Blended classrooms: looking ahead to ensure inclusivity
A year into mass-online teaching, facing the prospect of blended learning in September, educators are in a key moment to ensure that improvements to flexibility and accessibility in higher education remain intact. Blended learning, an amalgamation of face-to-face and online learning, has the advantage of being infinitely scalable but also presents key challenges when it comes to inclusivity.
Part of my research focuses on students with learning differences and neurodiversities, including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and autism. Such learners currently make up at least 17% of the UK higher education population, meaning it is absolutely vital accessibility is built into all aspects of higher education, for both students and educators.
I have developed a number of low-effort tweaks educators can use to have high-impact benefits for neurodiverse and disabled learners, which also benefit the entire student body at the same time. In my practical guide to inclusive online learning, I share a number of examples, techniques, and explanations regarding how educators can use a range of online tools and behaviours.
Three key principles of my inclusive teaching work, developed for online situations, are equally applicable to face-to-face and blended classrooms. These three principles are: specificity, transparency, and mindfulness. It is important to understand how these principles apply across the different modes of education and the ways in which blended learning and face-to-face learning environments can benefit from online tools and inclusive practices.
In the context of online learning, specificity means being precise about what you are asking students to do. For example, there is a significant difference between saying ‘Get involved in the forum’ and detailing how students can get involved and what is expected of them by a given deadline. This kind of clarity, which costs instructors little time or knowledge, can ensure that students for whom energy management is a key challenge do not waste time having to find out this information. In my experience, offering such additional information not only decreases the number of questions and emails received from students, it also increases student engagement and reduces anxiety around making mistakes.
In a blended environment, where not all members of the group are physically present, specificity and its benefits can easily be translated. For example, in a pre-pandemic learning scenario where the instructor would like students to break into discussion groups, assigning students in the room into small groups and having the instructor walk around offers a straightforward solution. Post-pandemic, to accommodate students joining the session online, one way forward could be students online forming their own groups and using a live chat function to have their discussion, which can also be seen by the instructor who can interject as relevant.
By ensuring that the instructor considers ahead of time how to ensure all students — regardless of location — have a way to participate equally in a group exercise, inclusivity is maintained. In order to achieve specificity, the instructor can simply explain the two modes of achieving the different group discussions for the physically present and online students.
Transparency also translates between different modes of learning. It is principally concerned with explaining the often hidden and assumed aspects of academia and learning in higher education environments. For example, adding the marking criteria to online course and module pages can help clarify what is expected of students in a relatively accessible way. More effectively, devoting a few minutes during synchronous/live sessions, or creating asynchronous materials, to explain how the marking criteria is applied and defining jargon, can greatly increase students’ understanding and confidence in what is expected of them.
The final principle is that of mindfulness, which may be the trickiest to translate back into the classroom, may be the most important principle of all. Put simply, this is the plea for instructors to continually be aware of and open to how students experience learning. To do this effectively teaching professionals should work to be cognizant of the many different kinds of challenges, differences, or barriers students may be navigating in order to succeed, some of which may be beyond our view or experience.
As societies we have become significantly more mindful, which has changed our expectations in higher education. For example, a pet cat wandering across a keyboard is more likely to be received with happiness rather than insult, showing increased mindfulness about how home lives and educational personae exist together. Likewise, universities have had to adapt to students dialing in at different time zones, thus necessitating flexibility in scheduling and availability. We are also much more aware of issues such as digital divides, technological inequalities, and caring responsibilities. We must make sure that these improvements in mindfulness and acceptance of people’s daily lives return with us to the classroom.
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One of the potential high-points of blended learning is that it will enable flexibility in physical attendance, something that was not previously an accepted practice. This could allow disabled students, international students, students with jobs and caring responsibilities to actively participate more in educational and university activities and improve their performance. In fact, this shift could finally reduce the inequalities and perceptions of missing out that have plagued distance learning students and part-time students long before 2020.
Building specificity, transparency and mindfulness of students’ personal circumstances into teaching, is a vital way of improving classroom inclusivity during and beyond the pandemic. As we move from online to blended learning, educators need to make the most of this key moment.
Miranda Melcher is a teacher, researcher, and author (NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children, 2020) and a Fellow of the HEA. She is pursuing her PhD on post-conflict military reconstruction at King’s College London’s Defense Studies Department.
New Voices in Global Security is a collaborative blog series between the School of Security Studies, King’s College London, and International Affairs. Drawing on cutting edge research, the blog series highlights diverse empirical, methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding global security and engages with questions of equality, diversity and inclusion within the discipline. Contributions are based on the New Voices event series — organized and chaired by Dr Amanda Chisholm, School Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead — which promotes the research of PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) working both within and beyond the School of Security Studies.
All views expressed are individual not institutional.