency, accessibility, and flexibility.

Transparency

Clearly communicating the rationale behind instructional choices can motivate students to learn and make them more successful. However, the additional challenges of remote learning make it even more important to be mindful of hidden curricula and expectations we may take for granted. As such, we must make sure that we are not making any unnecessary assumptions about what our students know and what they are able to do. Inclusive strategies center transparency through clear, shared expectations for students and instructors. 

Accessibility

Students working from home may not have access to stable, high-speed internet service or top of the line software and hardware, and/or they may have to share bandwidth and devices with parents or siblings who are also required to work from home. Students who rely on mobile devices may have data plans that run low or run out before the end of the semester. Unfortunately community-based resources that we may want to direct students to, like libraries and coffee shops, are probably closed now due to state and local regulations. For students with disabilities, remote learning can be even more difficult. 

Flexibility

Equitable and inclusive teaching means working with the diversity of students across multiple dimensions. Right now, that means also considering the varied ways that their lives are disrupted. As we adjust to the new normal of remote teaching and learning, it is important to be as flexible as possible. We can accomplish this by adjusting our approaches to teaching: Consider balancing synchronous and asynchronous tools and course materials so that students have multiple points of access, re-center active learning strategies, provide multiple means of assessment and evaluation, and allow students–within reason–flexibility to meet deadlines.¬†

More tips for increasing equitable access: 

  • Survey students about their needs and wellbeing
    • Ask students about technology, availability, and anything else they would like you to take into consideration
    • If you have a student who anticipates or who has demonstrated accessibility concerns, ask them what they would need in order to participate more fully in the course or submit work
    • Use the results to inform your decisions about the course
  • Consider the Universal Design for Learning framework
    • Use the results from surveys to inform your decisions about the course: revisit your goals, materials, methods, and assessments, and make sure they are accessible to everyone
    • Create flexible paths of learning for each student to progress
  • Ensure lectures and synchronous sessions are accessible¬†
    • Record live sessions to be uploaded to Sakai or emailed¬†
    • Create captions on videos
  • Ensure asynchronous and other written materials are accessible
    • PDFs are generally more accessible for students with disabilities who may rely on screen-readers, and more accessible on mobile devices
    • Work with the library and bookstore to make texts accessible to students who may not be able to afford the necessary materials
  • Provide opportunities for low tech and alternate assignments¬†
    • Offer flexibility or alternatives to students when access is an issue¬†
    • Create a menu of options for students to choose from in order to meet assignment and course learning goals
  • Solicit feedback on online instruction
    • Ask students what is working for them and what isn‚Äôt
    • Students are well-placed to assess their abilities¬†

Inclusive environments value and include everyone. During this unpredictable time, everyone will experience high levels of stress and anxiety stemming from physical, emotional, cognitive, and financial challenges. Students and instructors alike will be significantly impacted by this disruption, which can have a negative impact on motivation and performance. Students will be affected in ways they may not even wish to share. So when possible, offer all students the benefit of compassion and understanding with deadlines, workloads and the necessary time to adapt to our ever-changing environment. 

Additional Resources: 

Maintaining Equity and Inclusion in Virtual Learning Environments
Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely
Accessible Teaching In The Time Of Covid-19
An Equitable Transition to Online Learning: Flexibility, Low Bandwidth, Cell Phones, and More
You Have to Put Your Class Online: Simple Things to Think About
Reflections by Dr. Jason Petrulis