Schools are rapidly shifting to online learning, at least for now. So that means you are likely to begin the school year much differently than ever before. It’s now time to embrace the season we are in and adapt to new teaching methods. Effective teachers are resilient and therefore capable of creating sustainable online classrooms when they are all in. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that online classrooms may never feel the same as live instruction, but we can do our very best to make our virtual classes come to life. While planning out your lessons it’s important to consider how you will ensure that your classroom is inclusive and accessible for all learners. While you may be teaching from behind a screen this year, don’t let the screen box in your thinking! Students need to feel a sense of belonging, and they also need to be able to access course materials. What principles of inclusive/ accessible teaching are you drawing upon that will help students feel accepted this year? How will you support them in achieving learning goals while you are teaching them online? Empathy and resilience on the part of both students and instructors will be of the essence. To help guide you toward full inclusion and accessibility with your virtual classroom this week's blog will give you do’s, don’ts, and other simple ways to modify your virtual classroom design to create space that will accommodate learners and inspire them to do their best work.
Why is an inclusive learning environment important?
Encouraging and continuing inclusive learning environments is important to allow all students to be able to fully participate, engage, and learn. The online learning environment obliges educators to think creatively about how to achieve this goal. To assist you as you are designing your online virtual space and holding your first online classes, the following suggestions, guidance, and resource information can be used to help you develop an inclusive learning environment in your virtual classroom.
A welcoming and inclusive class culture is one that recognizes the diversity and encourages student engagement and belonging. These elements are critical for students’ learning and can be encouraged by creating a social presence and by building and promoting connections among and between students and teachers. Furthermore, it is important to communicate your expectations for interactions and student engagement to model appropriate and thoughtful student interactions and communication. The information presented below is aimed at helping provide you with some general guidelines for building an inclusive virtual classroom environment.
General guidance on building online classrooms that support inclusive learning: Dos and Don'ts
A modified list based on guidance from Northwestern:
- Do - Create shared rules and expectations.
- Don’t - Create rules and expectations without buy-in from students.
When you create shared rules and expectations it can help avoid miscommunication, disrespectful language, and hurt feelings, and can foster a constructive exchange of perspectives, opinions, approaches, and viewpoints.
- Do - Recognize challenging circumstances
- Don’t - Ignore or assume challenging circumstances
Students and parents may have a range of emotions related to the current COVID-19 crisis, economic struggles, and the global response to social injustices occurring.
- Do - Build a social presence
- Don’t - make yourself scarce and unavailable to your students
To build your social presence, use icebreaker activities at the beginning and throughout your class. However, keep in mind that you don't pose questions that will require students to disclose potentially sensitive information about themselves. To further promote your social presence, introduce yourself to your students, and let them know something about who you are. Another thing that will help build your presence is to check in with your students often via email or phone call. Try check-ins with students via email and establish online office hours. Consider holding required one-on-one meetings for your students to get individualized attention. For some additional help watch this video “Translating In-Person Teaching Online,” from the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. This short video will teach you how to navigate Zoom and implement whiteboards, annotations, breakouts, and other techniques to help you create community among your students, build social presence, and ease students’ discomfort.
- Do -Promote equitable participation in your class by providing students multiple ways to participate.
- Don’t - use just one way to get your students involved in your class.
Check out this guide from the University of Michigan on Best Practices for incorporating active learning in your class.
- Do - Monitor Student interactions
- Don’t - Assume that students are interacting according to the norms you set.
Be intentional about consistently reviewing your class norms and the expectations for communicating respectfully with others.
Cultural Inclusiveness Matters!
Read this list of do’s and don’ts for virtual classroom cultural inclusiveness courtesy of Tanisha Forman: To see 5 practices you can incorporate into your virtual classroom.
- Do Represent - Regardless of the demographics of your classroom, students need to see themselves and others represented in the classroom. Review your books, project units, math problems, quotes, and other instructional materials and double-check that names and visual images represent students from different backgrounds.
DON'T use stereotypes to guide decisions. All Black American students aren't fans of Hip Hop. Additionally, if you have a class with one person of color, don't call on them to read the problem/story with a character you perceive to be similar, or look to them as the voice of an entire group of people.
- Do Affirm - Get to know students and their backgrounds. Affirm them by learning how they learn best, what makes them tick, what keeps them engaged, and how to best communicate with them. For example, in some cultures, looking people in the eyes can be considered disrespectful.
DON'T force students into practices that don't work for them, or take a "one size fits all" approach. Remember that fair is not equal.
- Do Keep High Expectations - All students regardless of their backgrounds deserve to be held to highest expectations. Teachers should be explicit with their expectations so that students are clear on what to do to be successful in the class. Celebrate these expectations in a manner that communicates your commitment to students and their learning trajectory.
DON'T make excuses for students or base high expectations based solely on the normative culture.
- Do Address Breaches - When something happens that aims at someone's identity, it must be addressed. Not addressing it will have an impact on your culture and how students feel in your classroom. Children may say something to you, or their offensive peers, and as the leader of the classroom, teachers have a responsibility to address it. We aren't perfect, but we are adults. Not sure how to respond? Consider the following:
- Take a moment to recognize what happened
- Journal activity
- Ask the person(s) impacted what will help
- Have a peer conference
- Discuss it in a morning meeting
- Use an "Anonymous Jar" to have students write out their thoughts/feelings and discuss
DON'T - Make light of serious situations, or ignore them. Remember, not saying something, says something!
- Do maintain relationships with key stakeholders - It's not always easy, but continuously make an effort to get to know the people who matter the most to students. There are some natural moments that we have (parent/teacher conferences, report card discussions, ect.), but teachers should have touchpoints in between those moments. Not always easy, but proves to students that you care about them. Additionally, consider getting to know how guardians like to receive their communication (text, email, call). The tough part is restoring relationships with guardians that might not have gotten off on the right foot, or that have taken a turn in the wrong direction.
DON'T - only contact parents/guardians when there's an issue, or as the "main consequence" for students.
Students with disabilities need to feel included and virtual classes must be accessible for them to thrive!
For most educators teaching students online is something you’ve never had to do until now. In preparation for a significant change, the majority of teachers spent most of their time in the past months creating an online classroom and a welcoming virtual space to call home for their classroom this year. Trying to figure out how this new system of teaching will work may have had teachers caught up on the design to make sure it looked inviting, and interesting for students. Many teachers could have unintentionally found themselves overwhelmed with how they will support their students with various disabilities. In the past with in-person classroom instruction, inclusion and accessibility may have had its challenges but by making the transition to virtual classrooms, these challenges may have become greater. Traditionally students with disabilities were always taught in an in-person setting, yet some research from various sources suggests that students with disabilities learn quite well online if they have the right set up, design, and resources to support their learning style. However, because distance learning has not been widely instituted as it has been today there is yet to be a ton of research on how to ensure that your virtual classroom is inclusive and accessible for all students.
But what does “accessible” mean in a virtual setting?
According to the Office of Civil Rights, “accessible” means that “a person with a disability is allowed to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability.”
Why is ensuring accessibility in your virtual classroom important?
Students with learning disabilities may have unknown difficulties with virtual online learning environments and classrooms that are predominantly text-based or lecture-based. Given these challenges, it is still important for teachers to be able to ensure that all students have resources and adaptive equipment that will allow students with disabilities to participate regardless of the disability they may have. Fortunately, there are many software products and assistive aids designed to assist students and others with disabilities to be able to access the necessary tools and equipment to participate in virtual settings. Software products that read text aloud such as ReadPlease and other text to speech programs are just one example of tools and resources available to help students and help educators to teach students. Additionally, textbooks can be loaded into wireless reading devices that can make reading easier by allowing students to increase the font size and use it with black letters on a white background.
