How to Design Remote Learning for Equity and Inclusion
In the Spring of 2020, all of us shifted our teaching interactions on an urgent basis in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift to remote instruction uncovered new barriers to learning that affect all of our students, as well as highlighted harmful systemic biases and assumptions about our students that existed even before (Fang, 2009)(Jaggars, 2014) remote teaching became part of our everyday practices.
In addition to thinking about our interactions with students in terms of relationships, access, and teaching practices, we should think ahead of time about how best to design our interactions to be as open, supportive, and equitable for learners as possible.
Why is equitable design so important? Our remote students should enjoy freedom from biases or assumptions that negatively affect their motivations, opportunities, and accomplishments. Unfortunately, research shows that there are clear achievement gaps for certain student populations in remote-instruction courses.
We have a collective duty to be proactive in addressing challenges and barriers that affect the success of those student groups. Those challenges and barriers can be as fundamental as access—making sure all students have access to remote-learning courses and the technology required to complete them. Conversely, they can be as complex as helping students combat stereotype threats or increasing their feelings of social belonging in technology-mediated course environments.
While the typical UW-Madison undergraduate student is a 20-year old woman living on campus and working 20 hours a week, more than 25% of our students are adult learners like Fatimah. Her story invites you to consider our students’ varied backgrounds, levels of preparedness, and life situations. It is discrimination to try to treat them as though they were all the same—and impossible to design ahead of time to address and honor all of the variability among them.
Fortunately, there is a research-backed framework that helps us to design with learner variability in mind: universal design for learning (UDL).
UDL Is about Choices, Voices, and Agency
UDL was developed in the 1990s by the neuroscientists at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Boston, and it is a research-based set of principles to guide the design of learning environments that are accessible and effective for all.The scientists at CAST (CAST, 2015) discovered that humans learn things—whether we are 6 years old or 60—by activating three different networks in our brains. Things “stick” best for us (Jorgensen, 2016) when each of these networks is strongly activated, and they figured out that we have a better chance of triggering these brain networks when we can choose from among multiple ways to proceed.
In brief, UDL asks us to design multiple ways for
- learner engagement,
- representing information, and
- learner action & expression.
UDL is not a set of teaching techniques, nor is it a collection of specific tools or practices. It is a framework, a way to approach any teaching and learning situation, so it works well with many approaches to learning design and practice. The UDL framework is a series of principles, so it does not force you to change what or how you design or teach.
A simple way to think about designing to lower barriers for your students is to adopt “plus one” thinking: if there is one way that interactions happen now, create just one more way.
Think about an interaction that you will have with your remote students in the future, the more specific the better. Think of an individual conversation, activity, assessment, lab session, or practice time.
Once you have a specific interaction in mind, create two ways to strengthen the inclusiveness of that interaction.
First, list the ways that you get students engaged (the “why” of the interaction), give them information (the “what”), and ask them to take action or express their skills (the “how”). Where there is one way for such things to happen now, create one more way (“plus one” thinking) that provides a different format, option, or method for accomplishing the same goals.
Second, use the Peralta Equity Rubric (web site with PDF download) to identify elements of your interaction that can be strengthened by the use of more inclusive and diverse language, examples, and activities.
Create details for, and implement, one UDL and one relationship-based change in the design of your interaction, and predict how your teaching practices will shift, based on the design changes that you have made.
You can expand on this exercise by identifying which interactions in your course currently have only one way for students to do them, or which interactions don’t always go as you have planned them between you and your students. Reviewing these related topics can help you to select which elements to work on first.
- CAST. (2015). About Universal Design for Learning.
- Fang, B. (2009, December 22). From distraction to engagement: Wireless devices in the classroom. EDUCAUSE Review.
- Jaggars, S.S. (2014, Winter). Democratization of Education for Whom? Online Learning and Educational Equity. Diversity & Democracy, 17(1).
- Jorgensen, C. (2016, May 5). How to Use UDL Principles to Boost Accessibility and Student Engagement.