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.
Shifting courses online is an opportunity to build in accessibility from the beginning. If you may already be familiar with some basic accessible teaching strategies:
Image descriptions and alt-text for all images and videos
Captions and/or transcripts for all videos.
Checking for screen reader accessibility with a tool such as Webaim
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.
Here’s one example from Sara Ronis created (feel free to MAKE A COPY and use this as a template), and another one by Andrea Kaston Tange that has been used by multiple instructors across campus. Check with departmental leadership or College administrators to confirm what methods they have already undertaken to survey students, which may help avoid duplication of efforts.
Staff in CTLA/DLAC [firstname.lastname@example.org] and Accessibility and Disability Resources are here to work with you in designing accessible content and learning environments.
Assistant Dean for Disability Resources Autumn Wilke [email@example.com] has a team of students who can assist in adding captions or transcripts to videos and recorded lectures. Email Autumn to request assistance in captioning a video.
- CAVEAT: The time needed to complete quality captions is determined by video length. The earlier faculty are able to send content, requests, or questions to Autumn and her team, the better.
Synchronous Versus Asynchronous
You have probably heard advice to reduce synchronous interactions with students in favor of asynchronous interactions, particularly concerning the delivery of course content. We want to help define those terms, justify the asynchronous recommendations, and provide examples of asynchronous activities.
Synchronous interactions require students to join and participate in class activities “in real time,” all at the same time, just as if they were sitting in your classroom. An example of synchronous online learning is a live Blackboard Collaborate session where students and faculty are logging into a Collaborate session at the same time for a discussion.
Asynchronous interactions allow students to join and participate in class activities on their own schedule (though usually by a deadline). An example of asynchronous learning is a pre-recorded lecture that students watch followed by discussion board interactions.
The College has been recommending that faculty consider limiting the number of synchronous interactions they require for students for the following reasons:
- Time zones: As students disperse all over the world, synchronous activities could require some students to join a live session in the middle of the night. This is not an optimal learning experience for those students.
- Internet access: Synchronous interactions can tax internet connections. If you or your students do not have good internet access, you/they may struggle to access live sessions and/or they may experience major problems during a live session (e.g., audio cutting out; pixelated video; computer shutting down)
- ADA or accessibility: Synchronous interactions can surface or exacerbate learning challenges for students, such as hearing difficulties or attentional challenges.
- Demands on students where they are: We know that some students will have new demands placed on them when they return home or to their new location. For example, some students may be expected to get a job when they return, or they may have to move from location to location until they find a more permanent landing spot. Synchronous sessions can place additional stressors to students facing additional demands away from the campus.
We understand that you may want to keep some synchronous interactions to help students feel connected to you and each other. However, using synchronous learning as the primary means of delivering course content will not result in an equitable learning experience. So, we encourage you to depressurize those live/synchronous sessions by making them optional or turning them into office hours (and offering them various days/times during the week).
Bandwidth & Immediacy
When we try to replicate classroom experiences in an online environment, it’s easy to think of video conferencing as our go-to tool for all sorts of learning objectives—and for good reason. Most of us have participated in a video conference at work or had a video chat with friends or family at some point. We like the idea of being able to see and hear our students while interacting with them in real time just like we do when teaching face to face. But there are two key factors that make this approach problematic.
High-bandwidth technologies work great for students who have newer computers, fast and reliable internet access at home, and unlimited data plans on their phones. For other students, courses that require frequent use of high-bandwidth technologies can limit their ability to fully participate in course activities. This can jeopardize their success in the course, create a sense of shame and anxiety, and leave them feeling like second-class citizens.
The second factor, immediacy, refers to how quickly we expect our students to respond when interacting with us and with each other. Typically, we think of immediacy as a good thing. It’s baked into face-to-face learning, so it doesn’t feel like a limited resource. But one of the biggest advantages of online learning is that it can provide you and your students with more flexibility. When we require our students to be online at exactly the same time, we sacrifice one of the key benefits of online learning, and that can make an online course feel like more of a burden than it has to be.
If we compare these factors on a coordinate plane with bandwidth on the vertical axis and immediacy on the horizontal axis, we can divide instructional technologies into four categories or “zones.” By reflecting on the unique pros and cons of each zone and the drawbacks that come with high-bandwidth/high-immediacy tools, we can identify ways to make our courses more flexible and accessible.
Other Accessibility Considerations
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 document.
Microsoft Office PowerPoint and YouTube offer automatic captioning that, while imperfect, can increase access. WebEx and Collaborate do not offer live-captioning, but captions can be made available if a 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.
- If you do use live video or live audio, be sure to record the sessions for those can’t attend synchronously. Offer places for students to engage in discussion asynchronously.
- Create a podcast or record audio to go along with power point slides.
- Create captions — for videos, you can use YouTube to create captions. For audio only, you can make a transcript on otter.ai (600 free minutes per month). You can also use otter to create transcripts for videos, though it doesn’t overlay with the video. Even if you don’t know of students with disabilities, this can be helpful to students with bandwidth issues or those who want to quickly review the material later to find information.
- If you are using video, make sure there’s a way that students could call in for an audio-only experience and the chatbox allows them to still participate.
- Aimi Hamarie, “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19” Mapping Access (10 March 2020)
- Daniel Stanford, “Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All” IDD Blog (16 March 2020)
- Lindsey Passenger Wieck, “An Equitable Transition to Online Learning: Flexibility, Low Bandwidth, Cell Phones, and More” Pedagogy Playground (9 March 2020)
- Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence, “Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely“
- Brown University Center for Teaching and Learning, “Inclusive Approaches to Support Student Assignments During Times of Disruption“