Inclusive and Equitable Teaching Online
by Joe Bandy, CFT assistant director
Teaching face-to-face presents many challenges, not least of which is the task of ensuring that all students feel belonging and have equal chances to thrive regardless of their abilities, identities, or perspectives. The online teaching environment suffers from all of the same obstacles to this and more, especially when not planned or executed with care.
Online teaching can restrict the interpersonal interactions necessary for building trusting and accountable learning communities in which students can feel more belonging and care. It can limit the kind of hands-on, interactive, and problem-based learning that many student groups prefer, particularly those who are underrepresented in the academy. It also can require higher levels of self-directed learning skills, as well as technological resources and self-efficacy, that students do not share equally. This, in turn, can lead to significant engagement and performance gaps for a variety of groups of students, especially in courses that require extensive applied, experiential content or intensive instructor-student interaction (Xu and Jaggars 2014). As Brooke Ackerly, professor of political science, states, “it is hard not to take into my heart each of my student’s individual challenges, some of which are heart wrenching.”
In the effort to share stories from faculty experimenting with online teaching in the wake of higher education’s social distancing measures, the Center for Teaching asked several faculty about their approaches to teaching inclusively in their newly online courses. Their responses reveal much about the challenges, and potential solutions to them.
Lily Claiborne, director of undergraduate studies and senior lecturer in Earth and environmental sciences, discusses her efforts to learn about her students’ difficulties learning online, to flexibly offer them the personalized support they require, and to provide accessible and varied content for students with different abilities or technological resources:
“What I’ve quickly realized as I’ve worked with my students remotely over the past few weeks is that each student is being impacted by this transition and these events differently and that this changes over time. Thus, their ability to engage with their coursework is constantly changing, as both practical and emotional conditions change. For these reasons, the key mode underlying my approach to our work is communication and support. I polled students at the start of the remote transition, and I’ve polled them weekly since then. I find that their responses regarding what kind of class structure they can best access has changed over the weeks, as has their confidence in their ability to engage with the course in a meaningful way. This allows me to approach each week with an eye for what is manageable and appropriate for the students that week.
“While most of my students can or will strive to do whatever I ask (engage in live Zoom sessions for our full classtime, for example), there is always at least one student who cannot. It is important to me that all my students have an equal opportunity to engage with our course in these times, and so this is not okay. While full live Zoom classes are perhaps the easiest and most fulfilling approach for me personally, I am choosing not to leave that one student out. Instead, I record shorter lectures for students to watch in advance, and we have shorter (optional but encouraged) live Zoom sessions during class time for brief check ins, lecture Q&A, discussions, and homework help. Thus far, this has engaged the most students and according to the students, has been the most accessible. I’ll keep asking, and keep adjusting as we all grow into these times.”
Shaul Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies, although not teaching in this, his sabbatical year, has been active in encouraging his fellow faculty to consider the emotional needs of students shifting to online courses. This is something he sees from a unique perspective as the parent of two college-age children with many experiences to share, particularly about unfairness in online assessments. He is particularly concerned with student anxiety and potential violations of academic integrity, something discussed at greater length here by Thomas Tobin, and here by William Sanderson:
“There is no technical fix. As a parent of two college students, seeing this play out in my own home, I’d say this: Empathy is crucial, and professors are structurally positioned to be ignorant about how students are actually experiencing this. Talk to your friends and family who currently have kids in college, and ask what it’s like to have them home and taking classes online. Better yet, talk to your friends and family who are themselves college students at other universities – kids who call you by first name and who don’t think of you by your title and who you are not in authority relationship with. Ask them how things are going. They will tell you truths that your own students would never tell you, and you will hear them with ears that will be more inclined to the empathy that professors need at this moment.
“As an example, I learned from a friend/family member student from different university, comparable to Vanderbilt, that students there were expecting cheating to be rampant on an exam in a large pre-med general science lecture. The professor had assigned an online, closed book test, with no proctor. Students had been talking openly among themselves about their plans to treat the test as if it were open note. These were pre-med students already jittery about their grades and convinced that this class was crucial for their future prospects. It was a rational cost-benefit analysis. They believed there was no chance of getting caught. Self-interest trumped ethics.
“When the student sought my advice, they were upset about the potential for wide-spread cheating to bust the curve. They felt like they were in a Catch-22. ‘I’m not going to cheat, but I don’t want to get a lower grade because I am the one being honest while most of the rest are using their textbooks and notes.’ I suggested approaching the professor with the concerns. The student felt uncomfortable doing that. In the end, the student did not cheat. Many others did. The student remains upset at the unfairness of the situation.
“Takeaways? The responsibility to ensure a fair testing environment still rests with the faculty. Don’t shift that burden onto the students. That adds to the unfairness. Be aware that the incentive to cheat is heightened by two related factors right now: 1) the ease, 2) students’ anger at the disruption to their learning. They may feel justified in cheating to ‘retake’ the grades that they think are rightfully theirs. Don’t put the honest students in the situation of having to decide whether to report, or to be stuck in the Catch-22 of ‘cheat or be cheated.’”
