Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely

Millions of students would be left in limbo when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and most of us ended up quarantined or in lockdown for a long period of time. During this time, many offices moved to working remotely and discovered that this system worked well, keeping it long after lockdowns were lifted. Similarly, colleges and universities were forced to start teaching remotely and have decided to keep this format going forward.

Like any major change, there are challenges to moving to remote teaching and genuine concerns about the equality of students being educated. How do you ensure everyone can access the materials? What if students can’t afford the technology needed?

It is worthwhile taking time to ask students what it is they need in order to learn, sending out surveys before moving to remote teaching could identify gaps that you have missed. But there are some places you can start while waiting on a response.

Unequal Access to Technology

The big concern with remote teaching is the access to the technology required to actually learn. Whether it’s the hardware or the software, technology is pricy and not all students will be able to have access to these. This is true even when students are on campus, though it is mitigated slightly by having available computer labs etc. on campus for students to work from.

There is a chance students will be able to access the technology at a local public library but they may not be available at the time the student requires. This says nothing for the unpredictability of Wi-Fi service, if a student is relying on a data plan then that data could run low if they are constantly online. Wi-Fi may have periods where it’s too busy to handle the load leading to poor signals and even trying to gain access through a public library or coffee shop can have its issues.

Then you have to consider software compatibility. If a student is required to download an app or software to access course materials you have to be sure that it will run on whatever device they have available. This means catering to older models of phone and making sure to cover both Apple and Android when making an app. Students also may not be able to download software if they are using a library computer where guidelines prevent the downloading of software to their devices.

In order to address these concerns, you should:

  • Enquire with students anonymously about the availability of technology to them off campus
  • Offer alternatives where students are constrained by the limits of the technology available to them
  • Ensure the campus bookstore ships materials off-campus and has materials available online for purchase.
  • Ensure all materials are accessible for students of all abilities including screen readers
  • Ensure all materials are mobile friendly. For both of these last points it’s worth considering PDFs which tend to adapt well to various devices and are screen reader friendly.
  • Offer student codes for software to allow them access to it for free or at a discounted rate

Balance Asynchronous and Synchronous Tools and Course Materials

When we say synchronous, we mean a tool that is used real-time by a group of people. Think of meeting software like Zoom, everyone logs in at the same time and interacts in real-time. You can get more engagement from students it’s worth considering those students who might not be able to access the class or material at that moment.

Asynchronous is any tool that allows the student to access the materials and classes at their own time and pace. It can be hard to engage and motivate students when this is the format used, however.

In order to promote equality, it is therefore worth considering:

  • Enquiring anonymously with students about time zones or access concerns when it comes to remote learning
  • Offer resources to students to keep them motivated when classes are remote
  • Consider where video may not actually be necessary to help reduce the data required to stream
  • Record all lecture and post online for students to access later
  • Provide captions and transcripts for those who are deaf or hard of hearing as well as those who cannot use sound for any reason i.e. no access to headphones
  • For live discussions consider a message board or shared document where people can type live
  • Provide narrations of material presented on screen for those with eyesight issues, find it difficult to read off a screen or are simply unable to view the slides at that time
  • Upload your slides for students to access in order to allow them to review later if necessary

Create an Inclusive Environment

It’s hard when students are learning remotely to gage exactly how they are coping and what stresses they may be facing outside of education. Students may be experiencing issues with their mental-health, stress, financial challenges, health concerns or a myriad of other factors that will impact their learning in ways they may not always feel comfortable to share.

While deadlines are great for providing motivation and workloads are created with a general student idea in mind, not all students are going to fit the mould. Allow flexibility for work and deadlines where students require it, without having to go into details of what is going on in their private life if you can.

To help promote this environment it’s worth considering:

  • Enquiring students about any other concerns they may be having about remote learning that you haven’t already covered
  • Ensure students are given access to crisis helplines and advocate for support of those dealing with irregular access to basic necessities
  • Encourage and in turn practice self-care. It can be easy to forget these in an online environment but it is crucial to have a balance in your life
  • Be transparent about mistakes and issues that may occur
  • Provide students with a teacher to act as their go to for any issues they may have and build up that relationship
  • Allow for flexibility where required

Ask Students for Feedback

No matter what you end up doing it’s important to take the time to continuously ask your students for feedback, preferably anonymously in order to avoid any biases. This should be done before moving to remote learning where possible, but that in itself is not enough. You should be regularly asking students for feedback on how things are going and look to solve problems that keep cropping up.

It is best to ask students for surveys or feedback on key factors:

  • Before setting up remote learning
  • Before a student starts a course
  • Ask students to provide feedback on each class individually
  • Yearly review of classes
  • One last time after they graduate

It is a lot of work, and you may not always get a full response but it can greatly help to see where potential issues are cropping up with remote learning.

Wrapping Up

All in all, moving to remote learning can benefit a lot of people who may not otherwise have access to your campus or institution. However, with any big change it’s worth considering the challenges along the way. While most colleges and universities have made steps in this out of necessity during the pandemic, it’s likely there will still be things that need to be ironed out or fixed in order to roll this out on a wider scale.