When designing courses, either online or in-person, it is essential to remember that not all of our students are the same. Just as no two faculty members would teach a course in the same way, no two students are going to engage with our course exactly the same. The challenge is to design course materials that allow all students to be equally successful independent of their personal characteristics. This is especially important to consider when teaching online because it can be harder to notice students that fall behind or stop participating in our courses. This guide to Inclusive Excellence in Virtual Learning Environments details many important considerations when designing online courses, a few of which we detail here:
Students in your online course will have a variety of different backgrounds. Many will be working full time, have child care responsibilities, or be sharing computers with others in their household. This can make it very difficult to complete coursework that has very short windows for completion or requires synchronous meetings. On the other hand, many students feel that real-time video communication gives them a sense of community that can otherwise be difficult to attain in an online course. This is why it is essential to balance synchronous and asynchronous meetings as well as giving appropriate windows of time for the completion of coursework.
When teaching online, it is important to notice as soon as a student stops participating or falls behind. Reach out to those students as soon as they miss a deadline. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are often less likely to reach out for help when they need it, so it is important for the instructor to initiate contact if the student doesn’t. Be sure to use inclusive rather than punitive language. For example ‘I notice that you have not been as active in the course as you used to be. Is there anything I can do to help you catch back up?’ is a lot more likely to get a positive response than ‘If you do not turn in your assignment by midnight you will receive a 0.’
While the University of Nebraska-Lincoln encourages any students with disabilities requiring accommodations to reach out to Services for Students with Disabilities, faculty also play an essential role in making courses accessible to create a climate of equity and inclusion. While many nuances exist in the needs of your students, focusing on accessibility during material creation rather than making individual exceptions for students that need them, can save you a lot of work. You will also find that creating an inclusive and accessible environment benefits all learners - not just students with known disabilities. As you design your upcoming course(s), approach accessibility from the start so that all students may benefit. Here are some additional resources on accessibility consideration, Implementing Inclusive Excellence into Virtual Learning Environments and Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning.