Implementing Inclusive Excellence into Virtual Learning Environments

As UNL strives to ensure our students, faculty and staff remain safe in these unprecedented times, the Center for Transformative Teaching and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion seek to provide resources to ensure that they continue to serve all students. The following guide will provide resources and tips for faculty to continue teaching in ways that are equitable and inclusive as they move to teach face-to-face classes remotely.

We understand the deluge of information being received by faculty during this period, so we have condensed the information to ensure its applicability for immediate use. We encourage you to skim through and digest a little at a time.

Please be sure to reach out to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for additional resources and support aligning with principles of Inclusive Excellence!

Principles of Inclusive Remote Teaching

Balancing Synchronous & Asynchronous Learning.

Synchronously learning means that faculty and students gather at the same time and interact in real-time using some form of chat or video-conferencing technology. Asynchronous learning means students access the materials at a time of their choosing. Deciding which of these to use in your course is a difficult decision that should involve considering many factors.

In this difficult time, many faculty want to maintain a close-knit sense of community similar to the one that was present before the move to remote learning. In an effort to keep things as similar as possible to the original course, it is tempting to engage in synchronous learning where all students meet at the same time and can interact face-to-face virtually. This can be a great way of helping students feel less isolated.

On the other hand, engaging in remote teaching because of campus closure introduces 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. Students 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. Also, not all students will have the same level of access to the technology required to engage in synchronous learning, so those students will be left at a disadvantage if the course relies too much on those synchronous meetings.

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.

Transparency.

Be sure to clearly communicate about norms, expectations, and evaluation criteria. Explain your expectations for the new format and possible restructuring of office hours (where they are, how often they take place, and what kinds of things you might talk about). Let students know if you want them to sign up online, or whether it is fine to drop in unannounced. Continue repeating this information to students’ multiple times throughout the remaining semester – through recorded videos, in visible locations in Canvas – the more repetition the better. Remember that you no longer have the ability to give clarifications on your instruction in-person, so you will need a lot more detailed and clear instructions for assignments when teaching remotely.

Be explicit in expectations and in discussions about how to succeed with new online format:

  • Consider whether and how to discuss the cause of the disruption in class, and how you will prepare for those conversations. The CTT resource Teaching at UNL 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.
  • In Canvas, start each module with an overview page clearly explaining expectations. List everything students are expected to read, watch, and do for that section of material.
  • Clearly explain the purpose of each assignment, reading, video, etc. This is information you would normally have explained in class, so make sure that you still convey the importance of everything you ask students to do.
  • Give suggestions for how students should approach readings. Also, be sure to explain how each reading ties into other assignments. Instructors always have a purpose for assigning readings, but it is important to make sure this is conveyed to students.
  • Offer guidance for exam and project preparation. If these high-stakes assessments are in a different format than they were previously, help your students understand what that means for their studying behavior. Preparing for a timed multiple choice exam is very different from preparation for an essay exam. Give your students best-practices for the type of assessment you are giving.
  • Ask for student feedback. Set up an informal, anonymous survey that asks students about their experience in the course, how confident they are about their ability to succeed, and what resources would help them perform better in the course.

Academic Belonging.

Cultivating students’ sense of connection to the course, content and larger campus during the move to remote learning is imperative. Many students, particularly underrepresented groups, may be feeling lonely right now due to the loss of campus community. It is therefore important to ensure that the sense of community that you built in your course so far continues, even in a remote learning environment.

  • Remind your students they can succeed. Maintain high expectations, but use phrases like “you belong” “you can do the work” and “you can succeed” to convey that you believe your students are capable of what you ask them to do.
  • Be present in the course. Send frequent announcements to let students know that you’re still thinking about them. Preferably, send them as videos so your students can still see your face and hear your voice. Reinforce the idea that you are still a person.
    • Remember that all videos should come with a transcript for those that can’t access video files. If you record your videos with VidGrid, it is easy to get transcripts after recording.
  • Let your students talk to one another. Use Canvas discussion boards, group projects, or other collective assignments to keep students connected to one another.
    • Consider giving students the option of making their discussion contributions as videos so they can still see & hear one another.
  • Make sure you have a detailed ‘Netiquette Policy’ detailing the expected behaviors for online communication. Students may feel more comfortable participating in online discussions if the guidelines are welcoming & inclusive. For example, this is an example Netiquette Policy from Arizona State University
    • When students have a voice in creating these policies, they feel a deeper connection to the course and the other students in it. In the future, consider developing your policy collaboratively with your students early in the semester.

