Embracing Empathy and Equity in Remote Learning

Shannon Randolph
Jun 11, 2020 · 7 min read

Teaching with empathy and inclusion has always been important. Embracing and championing these was vital as I moved my class online during a pandemic. Here is my story.

It was Friday, March 13th, 2020. I sat pondering our surreal reality. I was teaching a new course, Design for Environmental Behavior Change (EA 185), at Pomona College with 23 students. Their lives were about to drastically change. We had just been informed that we were transitioning to a remote online environment. The Claremont Colleges were physically closing, and all students needed to vacate their dorms and return home (or somewhere else) within a few days. Physical and mental health, as well as economic well-being inequities were going to become more pronounced. Students were going to feel a range of emotions, making it challenging for many to connect with their college experience and their motivation for school.

Despite the situation, I still wanted to facilitate a meaningful experience for my students in some way. My class was focused on experiential learning, teamwork, and in-person testing of design solutions to real-world environmental problems. Students were working on teams with outside sponsors to design place-based, human-centered urban mobility solutions in Southern California. We had only just completed prototype presentations the day before they were sent home.

Then came the “aha!” moment. Empathy, Play, and Inclusivity — cornerstone framings for the class, human-centered design, and the Hive — could help ease this transition and get us through.

Drawing from a playful Zoom workshop led by Leticia Britos Cavagnaro at the Stanford d.school, I began to discover ways to craft a more delightful, equitable, and empathetic shift online. I dove into articles that resonated with the class themes, such as equity for virtual human-centered design and human-centered design to reimagine your online class. Polls Everywhere (an online polling platform) became my friend to understand students’ range of emotions at different points in the class and empathize with their new realities. Zoom stokes such as dance parties to start class helped to lighten the mood.

Some empathy-inspired approaches that I adopted and really seemed to pay off were:

Make the classroom a place of radical empathy and inclusion.

Lead with empathy for students. Adapt a survey such as this one designed by Gray Garmon and Katie Krummeck to learn what life is like for students. Continue to ask and check in throughout the semester using Polls Everywhere and during individual and small group meetings. Tailor expectations and class design to meet students where they are collectively and individually.

In the initial survey, students shared about caring for parents or younger siblings, new concerns they had, the mental and emotional capacity they might have for the class, and anything else they wanted me to know to help me understand their situation. I incorporated these learnings in my expectations and shared these generally with the students to craft a class that aimed to make space for everyone.

Two weeks into the remote learning time, I was saddened to learn of challenging emotions students were experiencing (see word cloud of their emotions on April 16, 2020 below).

Seeing this strengthened my resolve and solidified the need to be flexible with assignments, deadlines, and expectations on their final work.

Foster openness, inclusivity, and deep empathy in student groups.

Ask students to share about their situation, capacity, and interests they want to engage and contribute to the group. Adapt expectations to their evolving situations and continue to remind everyone that I am available to talk. I met weekly outside of class with each group and their sponsors to check in and help adjust their project goals and individual expectations.

Allow for agency at the individual and group level to shape deliverables.

More than ever, students needed to feel that they had agency and a connection to their lived experiences in order to feel motivated. So, even though my class focused on designing sustainable transportation in Southern California, when we moved online students were invited to match their personal contribution to their lived reality, interests, and capacity. Some groups also chose to reframe and focus their design work on the impact of COVID-19 in their problem space.

According to one anonymous student: “This class was my least stressful with moving online because [the professor] was so transparent about everything and encouraged everyone to share their opinions and concerns about what should happen.”

I believe transparency regarding my approach and the act of inviting students to co-shape the path of the class really helped them feel heard in a time when a lot of things were being decided for them without their input.

Create playful and cathartic assignments.

Assign weekly handwritten cartoons or written (student’s choice) journal reflections aimed at helping them adapt, release, and express thoughts. Some of my favorite prompts were:

▪ Who are you? What life experiences and identity traits define you and your approach to this project and life?

▪ What role and contribution on this project aligns best with your interests and capacity?

▪ What have you made (or plan to make) to get through this COVID-19 lockdown? (The Hive even created an Instagram series called “Making It Through” to inspire others to make it through this time.)

Reading these helped me learn much more about my students’ emotional and lived experiences.

Shake up the video stare fatigue with play and asynchronous work.

Some of my students had migraines and felt drained from screen time. So, I attempted to minimize in-class lectures and assign more readings and reflections to replace longer lectures. I allotted more class time for small groups to work on their projects and to have playful or meaningful interactions. Zoom stokes and asynchronous work time allowed them to step off the main classroom screen while also having designated times to meet with their groups. Students who complained of video fatigue were able to choose to do individual work off-screen at several points, rather than make the choice to skip class to relieve the video fatigue.

A month after our shift online, the semester was suddenly over. Despite the tough circumstances, teams created exciting final deliverables. The five teams presented their final designs, ranging from playful and well-lit pathways to connect urban bus stops for women travelers, to policy and marketing plans, as well as messaging for bike sharing companies that targeted social norms. TikTok videos for making your own space were also created for kids who felt trapped in tight Bronx apartments (website image below).

Another team designed tools to playfully enforce social distancing in public spaces such as metro systems (see the feet below) in addition to a website showcasing passengers’ perspectives on riding subways post COVID-19.

Another team used MURAL, a virtual whiteboard tool built with a human-centered approach, to workshop elements of a bus stop design for a desert context, complete with hydration stations and a community board.

Moving my class online motivated me to ask about and see each person’s individual needs and perspectives more clearly than I likely would have in person. Once we made the move to distance learning, I appreciated the in-person interactions in the first half of the semester so much more. With that being said, while we were connecting through online learning, I had the chance to engage more regularly in all of the teams’ progress. Whether or not we do an online, in-person, or a hybrid mix of learning next year, I will be sure to engage just as regularly with the teams throughout the semester.

While grappling with their new reality, it seemed that students took solace in being able to engage in their own interests, and their similar situations allowed them to empathize with others on their team to a greater extent — some even gained inspiration about their career paths, such as Jinglan Li (Pitzer 2021 student):

“THANK YOU for the semester! I have learned so much in your class. The course was fun and meaningful to me. As a person who is planning on pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning or its related field, I feel like the course gives me so many inspirations and new possibilities. Also, I am super grateful for you being flexible and easy-going. It really reduced my stress and helped me during the time of COVID-19.”

Through this experience I reaffirmed that empathy and inclusivity are potent tools that offer teachers a chance to co-create meaningful distance learning courses with their students. This grassroots approach to teaching is a welcome disruption to the norm, no matter what the future holds.

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