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A New Guide Helps Faculty Plan Equitable Online Courses For Fall

A new guide for faculty, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to help professors plan their online courses for fall as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

The faculty playbook, called “Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19,” came out of a collaboration between Every Learner Everywhere, a network of non-profits focused on student outcomes, and two of its member organizations, the Online Learning Consortium and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). Their aim is to offer equity-minded online education strategies, especially for faculty who made their first foray into online education this year. Laptops 1

“What we had in the spring was kind of emergency remote teaching,” said Dr. Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere. “And I’m hopeful that faculty over the summer will have the opportunity to reflect on their experience in the spring and redesign their courses in a way that provides a high-quality digital experience for their students.”

The playbook is meant to be their summer guide. While resources for online learning have proliferated since the coronavirus crisis began, the information is scattered across websites and institutions, noted Dr. Karen Vignare, executive director of APLU’s Personalized Learning Consortium.

She sees the guide as a “concise” way to bring best practices together and to offer tools for “optimized online instruction,” she said.

Every topic covered in the playbook – from course design, to assessments, to student-instructor communication – is broken up into different levels: “design,” “enhance” and “optimize.” The levels offer three distinct layers of resources and advice at each step. “Design” sections address more basic steps for getting an online course up and running, while “enhance” and “optimize” paragraphs offer more details on how to improve students’ experiences and boost their success.

The goal is to help faculty come up with a number of different instructional strategies to potentially use for the fall, in case they’re operating fully or partially online, Vignare said. And given uncertainty about what the fall semester will look like, the strategies in the playbook are intended to be adaptable.

Williams hopes the playbook’s tiered approach will also offer faculty “multiple entry points” into the material, presenting the information in manageable “bite size” portions.

The playbook is designed so that “you can really just dive in and get what you need,” she said. “You don’t have to read the whole thing from start to finish.”

It embeds equity-focused advice into each section, as well, with tips on the side labelled “Equity in Action.” The playbook also features an early chapter defining equity followed by a chapter on accessibility with links to resources for accessible course design.

The goal was to put “equity in the center,” Vignare said, helping faculty look back on student outcomes from past online classes and intentionally design equitable courses going forward.

She praised faculty for doing “an incredibly good job” of pivoting to online learning, but in that quick transition, “we recognize we’re not serving equity populations in the way we should be,” she added.

Strategies in the playbook are also accompanied by explanations on how each online teaching idea might impact minority and low-income students based on research. For example, the playbook highlights both the pros and cons of synchronous videoconferencing for underrepresented students, which allows for more direct engagement with instructors but requires consistent broadband service, which may not be available to low-income students.

Presenting strategies in this way means even if faculty need to use online tools that adversely affect diverse students, like synchronous learning, they have the information they need to be creative and come up with “alternative adjustments” that work well for students of color and low-income students, she said.

For Williams, two of the biggest equity challenges to higher education amid the pandemic are a lack of access to technology and students feeling disengaged, so throughout the playbook, authors specifically highlight “best practices for doing just that.”

She stressed that equity can’t be “something you do on the side” but instead should inform “every step of your course design,” in part because online learning has the potential to grow post-COVID-19.

The playbook points out that online course enrollments have been increasing for 14 years in a row, with particular growth at public institutions, where 69% of online enrollments took place in 2016. Now, amid the pandemic, the majority of students have taken an online course and most professors have had to teach one, perhaps laying the foundation for more online education options in the future.

“For both students and faculty, we’re entering a phase of learning we’ve never been in before,” she said. “This is new territory for everyone. If done well, this could be a tremendous opportunity for the field to provide high-quality instruction to a much broader range of students. … However, if not managed well and not focused on quality, we run the risk of exacerbating inequality, especially for students of color and low-income students.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected]

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