Accessibility and inclusion require teachers to consider issues that might hinder learning. Often questions of accessibility and inclusion focus on students; however, effective learning requires a more comprehensive understanding of the subject, one that engages student, teacher and institutional experiences and resources. These questions must respond to the demands of specific instructional contexts; that is, instructors must consider whether or not learning is happening virtually, traditionally or both as well as synchronously, asynchronously or both. Accessibility and inclusion in the virtual classroom are rather complex and require instructors to raise specific “questions of when, why, and how” (Hrastinsk; as cited in Mick and Middlebrook, 2015, p. 136) that may not necessarily be essential for the traditional classroom.
Questions of accessibility and inclusion take several forms including those related to technology, design, disability and literacy. Unlike traditional classrooms, digital technology is the fulcrum of online classes. This requires online stakeholders to address differences in technological resources and competence for both students and teachers. Instructors who assign texts in particular formats must ensure that all students have the necessary resources to engage it. Instructors working with international students must also consider the transnational dimensions of the technological divide as resources that are easily available in one context may not necessarily be available or could be highly expensive in another. Related to technology is the issue of “inclusive and accessible design” (Mick and Middlebrook, 2015, p. 143). This demands that instructors ask questions about usability and organization because “Students in an Internet-only course…have little opportunity to clarify directions to an assignment, or check what you really mean or want, face-to-face” (Savenye, Olina and Niemczyk, p. 2001, p. 377). Thus, instructors in such courses should consider strategies for structuring courses in a manner that allows for meaningful engagement with course content.
Because of the limited social presence in online contexts, instructors must ask important questions regarding the “characteristics, needs, and motivations” of learners (Savenye, Olina and Niemczyk 2001, p. 374). Traditional classrooms allow for a kind of spontaneity and interactivity that provide indirect information about student demographic. However, in virtual contexts, user demographic information must be intentionally collected. Such information is significant for considering the impact of class, disability and literacy levels on learner engagement. Understanding students’ literacy levels provides context for deciding issues pertaining to accommodation in especially asynchronous contexts where, as Mick and Middlebrook (2015, p. 144) indicates, learning is dependent on high literacy skills. Similarly, instructors must ask whether their instructional decisions privileges ableism. From a practical perspective, teachers must ask how instructional design might impact assessment.
In an online situation, one can never be sure whether technology or other challenges could have implications for the general outcome of examinations. This week, I conducted a diagnostic test as part of our writing team’s effort to determine which of the students in our first year writing classes needed to partake in a bridge program. I set the test for exactly twenty minutes on Canvas. Students took this test during one of our synchronous class sessions. Besides challenges from technological failures, I had not considered the fact that the Canvas interface was relatively new to students, a situation that impacted some students’ ability to navigate and complete the test. In some cases, the test closed just when students were finishing up, causing apprehension. While some students effectively managed the system and obtained high scores, many could not complete it. Ultimately, the result did not provide a very fair assessment of our students’ literacy levels and we had to create a new test for my specific class–a decision that added an extra working time for students who were already beginning to feel overworked. The unnecessary delays also affected our workflow for the rest of the instructional time.
This example highlights how the demands of different instructional contexts require instructors to ask different questions and devise different strategies relating to access and inclusion. It is important to note that strategies that appear effective in traditional settings may not necessarily be effective and mappable in virtual contexts (Bourgeois and Giaimo 2019). While some principles are transferable, some may need to be completely rethought if learning is to be effective. The GSOLE Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets identify three important dimensions of access and inclusion: attentiveness to the unique features of learning online, emphasis on user/student-centeredness, provision of support. Effective online courses must engage questions pertaining to these issues before, during and after the instructional design.
Bourgeois, M. R., & Giaimo, G. (2019). Instituting and Assessing Online Writing Groups: When Flexibility and Change Supports Engagement and Writing Success. Research in Online Literacy Education, 2(2), n.p. http://www.roleolor.org/instituting-and-assessing-asynchronous-online-writing-groups.html
Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (2016-2020). Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets. URL: https://gsole.org/oliresources/oliprinciples
Mick, C. S., & Middlebrook, G. (2015). Asynchronous and synchronous modalities. In B. Hewett & K. E. DePew (Eds.), Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction (pp. 129-148). WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/owi/chapter3.pdf
Savenye, W. C., Olina, Z. & Niemczyk, M. (2001). So you are going to be an online writing instructor: Issues in designing, developing, and delivering an online course. Computers and Composition, 18(4), 371-385, 10.1016/S8755-4615(01)00069-X