Equity & Access

With the transition to online teaching and learning, many considerations around diversity, equity, and access are more important than ever. Here are some contextual points to bear in mind and some recommendations for how to adapt your teaching to foster an equitable and accessible online learning environment.

Contextual points to bear in mind

  • Not all students will be engaging with their coursework from an environment with reliable access to wifi, technology, and optimal conditions for periods of sustained focus. Some will be staying with friends; some will be staying on campus in dorm room quarantine; some will need to move between different "home base" locations throughout the coming months. 

  • Some students will be taking on potentially time-consuming duties which they are not accustomed to juggling when they are on campus: caretaking for siblings or other family members, a job or jobs to make up for on-campus work hours that are no longer possible, organizing care for vulnerable friends and/or community members.

  • Mental health may be poorly affected as structures and routines are disrupted. Social distancing can contribute to a sense of isolation, and students may find it difficult to tap into sources of community and motivation that were more readily available through campus life.

  • Many students, especially those who are in their final year, will be confronting anxiety and uncertainty about their futures.

  • During the coming months, some students and teaching staff will inevitably become sick with COVID-19 and will require academic accommodations.

Some recommendations

  • Build rapport and connection, but not invasively. It is helpful to check in with your students as everyone transitions and gets accustomed to online teaching and learning. This may happen informally at the start of a class, via office hours, or through dedicated questions on a feedback form. However, be mindful of probing or prying into personal details or compelling conversation about personal life. Some students might appreciate sharing details about their current living situation with you, but others might not wish to discuss it. Whether in a group meeting or in a one-to-one conversation, you can offer students space to share how they’re doing, what they’re finding effective, and where they’re encountering difficulties while also respecting their privacy and boundaries.

  • Consider how your course might change not only in its timeline, but also in its pedagogy.

    • Experiment with new media. How might you supplement or replace texts that are now inaccessible, and connect with students through new channels? Consider integrating video content, podcasts, creative slide decks, and/or dedicated social media feeds that students can access from home. Contact learninglab@fas.harvard.edu to set up a consultation about experimenting with new media in your course.

    • Play with timing. Are there activities that were once synchronous that could now become asynchronous to accommodate students who are in different time zones, who have poor or unreliable internet access, and/or who are taking on new responsibilities? Are there assignments whose learning objectives could be realized over a more flexible or extended timeline?

    • Consider segmented lectures. How can you evoke the physical classroom’s rhythms of pause and interaction? Breaking up long lectures into shorter segments with planned breaks for student reflection or discussion in breakout rooms can help. Visit breakout rooms to check in with pairs or small groups, ask students to share work when you return to the whole group, or set up a Zoom poll for everyone to respond to after a break.

  • Re-frame participation. Zoom offers new possibilities for student engagement, providing structures that some students may find even easier to navigate than traditional classroom dynamics. For instance, you can clarify Zoom discussion norms by asking students to use the "raise hand" function, unmute themselves, utilize the chat box, or employ some combination of these when contributing verbally to the class. Zoom breakout rooms, screen sharing, and shared annotation exercises can also provide opportunities for smaller group or non-verbal participation. Other apps and learning platforms—Google Docs, Google Slides, Slack, Canvas, and more—can allow students to engage and collaborate asynchronously.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Office hours—or similar opportunities for students to be in conversation with you about their questions, concerns, and needs—are more important than ever. Share and reiterate the channels by which students can be in touch; make this information widely available on the syllabus, on Canvas, via regular class emails, and through an announcement at the end of class. Respecting your own capacity, it can be especially helpful to proactively and regularly reach out to any students who may be struggling in your course.

  • Remain open to adapting. The COVID-19 pandemic marks an unprecedented time for us all. Information and infrastructures are changing rapidly, as are systems of support and care. As this global health emergency continues to impact all of us, your attentive and caring adaptation can play a significant role in supporting your students’ academic and personal well-being.

See Hanover Research's "Best Practices in Online Learning for At-Risk Students" for further recommendations