Design for Your Most Vulnerable Student
Nine Ways to Engage Each and Every Learner
By Lauren Foss Goodman, Dean of Teaching and Learning Innovation, Berkshire Community College
A few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a county-wide intensive workshop about best practices for online and hybrid course design for K-12 educators and support staff. It was a great experience, and at the end of a very long day, an educator asked the question:
“What is the most important advice you give to faculty when they first start teaching online courses?”
My immediate answer was: “Design for your most vulnerable student.”
I explained myself at that moment — I hadn’t been consciously thinking about this response before I verbalized it — and have continued to think about this as I’ve been watching schools throughout my county, and the country, grapple with the need to swiftly learn how to design high-quality online learning experiences for students of all ages.
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.
For me, my most vulnerable students are the ones who I know might not show up tomorrow, for reasons often well beyond their control (a broken water heater; sick family member; a shift that needs to be picked up so that rent can be paid).
My most vulnerable students are the ones who choose to reveal or not reveal physical and learning disabilities that require them to spend twice as much time completing an assignment as my other students.
I always know my most vulnerable students, and when I design my courses, they are who I’m building for.
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).
I write this from the premise that you know who your most vulnerable students are; that you agree with me that not all students come to education on equal footing; and that these inequities are structural. That is, this is not the fault of individuals — this is inequality by social design, and is the fault of a system built on structural racism; income inequality; and ableism, to name just a few of the barriers that make it much more difficult for some students to achieve their full potential.
When we design educational experiences, we make choices about our audience — the most dangerous of which might not even register as choices.
We choose what voices to amplify; what experiences to center; what images to use for representation; what format in which to present.
We make these choices at every step of the learning design process, regardless of modality. But here’s the thing: in the online learning space, much more is revealed.
We often cannot rely on body language and non-verbal cues to measure understanding (and if you think about it, these are strategies that risk marginalizing students whose experiences might differ greatly from those in power/yours and mine/their teacher), and must make everything more explicit. While this level of transparency required by the online learning environment can often feel daunting, at first, it also provides us with new opportunities for creating more equitable experiences for our students.
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.
And you know what? When we design for the needs of our vulnerable students — when we ensure that all videos have closed captions — we are creating more equitable learning experiences for all students.
Those closed captions can be used by students with different cognitive processing abilities; students whose first language is not English; students who live in crowded households and need to study while others are sleeping; etc. Designing for our most vulnerable students means that we are making thoughtful and inclusive choices for every student.
Here are some practical strategies for anyone designing online learning experiences — and this includes those who are not teaching in a formal setting, but might increasingly be producing digital content in our new, socially distanced world:
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.
Often, as educators, we focus so closely on content that we forget to take a step back and ensure that we’re also helping our students learn how to learn — and, in Fall 2020, most of us will be tasked with helping students learn in a modality that will be entirely new for them (and, maybe, us).
A good “Getting Started” section will provide a clear outline of the course, including a daily or weekly schedule; introduce students to the fundamental tech tools being used; and show students — perhaps through a video screencast — how to navigate the online course space. The beginning of a course is crucial for creating the momentum and consistency that students will need to persist.
This resource — Designing a Start Here Section for Your Online Course — has many actionable suggestions.
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.
Communicate often, and consistently, and use the different tools available to you (individual emails; whole-group announcements; discussion forum threads; feedback on assignments; etc.) to maintain the connection between yourself and your students.
When emails aren’t being answered and a student isn’t logging into your course site, call them. Recruit support staff to reach out. Staying in close communication is important in identifying student challenges early, and designing interventions. Learn more about Creating a Sense of Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom.
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.
Find a friend (or, better yet, a student!) who knows nothing about your topic/assignment/etc., and ask them to read and tell you what was confusing or unclear. Ask for, receive, and incorporate feedback. Online readability tools such as Flesch-Kincaid and the Gunning Fog Index can provide you with basic information about the complexity of your text, but only a test user can tell you whether or not your instructions actually make sense.
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.
Explicitly communicate purpose to your students; link with prior course content; and, whenever possible, help students connect what they’re learning with their lived experience.
Additionally, bringing the “real world” to your online or hybrid course will help students more immediately understand purpose; check out these Top 12 Ways to Bring the Real World Into Your Classroom for some ideas.
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.
Take a close look at the websites you use on a daily basis. How do you know where to click? Where do your eyes jump to on the page, and why do you think you’re looking there?
Intentional design choices dictate user navigation and experience in online spaces, and the same is true for your online course. Make use of the tools and conventions available in web-based spaces — for example, using numbered lists to indicate sequential movement through resources; chunking long paragraphs of texts by using bullet points; using signaling (such as bold text) to focus students’ attention — as these will help students move intuitively through that space. Check out this great (free!) resource from Dr. Torrey Trust — Web Design Basics for Educators — to learn more about the basics of web design for learning.
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.
Examples of web accessibility include: providing closed captions and/or transcripts for video and audio content; alt-text for images, so that visually impaired learners using screen readers will know what that image depicts; avoiding using color to signal meaning, so that colorblind learners are not at a disadvantage; and other standard practices.
Learn how people with different abilities use assistive technology to access digital content, and design your online course to be inclusive of their needs. W3C has many resources — from user stories to tech tools — all about How People with Disabilities Use the Web.
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.
Explore options for an “offline mode” in your Learning Management System. Consider how you’ll distribute materials to students who will need them (print-out’s; files loaded onto USB drives; etc.) and make sure this informs your choices about the format you choose as you create those materials.
Think about assigning both “low-tech” activities (no screen time needed — students create something offline or explore a concept by observing their physical environment) and “high-tech” activities (students use technology tools to explore concepts and demonstrate their learning).
Read more: Variety is the Spice of Remote Learning: Designing On-Screen and Off-Screen Activities for Students. Understanding Universal Design for Learning, especially the principle of providing learners with Multiple Means of Engagement, is key to creating more individualized learning experiences for your students.
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.
Many of our students this year will come to us having experienced trauma, and educating yourself about trauma-informed teaching strategies (maybe start with What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?; Trauma-Informed Strategies to Use in Your Classroom; and A Crash Course on Trauma-Informed Teaching) is essential to creating supportive online and hybrid learning experiences founded in empathy.
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.
Designing for your most vulnerable student means approaching online learning with intention, care, and a recognition that traditional classroom practices must be adapted, and, at times, reinvented.
This takes time, and energy, and a willingness to stay flexible with your students, and yourself. Remember that, in order to remove barriers, we must first be able to see them. This is a crucial step toward ensuring equity, and designing for your most vulnerable student — the one who you know may not show up tomorrow — will be, by design, good for all of your students.
Lauren Foss Goodman, MFA, M.Ed., is the Dean of Teaching and Learning Innovation at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, MA. She is dedicated to working with faculty to design, develop and implement teaching strategies to reduce barriers for all students.
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