by Robin Page | March 13, 2020
As campuses around the country grapple with the impact of COVID-19, an increasing number of institutions have decided to move all classes online. Remote teaching presents a number of challenges for faculty, including the logistics--both pedagogical and technological--of how to transition course lectures, discussions, and lab or studio learning experiences online. One issue that needs particular attention is that of equitable access to the learning environment. How can faculty and instructors ensure that all students have access to the materials they need to succeed in the course when the learning contexts are rapidly changing?
Pedagogy that prioritizes inclusion--whether the courses are online, in-person or a combination of the two--asks us to consider how we can help all students succeed. For in-person classes, inclusive approaches include (but are not limited to) creating inclusive learning spaces where students feel valued and included, setting clear expectations about course work and deadlines, and making the learning and assessment accessible and relatable to all students. When in-person classes are canceled and learning shifts to online spaces and methods, these ideas can still be applied--but access and equity can look very different in online teaching contexts, and become increasingly complicated when/if students are no longer on-campus.
One of the best ways to learn what your students need is to ask them! As instructors prepare to move classes online during periods of remote teaching, consider sending all students a survey to better understand their needs and preferences for remote instruction. It may not be possible to accommodate all of their needs or requests, but the results can be used to inform the choices you make about remote instruction, and will help students to feel that you’re taking their personal situations into consideration. Check with departmental leadership or university administrators to confirm what methods they have already undertaken to survey students, which may help avoid duplication of efforts. Dr. Danya Glabau (NYU Tandon School of Engineering) and Dr. Lance Gravlee (University of Florida, Department of Anthropology) have made the surveys they plan to use with their students publicly available and free to duplicate.
During times of a campus closure or when remote teaching is required, not all students will have access to regular internet service, or top-of-the-line software and hardware, whether they are on- or off-campus. Students may have unstable, unpredictable, or generally low levels of access to the internet or to WiFi; they may rely on data plans which may run low or run out before they have completed all their coursework; they may lack access to physical devices like laptops, tablets, printers, webcams, or other equipment; they may not have access to specialized software; or they may be unable to run certain apps or software on their devices. Though there may be community-based resources to address some of these access issues (e.g., free WiFi at public libraries and coffee shops), these resources may not be accessible to all students when they need them, or may not be available at all in the event of community-level closures.
Some tips for increasing equity and access when teaching remotely:
Anonymously ask students about their level of access to technology if they remain on campus, and about their level of access if they were required to leave campus. Use the results of this survey to inform the technology choices for your courses.
When possible, offer flexibility or alternatives to students when access is an issue. If you have a student who anticipates or who has demonstrated need regarding technology access, ask them what they would need in order to participate more fully in the course or submit work. Students are most aware of the constraints they face, and are often in a good position to make suggestions for work-arounds.
Ensure materials are accessible and mobile-friendly. PDFs are generally more accessible for students with disabilities who may rely on screen-readers, and PDFs adapt to different devices and cell phones more readily than other formats.
If you anticipate students may need materials from the campus bookstore, inquire as to whether the bookstore will ship materials off-campus to students.
As mentioned above, remote teaching because of campus closures may introduce inequities into the educational experience that are unique to the situation, and students and faculty alike may need to prioritize caretaking, health and safety, or other needs before coursework. If campuses are closed and students disperse away from campus, they may be in time zones all over the world. In these cases, offering students the flexibility of an asynchronous learning environment may help to alleviate stress and encourage participation, and may reduce stress on resources used for synchronous classes, such as Zoom. Offering classes synchronously means that faculty and students gather together at the same time and interact in real-time, whereas offering classes asynchronously means students access the materials at a time of their choosing. While synchronous experiences can be more responsive and can create more engagement, they can present many of the technical and logistical challenges discussed above. Asynchronous experiences can reduce or remove many of these challenges, and may increase engagement with the course materials since students can access them at their own time and pace, but students may feel less engaged and have less motivation when course material is presented asynchronously.
Some tips for increasing equity and access when teaching remotely:
Ask students if they have particular needs concerning access and accommodations during remote or online learning. Because of the change in learning contexts, students may have accommodations they had not previously requested, and some students may need to make adjustments to their accommodations.
