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Design for Your Most Vulnerable Student

Nine Ways to Engage Each and Every Learner

This can be a daunting task, and keeping equity-minded practices at the center of all learning-design decisions is good for all students, and crucial to the success of our most vulnerable students.

Who are your most vulnerable students? My guess is that, if you’re an educator, you know, and you know what this means for you.

A Look at Educational Inequities

Educational inequities are well-documented. When it comes to technology, specifically, if you are not already familiar with the “digital divide” — the gap between those with access to technology/high-speed reliable Internet and those without, as well as the agency and preparation to effectively use that technology — I encourage you learn more (start here — Digital Divide: The 3 Stages).

Designing for the most vulnerable student in our class means thinking deeply about how those who are not like us may need to access and engage with course content.

For example, if I do not have a hearing impairment, I might not think about how important it is to provide closed captions and/or transcripts with the video and audio content in my online course — but this is essential to meeting the learning needs of my students who come to education with different hearing abilities, and are thus vulnerable to my own (their teacher/the individual with power) assumptions and biases.

1) First Impressions Matter

As all educators know, the first moments/days/week of class are crucial for ensuring that all students feel included and engaged. In an online learning environment, one important strategy for the beginning of an online/hybrid/remote course is to create a “Getting Started” section, where you explicitly teach students how to be a successful student in this course.

2) Actively Build Teacher Presence

All of your students — and especially those facing the most significant barriers — need you, and you specifically. You — their teacher — can never be replaced by technology, and this important student-teacher connection must be nurtured above all else.

3) Language Is Central

Aim for clarity of language in all written texts. If you’re using a term for the first time, define it. Online learning spaces often rely heavily on written communication, so take the time to ensure that you are explaining everything as thoroughly, yet succinctly as possible.

4) Transparency Is Key

Many of us still hold deeply embedded assumptions that education is about “figuring things out” — and, in many ways, it is. Ask yourself, however, what students should be figuring out.

A student applying critical thinking strategies to figure out the solution to a problem is a productive use of that student’s time and cognitive energy. A student (and maybe parent) spending time figuring out how to decipher unclear, incomplete, or redundant (be sure to check and double-check all due dates and logistics) instructions from a teacher is not a productive use of time or energy.

Learners should always be working to “figure out” how to apply concepts, not “figuring out” their teacher and what is expected of them. Although geared toward higher education, the core framework of the Transparency in Learning and Teaching initiative is very much relevant for all learning design.

5) Clearly Communicate Purpose

Launching into instructions without first explaining the purpose of an activity or task is the perfect formula for a student seeing something as “busy work,” and disengaging.

6) Design Matters

In online learning spaces, experiences are often structured through design choices — and the best design choices are usually the ones the user is not even aware of.

7) Accessibility Is Essential

Familiarize yourself with the basics of web-content accessibility, to ensure that users with disabilities can fully access your online course content. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), are extremely comprehensive.

8) Provide Materials In Multiple Modalities

Students with limited or no access to hardware or high-speed internet connections must be able to access learning materials with the same ease as their peers.

9) Lead With Empathy

All of this is hard — for students, and also for teachers.

Have empathy for your students and their diverse needs as you design your online learning environment, and have empathy for yourself as you do your best with it.

None of us gets all of this right. Find ways of making sure your students know you care about them, and know that this — students feeling connected to their teacher — is one of the most important factors for success in online learning.


There is no perfect formula for online learning — if there was, I would tell you what it is, and we would all be scrambling a lot less right now.



Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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