Sarah Suiter, assistant professor of the practice of human and organizational development, is highly attentive to fairness given the radically different and unequal learning environments her students now occupy at home, and models how we can be more communicative in our course assignments and interactions to accommodate their unique needs.
“One of the most difficult tensions to navigate as a faculty member in general (even before teaching on-line) is that fairness is related to, but not the same as ‘sameness.’ Certainly, when some students are allowed accommodations (especially when they are informal) the differences in treatment can easily be interpreted as ‘unfair.’ So in the classroom, and now on-line, I’ve tried to be attentive to ‘fairness’ and how it’s different from (but related to, at least in interpretation) ‘sameness’ and also, along what dimensions it operates…for example, if students have different living situations (which are now also their school work situations), different access to technology, different temperaments with which they respond to difficulty, different skills and resources for transitioning in the midst of extreme change, and different caregiving responsibilities (just to name a few), what does it look like to set fair classroom expectations, fair assignment expectations, and fair grading practices? Similarly, what is a fair expectation of student contribution and engagement…for each individual student?
“I know I don’t have the answer to these questions, but here is how I’ve tried to navigate them:
- I asked students what they needed from our remaining 4 weeks of class (moral support? Different course material? Same course material?) and allowed that to shape our class plan for the rest of the semester…we also continue to revisit it by asking, ‘is this still serving our needs?’ when we meet each week.
- I reduced our ‘in class’ time and asked students if we could all agree – during that reduced time – to be as attentive and present to one another as possible. So, as much as possible, no emailing, chatting, folding laundry, or whatever else one might do while attending class on-line. There is, of course, no way to check on this (minus the laundry piece, perhaps, as we can see one another), but the hope is that by everyone participating in designing the qualities of this space (how long should we meet? What distractions do we need to put aside?) we are all more likely to comply.
- In one class, I asked students to send me a proposal for the remaining assignments and how they wanted to handle them…they were free to propose something different if it suited their interests as a learner better – the expectation was that they still needed to demonstrate and create learning related to the practice of Community Development, but – because this particular class was built to accompany practicum placements, most of which are no longer happening – I wanted to students to do work that was meaningful to them.”
“Also, this is not about fairness to students so much as it is fairness to myself, but I have found the ‘lower stakes’ narrative that has accompanied this particular moment has been generative for my teaching. Unlike teaching in a classroom, in which I often find the messages to be that excellence is the only acceptable standard, the messaging around the rapid switch to on-line teaching is that there will be mistakes and missteps. As someone who is absolutely my own worst critic, this shift in thinking about my teaching has been really liberating. I continue to work hard, prepare as much as I did before (possibly more), and be thoughtful about how to create a good learning environment…but I seem to be beating myself up less when that doesn’t happen (as it inevitably does not, at all times, either in the classroom or on-line).”
In confronting the challenges of inclusive and equitable online teaching, each class and instructor merits its own approach, but here are a few principles from these and other stories you may find helpful:
- Communicate openly and often with all students about their and your needs.
- Students of less privilege will be at greater risk of disengagement and less likely to persist, so reaching out and providing support is vital.
- Collaboratively define new models of teaching and learning with your students, while being faithful to the goals and approaches of your course.
- Be flexible and adaptable in redesigning course assignments and learning experiences that accommodate diverse learners and their needs, particularly those who need to learn asynchronously.
- See this as an opportunity to experiment with new course design elements such as creative writing or multimedia assignments, as well as innovative interaction via synchronous (e.g., virtual breakout rooms) and asynchronous (e.g., discussion boards, blogs) modes. (See CFT director Derek Bruff’s recent blog post for some ideas.)
- Be attentive to, and supportive of, students confronting unique challenges of connectivity, distraction, time zone, abilities, international standing, resources, etc. and how you might accommodate their equitable participation in all aspects of the course. Leverage all online resources to offer the support necessary to make online learning easier – guidance for assignments, technological support (for connectivity, navigating course management systems, virtual classroom/Zoom usage, etc), how to access existing campus resources such as the Writing Studio or library support, financial support available through the university, and others.
- As in any course, ensure the goals, structures, and assignments for the course are clearly articulated, well-integrated, well-planned, and easy to access.
- However dazzling the technology may be, if it is not easy to use it will be ineffective and a distraction from the goals of your course.
If you would like to talk with a Center for Teaching consultant about your approaches to inclusive and equitable teaching online, you can schedule a consultation via Zoom with members of our senior staff or graduate fellows. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Tobin, T.J. (2020). “Student anxiety in uncertain times.” Inside Higher Ed. March 25th.
Xu, D. & S. S. Jaggars. (2014). “Performance gaps between online and face-to-face courses: Differences across types of students and academic subject areas.” The Journal of Higher Education, 85(5): 633-59.