Accessibility.

It is important to ensure that all students are able to access and fully interact with all materials that are posted online. Students from underrepresented groups are those most likely to be negatively impacted by the sudden move to online teaching, so it is essential that you ensure all students have equal access to course materials. During this unprecedented period of 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 on or off-campus. Students may have unreliable or unstable or generally low levels of access to the internet. Students may rely on mobile data plans which may run low or run out before they have completed coursework or lack access to physical devices such as laptops, tablets, webcams or other equipment.

  • Students from impoverished backgrounds or rural areas are least likely to have access to the internet & technological resources to fully participate in an online environment. While there may be community-based resources to address some access issues (e.g., free Wi-Fi at restaurants and public libraries), these resources may not be accessible to all students when they need them, particularly during periods of community-level closures. Avoid the requirement for students to be present for synchronous learning experiences and make sure that you record any of those sessions so that students can access them later.
  • Many students will be accessing course materials on their phone. Before publishing course materials, try looking at them on a mobile device to ensure that everything necessary is easy to access.
  • 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.
  • Ensure that all course materials can be accessed by students that are using a screen reader. This guide has more information on ensuring that your course is fully accessible to students with disabilities. 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.
  • Consider whether video is necessary in all cases, given how streaming videos require strong internet connections and consider recording lectures and virtual meetings so they can be downloaded and viewed by students later.

Flexibility.

There have been a lot of sudden changes to the way you will be delivering your course, and there are sure to be more changes as the semester progresses. Remember that your students have also experienced a lot of changes in their lives. Some may be unsure about where they will live or how to provide resources for themselves and their families. Some may suddenly be charged with taking care of siblings or other relatives that can no longer go to school. And some are likely to have close family members fall ill, or even fall ill themselves. As much as possible, build in flexibility so that these students will still be able to finish the semester.

  • Be flexible about deadlines. While deadlines are still important for keeping the majority of students progressing forward, be willing to work with students that cannot meet those deadlines. Your goal should be to help all of your students succeed as much as possible.
  • Consider alternatives to tests. Timed exams, especially ones that require proctoring software, can be difficult for some students to manage. If students are sharing computers with family members, don’t have access to high-speed internet, or don’t have the required webcam for proctoring, they will be at a disadvantage compared to students with those resources.
  • Have large windows of time during which tests & other assessments are completed. While students taking courses in-person often take exams at the exact same time, you cannot necessarily expect all students to virtually access your course during the same 1 or 2 hour period.
  • Focus grading on effort. Use assessment strategies that focus on continuous improvement and progress toward demonstrating proficiency by the end of the course. Personalize feedback as much as possible. Using multiple smaller assignments rather than large assignments worth many points will give students more opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of the material.

Attentiveness.

Not all of your students are going to adjust equally well to the new environment. Taking an online course takes more self-motivation and organization than taking a face-to-face course. Students that already struggle with those issues are likely to have an especially difficult time in your online course. 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.

  • If you can 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.
  • 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.
  • Pay attention to student participation. Make sure that all of your students are logging into Canvas and turning in work. Be proactive about contacting students that seem to be struggling in your course. Initiate multiple touch points with students who may feel disconnected, lost, vulnerable and uneasy about the current status of their education.
  • Be active in discussion boards and other areas where students interact virtually. Pay attention to what students are saying to one another and be on the lookout for microaggressions or overtly offensive posts. Be sure to address these situations with both the offender and any students that may have been hurt by what was posted.
  • Offer students resources on how to stay motivated and keep up with coursework when classes are being offered remotely.
  • Know campus resources. When you notice students struggling, know where to send them for help. This Student Resource Guide has lots of information to help students through a variety of different situations.
  • 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.

Resources:

Cohen, Jenae and Beth Seltzer. 2020. “Teaching Effectively During Times of Disruption.” Stanford University online resource.

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.

Hamraie, Aimi. 2020. “Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19.” Mapping Access.

Hicks, Cat, Emeline Brulé, and Roberta Dombrowski. 2020. “You Have to Put Your Class Online: Simple Things to Think About.” Online resource.

Sathy, Viji and Kelly Hogan. 2019. “Want to Reach All Your Students? Here's How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive.” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22.

Wieck, Lindsey Passenger. 2020. “An Equitable Transition to Online Learning: Flexibility, Low Bandwidth, Cell Phones, and More.” Pedagogy Playground.

UNL's Center for Transformative Teaching is committed to continuous improvement and would appreciate your feedback about this resource.

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