Overall, the law’s for persons and students with disabilities still apply, therefore we must all work together to figure out best practices to ensure students with disabilities can learn without in a virtual setting. In our quest to provide you with information on best practices we came across a project in the UK. A group of colleagues got together a few years ago to design a series of posters that project dos and don’ts of designing for accessibility to be used as general guidelines and best design practices for making services accessible in government in the UK. Many of these design practices may also be useful to educators who are transitioning their classrooms from in-person to virtual. At the end of the day, students need to be able to access the information you are presenting or requesting them to participate in during your online class. To provide you with some accessibility tips check out the list of do’s and don'ts below provided by Karwai Pun and her team of designers.
Do’s and Don’ts for being inclusive with accessibility online
Check Karwai Pun’s general list of do’s and don’ts to see if any of these do’s can be adopted and incorporated into your online virtual classroom practices. (Click the title to view the illustration!)
- use simple colors
- write in plain English
- use simple sentences and bullets
- make buttons descriptive - for example, Attach files here
- build simple and consistent layouts
- use bright contrasting colors
- use figures of speech and idioms
- create a wall of text
- make buttons vague and unpredictable - for example, “Click here”
- build complex and cluttered layouts
- describe images and provide transcripts for video
- follow a linear, logical layout
- structure content using HTML5
- build for keyboard use only
- write descriptive links and heading - for example, Contact me
- only show information in an image or video
- spread content all over a page
- rely on text size and placement for structure
- force mouse or screen use
- write uninformative links and heading - for example, “Click here”
- use good contrasts and a readable font size
- use a combination of color, shapes, and text
- follow a linear, logical layout -and ensure text flows and is visible when text is magnified to 200%
- put buttons and notifications in context
- use low color contrasts and small font size
- bury information in downloads
- only use color to convey meaning
- spread content all over a page -and force the user to scroll horizontally when text is magnified to 200%
- separate actions from their context
Designing for users with physical or motor disabilities
- make large clickable actions
- give form fields space
- design for keyboard or speech only use
- design with mobile and touch screen in mind
- provide shortcuts
- demand precision
- bunch interactions together
- make dynamic content that requires a lot of mouse movement
- have short timeout windows
- tire users with lots of typing and scrolling
- write in plain English
- use subtitles or provide transcripts for video
- use a linear, logical layout
- break up content with subheadings, images, and videos
- let students ask for their preferred communication support
- use complicated words or figures of speech
- put content in audio or video only
- make complex layouts and menus
- make users read long blocks of content
- don't make telephone the only means of contact for students
- use images and diagrams to support text
- align text to the left and keep a consistent layout
- consider producing materials in other formats (for example, audio and video)
- keep content short, clear and simple
- let users change the contrast between background and text
- use large blocks of heavy text
- underline words, use italics or write capitals
- force students to remember things from previous pages - give reminders and prompts
- rely on accurate spelling - use autocorrect or provide suggestions
- put too much information in one place
For some additional tips and guidance visit 20-tips-teaching-accessible-online-course by Burgstahler, Sheryl, Ph.D. from the University at Washington who taught the very first online learning course at the University of Washington in 1995. Her co‑instructor was Dr. Norm Coombs, who was, at the time, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Together they designed the course to be accessible to anyone, including students who were blind, deaf or had physical disabilities. Dr. Burgstahler claims that Norm himself was blind. He used a screen-reader and speech synthesizer to read text presented on the screen. They employed the latest technology of the time such as; email, discussion list, Gopher, file transfer protocol, and telnet (The World Wide Web did not exist in1995!). All online materials were in a text-based format, and videos, which were mailed to the students, were presented in VHS format with captions and audio description. When asked if any of their students in this course had disabilities, they were proud to say that they did not know. No one needed to disclose a disability because all of the course materials and teaching methods were designed to be accessible to everyone. Today however technology is much more advanced so naturally there are a plethora of methods and ways you can use to ensure your virtual classroom is accessible to all students.
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