The college classroom is a space where every student ought to feel a sense of belonging, and where students with a range of abilities, identities, and perspectives can thrive. Few, if any of us, would disagree with that statement. However, the remote learning environment can pose unique challenges to facilitating a sense of belonging. Removing the pedagogical, social-emotional, socioeconomic, and other barriers that sometimes conspire to undermine equity is trickier in a hybrid or remote setting than face-to-face.
Happily, you don’t have to be an expert in accessibility and inclusive design to build in practices that serve all learners. Consider taking advantage of this transition time to front-load accessibility and equity from the get-go. Anticipating diversity in all its forms, including its expression in differing abilities and needs, can help you identify strategies that provide equity and access. It can also guide you toward representing multiple student identities in your course material, lesson plans, and assessment tools.
This page offers a wealth of information and ideas as well as tools and techniques. They’re meant to help you enable your students’ equitable access to course materials and learning spaces in a hybrid or remote setting. The suggestions are compiled from conversations with Colgate faculty and students, from responses to surveys sent out early this summer, and from the task force’s own research and findings.
Conduct a pre-class survey
Ask students about their prior knowledge of the subject matter, what their goals are for the course, what fears they have, what they see as their learning strengths, and what modes of engagement (e.g., visual content, lecture, small group discussion) they prefer or find most useful. Ask them what pronouns they use. Invite them to share any access needs or concerns with you, indicating that any discussion about their ability or identity is optional and confidential, but welcome. Consider asking students to share other information, such as whether they are international, multilingual, or first-generation. If possible, follow up on the survey with a one-on-one in-person or Zoom meeting early in the semester.
Signal your commitment to equity and access
Use the course Moodle site and syllabus as well as synchronous interactions to convey your teaching philosophy and values. Define “equity” and “access,” if necessary. Include your pronouns when introducing yourself, and invite your students to do the same. Indicate your openness to feedback, and identify clear channels for it. Provide students with an accessibility statement that goes beyond simply referring them to disability services, if need be.
Be flexible and deliberate
In the design, delivery, and assessment of your courses, create a range of opportunities for students to access materials, engage with content, and show you what they’ve learned. Organize content in ways that are consistent and transparent. Provide clear guidelines for course mechanics and communication. Offer students a variety of ways to participate (taking on roles in breakout rooms, annotating documents, responding to questions online or in person, e.g.). Accommodate varied sensory and communicative abilities by narrating all visual information, asking students to introduce themselves before speaking, checking audio levels, speaking slowly, and facing your audience when speaking. It is always good practice to check in with your audience frequently.
Stick with what works
Just because a digital tool is available and exciting doesn’t mean you should use it. Rely on technologies that you feel comfortable with, and that you can expect your students to feel comfortable with as well. Avoid tools that run the risk of inhibiting student access or complicating instructional delivery. Bear in mind that Colgate students did not choose a distance education; the current situation may have caught them without the necessary access to or comfort level with certain technologies. Requiring them to undertake projects that hinge on their ability to first master new technologies can be discouraging, to say the least.
Create accessible materials
Remove barriers to learning by ensuring that all of your materials can be accessed by all of your students. Doing so goes beyond ensuring access for students with disabilities; it also improves the learning experience for everyone. (Read more about how to create accessible materials below, in Resources.)
Value communication and collaboration
Communicate with students early and often to build trust and address concerns as they arise, before they have time to fester. Invite students to collaborate on a list of class norms (being attentive, referring to people by name, etc.), and collectively set expectations for class participation. Have students take turns as class notetaker to increase collaborative learning and ensure broad access to course material. Consider instituting a buddy system or support group for students to check in with one another. Create channels for students to discuss projects and share resources. Encourage them to be useful to one another when it comes time to select courses or declare majors. Doing this can be as simple as adding a few minutes at the beginning or end of class time for students to hang out and chat.
Be your best self
The global pandemic affects us all, in all sorts of ways, but some students experience the disruption, vulnerability, and grief more acutely than others. If a student seems disengaged or struggling, don’t assume you know why. Talk with the student, then work together to develop strategies for moving forward. Build deadline flexibility into your course structure. Allow students to turn in work late with reasonable penalties. Consider allowing them to do make-up work or extra-credit assignments. Be mindful of students’ varied learning environments, including the potential for increased responsibilities to home and family; increased need to work a job; heightened housing, food, and health insecurity; or increased distractions. Be sure students are aware of physical and mental health services available at Colgate; if necessary, help connect them to those services. Be mindful of the differential impact of the virus or COVID-19 on minority communities.
Minimize the effect of disruption
Learning will be disrupted this fall. We should all build that assumption into our course planning. Use asynchronous as well as synchronous discussions to maximize access for students in different time zones. If a student loses connectivity during a class session, offer other options for displaying engagement, such as writing you a personal email, submitting a brief reflection over Moodle or other technology, or recording and uploading a brief video. Turn off the default HD video in your Zoom settings to help those who might not have reliable bandwidth. Be aware that students in other countries may have restricted access to such sites as Facebook or YouTube. Check in frequently to be sure the format you’re using works for all of your students.
Resources at Colgate
- A list of mental health services on campus is available here
- Disability Services During Covid-19 (from Spring 2020)
- Accessibility Resources at Colgate
- This wiki provides a thorough overview of known accessibility issues in Zoom
- A guide to accessibility and equity in online course design can be found on the Stanford University webpage. Consider also this list of tips from the University of Washington, or this list of core skills from University of Minnesota.
- The University of Arkansas offers this handy toolkit for moving online while keeping access and inclusion concerns at the fore: Designing an Accessible Online Course.
- Here’s a sample accessibility statement that some instructors include with their syllabus. Want to go a step further? You could explicitly integrate these into your planning and communication.
- A version of this survey can help you get to know your students better.
- A number of resources exist to help you create accessible materials. Dartmouth offers an overview here: Creating Accessible Materials. The University of Washington’s 20 Tips for Creating an Accessible Online Course is a useful document, and includes tips for annotating video.
- For targeted accessibility fixes, try this for Word, PDF documents, and PowerPoint slides. To help with descriptions for visual and audio resources, check out these directions on captioning and audio description. Provide captions and/or transcripts for all videos. An app such as Otter.ai can generate transcripts from audio. For designing with color-blind students in mind, follow this checklist. WebAim can help ensure web reader compatibility.
- Are you the kind of person who prefers to absorb information by video? Check out this one by Luke Wood and Frank Harris, Employing Equity-Minded & Culturally-Affirming Teaching and Learning Practices in Virtual Learning Communities.
- Vanderbilt University (Inclusive and Equitable Teaching Online) and UC Davis (Online Equity and Inclusion) offer excellent advice for creating equity in online learning. For background reading on the subject, check out this Inside Higher Ed article, The Challenge of Equity in Higher Education Under COVID-19.
- Intrigued by the possibilities of what you see here? Learn more about Universal Design in Education from this online tutorial published by the University of Washington. An excellent book on the subject is UDL in the Cloud: How to Design and Deliver Online Education Using Universal Design for Learning by Katie Novak and Tom Thibodeau.
Content on this page was adapted from the University of Washington’s Inclusive Teaching resources, the Explore Access page at the University of Arkansas, and Aimi Hamraie’s Accessible Teaching in the Times of Covid-19 ; All these pages were published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 license.