Offer students resources on how to stay motivated and keep up with coursework when classes are being offered remotely. The resource “Tips for Learning During Disruption,” compiled by Rice University faculty members Dr. Caleb McDaniel and Dr. Jenifer Bratter, is designed to help students refine their approach to coursework and studying when classes are no longer meeting in-person.
Consider whether video is necessary in all cases, given how streaming videos require strong internet connections, and how they can deplete data plans and memory on students’ (and your!) devices. Record lectures and virtual meetings so they can be downloaded and viewed by students later.
Provide transcripts and captions of audio and video. This benefits not only students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, but those who are participating in classes in noisy locations like a computer lab or dorm, those who don’t have headphones, and those who might have English as their second language.
For class discussions, have students participate in the collaborative production of notes or live-type discussion notes in a shared Google document.
Google Slides and YouTube offer automatic captioning that, while imperfect, can increase access. Zoom does not offer live-captioning, but captions are available if a Zoom session is recorded and viewed later.
Provide narrations of the material you’re presenting on the screen (for example, describing a diagram, chart, or photograph) for students who are blind, have difficulty reading on a computer screen, or who are otherwise unable to view the video or slides.
During an unstable and unpredictable time, stress is elevated for faculty, staff, and students alike. Students may face a variety of physical, emotional, cognitive, and financial challenges that can impact motivation, concentration, learning, and performance. Remember that students don’t have to be directly impacted by a crisis for it to have a significant impact on their health, well-being, and stress levels, and that some students will be impacted in ways that they may not want to share with you. When possible, offer all students additional flexibility to meet deadlines, adjust workloads, and the necessary time to adapt to their own changing situations.
Some tips for promoting an inclusive environment while teaching remotely:
If you are in a position to do so, advocate for the students in your community that may have greater need and fewer resources on which to depend. Not all students have safe and welcoming homes to return to in times of crisis, and many students rely on campus resources for regular access to food, shelter, employment, and health care (including mental health care). These needs may be invisible, and students may be reluctant to disclose these needs to individual instructors. Consider the impact remote teaching and campus closures have on all students, and encourage other instructors, staff, and administrators to do the same to ensure support is available for all students.
Ask students if they have concerns about accessing other campus resources, as well as any other concerns about remote teaching and learning they want to share. You can use this information to shape your class and teaching. Be prepared to connect students to resources or to offices who can help them if they disclose they are in need of support.
Be mindful of the ways in which a crisis can impact communities in different ways, and how students from different identity groups (race, ethnicity, age, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation) may have different responses to a situation. Moreover, consider that some communities may become targets of bias incidents, discrimination, and even hate crimes during times of crisis. Be prepared to address tension, heated moments, or bias incidents if they occur in your classes or on campus, and step in to shut down inflammatory or hurtful language or actions. Reflect on how your own response to the situation is impacting you, your approach to teaching, your interactions with students, and what steps you can take to best support your students.
Consider whether and how to discuss the cause of the disruption in class, and how you will prepare for those conversations. The CTE resource Teaching after Hurricane Harvey and Teaching in Times of Crisis from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching offer valuable tips for discussing local, national, and international crises in class. Misinformation spreads easily in times of crisis, and students may have misconceptions about the causes of an issue or about communities that are impacted. When possible, correct misinformation that students may be sharing.
Remember to practice self-care! Moving to remote teaching requires balancing a lot of competing needs and expectations--a balancing act that can be stressful and require more emotional labor than usual. It’s ok not to aim for perfection during a time of certainty and constantly changing landscapes; allow flexibility in course planning, be transparent with students, and expect that mistakes and hiccups will happen! As you support your students, remember to seek support and assistance from your fellow instructors, department and university administrators, university support staff, as well as friends and family when you need it.
Hicks, Cat, Emeline Brulé, and Roberta Dombrowski. 2020. “You Have to Put Your Class Online: Simple Things to Think About.” Online resource.
Wieck, Lindsey Passenger. 2020. “An Equitable Transition to Online Learning: Flexibility, Low Bandwidth, Cell Phones, and More.” Pedagogy Playground.
Cohen, Jenae and Beth Seltzer. 2020. “Teaching Effectively During Times of Disruption." Stanford University online resource.
Hamraie, Aimi. 2020. “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.” Mapping Access.
Dill Emma, Karen Fischer, Beth McMurtrie, and Becky Supiano. 2020. “As Coronavirus Spreads, the Decision to Move Classes Online is the First Step. What Comes Next?” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 6.