Last spring, you made a heroic effort to rapidly transition your course to online delivery in response to a campus closure. It’s important now to take a moment to consider how your students adapted then and this fall, and how you can design inclusive learning approaches after considering the equity and access issues resulting from this change in delivery.
For students learning remotely at home, these challenges may include limited access to computers, high-speed internet, campus support services, and a lack of social connection with peers and instructors.
While you may not be able to solve every barrier to access, incorporating a few simple techniques into your teaching can help provide a more inclusive learning experience for all.
The three strategies outlined below draw from Universal Design for Learning principles, which emphasize:
●Providing learning materials in multiple formats and modalities that meet diverse learner needs and preferences.
● Providing opportunities for students to engage in reflective practice, make relevant connections to learning objectives, and collaborate with peers.
● Providing students with options for how they demonstrate their understanding of course objectives.
1. Upload course materials in multiple formats
It’s hard to predict what kinds of devices and applications students will—or won’t—have access to at home. To help ensure students can access your digital course materials:
● Include a transcript, PowerPoint slides, and other materials referenced in your lecture recordings so that students with bandwidth challenges can still review your materials if they can’t stream your video. If you’re not recording from a transcript, a storyboard outline with key talking points and takeaways can also help.
● Share both the original Word or PowerPoint file and a PDF export of your course materials. The original file formats tend to be better for accessibility and are easier for disability teams to remediate if needed. The PDF will be a smaller file size for students with limited bandwidth and can be accessed on devices that don’t have MS Office.
● Use a free OCR (Optical Character Recognition) tool to convert scanned PDFs into searchable electronic documents that will work better with screen readers, assistive technologies, and study tools.
● As you’re creating new content, use built-in accessibility checkers in your authoring tools to help you address barriers for students who use assistive technologies. You’ll find a focus on accessibility will produce more readable, usable content for all students.
2. Provide multiple opportunities for participation
Establishing a sense of community and feeling of belonging is vital to an inclusive learning environment, especially when learning at a distance. While video conferences can be an effective way to generate social presence, consider that bandwidth issues and obligations at home may preclude some students from participating.
To help increase collaboration and keep students engaged during video conferences, take advantage of multiple communication tools such as:
● Encourage students to use the chat feature during video conferences and have students take turns moderating the chat. Assigning students rotating roles during synchronous sessions will help them stay engaged and inspire more peer sharing.
● Create a cloud-based document like a Google Doc that be accessed asynchronously to facilitate collective note-taking, question asking, and resource sharing for students unable to attend the video conference.
● Use the “Break out Rooms” feature in your video conference tool. Divide your students into small groups to discuss portions of the reading and reconvene to share what they’ve learned with the larger group.
● Embed specific, open-ended questions into your lectures, in lieu of yes/no or general questions. Questions should aim to prompt dialogue and debate. Online polling tools can also be useful for generating interaction and boosting engagement.
3. Diversify your assessments with “micro-assignments”
High-stakes final exams and papers can be stressful for students, especially during a crisis. Help students mitigate their stress and feel more prepared by increasing opportunities for low stakes “micro- assignments.” These short, focused assignment can help you gauge their understanding and inform your instructional support.
Strategies for designing effective micro-assignments include:
● Assign and review micro-assignments before scheduled video conferences so that you can refocus the session to address specific student questions and areas of confusion.
● Consider instituting peer review to broaden perspectives and encourage peer-to-peer teaching. Crowdsource student discoveries and learning using discussion threads and forums so that you can focus on wider areas of confusion for greater impact.
● Move beyond text-based assignments and allow students to create multimedia responses (such as short videos or podcasts) to demonstrate their understanding of a topic. Encourage students to include captions or transcripts of work so that their creations are accessible to peers.
● Design micro-assignments that connect to students’ home culture, interests, and background knowledge with course topics to assess higher-order thinking skills while opening opportunities for you and your students to learn about each other.
3 ways to design inclusive learning classes online
Teaching with empathy and reflection
As you embark on your journey to designing more inclusive education experiences for your students, remember to acknowledge that everyone is working through uncertain and trying times.
Empathy is central to inclusive design and can be accessed through reflective practice. Establish clear channels of communication and have check-ins with students during synchronous sessions to invite them to share their experiences learning at home. Create a dedicated discussion thread or journaling activity for students to reflect and connect with each other, as well as share tips on digital tools they can use to support their learning.
While there is no single pathway during this unprecedented time, by adopting an inclusive mindset informed by empathy and reflection, you can help your students find their own way to learning success.