How the pandemic covertly made teaching, learning and assessment more inclusive

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Dan is an Academic Developer in Technology Enhanced Learning here at the University of Sussex. Inclusion, accessibility and digital capabilities are his areas of interest.

Intro

There is little doubt the pandemic has been overwhelmingly challenging for most, but there are areas in which we can be optimistic. In higher education, with teaching, learning and assessment moving online, there is a lot to learn from how things adapted. Through the lenses of digital capability and the Universal Design for Learning framework (UDL), this blog post explores how we adapted, how it maps to the UDL framework, suggests some emerging evidence of its positive impact on inclusion and accessibility, and finally proposes what our next steps might be.

Lens 1: Digital Capabilities.

‘Digital capability is the term we use to describe the skills and attitudes that individuals and organisations need if they are to thrive in today’s world.’ (Jisc). Digital capability has benefited a great deal from the pandemic. In our personal lives we used video conferencing to connect with friends and family, collaboration tools to work from home. The same is true of teaching, learning and assessment. Many of us using technologies that until March 2020, we’d largely not been aware of. There was little to no incentive, nor reason, to routinely engage with such technologies.

Then a little virus had other ideas. We had to learn how to teach via Zoom, how to better use our virtual learning environment (VLE), how to use chat, discussions and breakout rooms in live sessions. We had to learn how to help our students submit digital files, how to troubleshoot, the list goes on. Those of you who have looked at the framework, you’ll recognise where these activities fall within the defined areas of digital capability. No doubt you will recognise more in yourself.

It’s not an understatement to say that many of us, myself included, have way more digital capability in Spring 2021 than we did going into Spring 2020. No amount of CPD, Digital Skills conferences, initiatives or job description editing could have hoped to achieve this on that scale and at that pace. It took a global health crisis.

Lens 2: Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning is ‘a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.’ (CAST). Below are examples of how UDL might be, or has been, implemented as a result of the pandemic for each of the three principles; Engagement, Representation, Action and Expression.

Engagement: 

  • Checkpoint 7.3: Minimize threats and distractions
    Reducing sensory overload by reducing the amount of activities or ways in which to contribute in an online seminar. Where you may have had two to three activities in a seminar, you now had one, with other activities engaged with asynchronously. 

Representation

  • Checkpoint 1.1: Offer ways of customising the display of information
    Display information in a flexible format. Use of templates for modules sites, provided digitally accessible material, presented in a consistent manner. Increase use of video and captioning.

Action and Expression

  • Checkpoint 4.1 Vary the methods for response and navigation
    Alternative methods for engaging. Question and answer in lectures can be a challenge for some to manage on a small single screen device. Switching between Zoom, Poll Everywhere, Padlet and Canvas would cause too much challenge. Instead colleagues are looking at ways of inviting responses pre and post lecture.

As you can see, whilst many of the adaptations aren’t explicitly intended to make things more inclusive and accessible (arguably they should have been), rather they were an ‘emergency pivot’ for business learning continuity. 

What impact are we starting to see?

With many factors at play, (e.g. safety nets, academic misconduct, extenuating circumstance (EC) claims), there is still a lot to unpick, so what I present below is just my observations. Where I am seeing and hearing this evidence of impact is from the mouths of our colleagues and students. Reporting specifically in two key areas: attendance and attainment.

Attendance

Many academics are reporting higher attendance in online sessions, also sustained attendance. Where in the past they may have seen a drop off towards the assessment period, this is not happening at the same level. Similarly, some are reporting that their online sessions are averaging a higher attendance rate than in prior years. It could be that the option to join a session from home because of caring or similar responsibilities will mean they can attend, where they otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s worth noting here that attendance does not equal engagement, though that conversation is for another post.

Attainment

There is cautious optimism when it comes to attainment, and associated gaps with various student demographics. Some colleagues in course reviews have commented that a reduction in failure rate is attributable to the diversification of assessment types. It’s too early in this instance to fully attribute this to online assessment, or change in assessment design. Or as is more likely, a combination of factors.

We must approach this with an open mind. For example, with EC claims, was there an increase in these because they were clearer and better signposted? Was it because of technical issues, and therefore we would expect a reduction next time, or with learning from home in a pandemic being the dominant space, were there caring, health or environmental issues? Again, likely a combination.

Your digital capability matters

Many of the positive adaptations to learning and assessment will not have been possible without us collectively improving our digital capability, both institutionally and individually. Our ability to create more inclusive and accessible spaces for learning is in large part dependent on our digital capability.

What now?

I know this raises more questions than it answers at this stage. The ones I’m keen to explore are as follows:

  • Has digital capability widened the range of activities and methods by which a student can engage, thus being more inclusive?
  • Through the lens of UDL, have changes in assessment mode and design made them more inclusive, in turn having the impact of reducing attainment gaps?

Through the two lenses, what can you identify in your practice? What digital capabilities have you developed? What can you now recognise as inclusive practice, that maybe wasn’t explicitly so? 

For those of you at Sussex, if you would be interested in exploring these with us or want to find out how we can support your scholarly activities in these areas and more, please get in touch. DARE@sussex.ac.uk

Links

Jisc Digital Capability Framework

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines from CAST

A series of very excellent UDL webinars hosted by The Support Centre Inclusive Higher Education (SIHO, Belgium): Towards genuinely inclusive universities

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