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Designing for Care: Inclusive Pedagogies for Online Learning

The slides and transcript from a recent keynote, which was part of the Texas Peer Mentor Network's series on "Transforming Crisis into Critical Opportunity."

Pivot /ˈpivət/
: to turn on or as if on a pivot

We need to be thinking about how we respond in the moment to this emergent crisis, but it’s just as important that we talk about sustainable ways forward. What we are facing right now will have an effect on education that lasts years (or longer), and it’s exposing inequities and systemic injustices that many students have faced all along.

There has been much talk over the last several months about maintaining ‘continuity’ of instruction and assessment, but less discussion about how we maintain the communities at the heart of our educational institutions. This is the design challenge before us.

“There is consensus in the literature about the benefits of a student’s sense of belonging. Researchers suggest that higher levels of belonging lead to increases in GPA, academic achievement, and motivation.” ~ Carey Borkoski, “Cultivating Belonging”

There is no one-size-fits-all set of best practices for building a learning community, whether on-ground or online. We have to start by looking to our own existing communities for expertise. Who at our institutions is already doing this work and doing it well? And who has figured out how to do it effectively online? How can we better support those efforts? And we have to start by finding out who our students are, what they need to be successful, and how our institutional mission does (and sometimes doesn’t) align with our practices.

“Today’s college students are the most overburdened and undersupported in American history. More than one in four have a child, almost three in four are employed, and more than half receive Pell Grants but are left far short of the funds required to pay for college.” ~ Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Stommel, “Teaching the Students We Have Not the Students We Wish We Had”

According to the Hope Center’s National #RealCollege Survey, out of 86,000 students surveyed, 56% were housing insecure in the previous year, and 17% were homeless.

LGBTQ young adults had a 120 percent higher risk of reporting homelessness compared to youth who identified as heterosexual and cisgender. (voicesofyouthcount.org)

Some Data About Bias in education from Soraya Chemaly's “All Teachers Should Be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases”:

  • Black girls are twelve times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended.
  • While Black children make up less than 20% of preschoolers, they make up more than half of out-of-school suspensions.
  • Teachers spend up to two thirds of their time talking to male students; they also are more likely to interrupt girls. When teachers ask questions they direct their gaze towards boys more often, especially when the questions are open-ended (In STEM fields).

“We need to design our pedagogical approaches for the students we have, not the students we wish we had. This requires approaches that are responsive, inclusive, adaptive, challenging, and compassionate. And it requires institutions find more creative ways to support teachers and prepare them for the work of teaching. This is not a theoretical exercise — it is a practical one.” ~ Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Stommel, “Teaching the Students We Have Not the Students We Wish We Had”

We have to design for the least privileged, most marginalized students, the ones more likely to have felt isolated even before the pandemic: disabled students, chronically-ill students, black students, queer students, and those facing housing and food-insecurity. We need to write policies, and imagine new ways forward, for these students, the ones already struggling, already facing exclusion.

Inclusivity on a college campus starts with small, human acts:

  • Walk campus to assess the accessibility of common spaces and classrooms. An accessible desk in every classroom doesn’t do much good if students can’t get to that desk because the rooms are overcrowded.
  • Invite students to share their pronouns, model this behavior, but don’t expect it of everyone. Not all students will feel equally safe sharing pronouns.
  • Make sure there is an easy and advertised process for students, faculty, and staff to change their names within institutional systems. Make sure chosen names are what appear on course rosters and ID cards.
  • Regularly invite the campus community into hard conversations about inclusivity. For example, a frank discussion of race and gender bias in grading and course evaluations.

What does it look like to do this kind of work online? How do we walk our virtual campuses to address accessibility concerns? Where do we hold the necessary town hall meetings to address hard questions about inclusivity? How do we connect students learning on-ground to students who can only learn online? What kinds of decisions must we make now to ensure access for students or teachers who become sick?

The key failure of online learning has been its attempt to duplicate, replicate, or simply port into an LMS the content and strategies of on-ground education. But online learning uses different platforms, builds community in different ways, demands different pedagogies, has a different economy, functions at different scales, and requires different curricular choices than does on-ground education. Even where the same goal is desired, very different methods are necessary.

The rhetoric of a physical classroom — its pedagogical topography — can dictate how we teach within it: where the seats are, which direction they face, whether they’re bolted down, what kind of writing surfaces are on the walls, how many walls have writing surfaces, whether there are windows, doors that lock, etc. The same is true of the online spaces: are they password protected, what kind of landing page welcomes us to the space, how many pages allow interaction, can students easily upload and share content. Physical spaces can usually be rearranged (to some extent) on the fly. Most online learning platforms make customization slow or difficult enough to deter responsiveness or impulsivity.

Designing for Care

Flexibility and trust are key principles of any pedagogy, but they are particularly important when we’re in crisis.

Start by Trusting Students.

Online learning doesn’t require video, synchronous meetings, formal expectations, or extrinsic motivators. In fact, these can frustrate efforts at creating community and a sense of belonging.

Not all students, faculty, and staff will be able to meet synchronously, and different students learn in different ways at different times.

Online education should be designed for collaboration, where possible drawing together local communities, disciplinary communities, and broader publics.

“Critical formative cultures are crucial in producing the knowledge, values, social relations and visions that help nurture and sustain the possibility to think critically, engage in political dissent, organize collectively and inhabit public spaces in which alternative and critical theories can be developed.” ~ Henry Giroux, “Thinking Dangerously: the Role of Higher Education in Authoritarian Times”

We must be willing to acknowledge trauma members of our community have and will experience.

"There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.” ~ Julianne Holt-Lunstad, et. al., “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review”

“A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching Through Coronavirus”from Teaching Tolerance:

  • Establish a routine and maintain clear communication.
  • Relationships and wellbeing should take priority over assignments and compliance.
  • Actively encourage and support a sense of safety, connectedness, and hope.
  • Acknowledge that trauma is not distributed equally.

“From everything we know about learning, if the trauma is not addressed, accounted for, and built into the course design, we fail. Our students fail.” ~ Cathy Davidson, “The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course”

Our ability to develop community will depend on our willingness to continue feeling joy, having epiphanies, asking hard questions, and sharing our curiosity with one another.

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” ~ bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

To create a sense of belonging, we need to:

• build a community of care
• ask genuine, open-ended questions
• wait for answers
• let conversation wander
• model what it looks like to be wrong and to acknowledge when we’re wrong
• recognize that the right to speak isn't distributed equally
• make listening visible


Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel

Jesse Stommel is a Senior Lecturer of Digital Studies at University of Mary Washington. He is co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy. Jesse has been an educator since 1999.