Module 7: Accessibility in Online and Technology-Enabled Learning

Part 3: Fostering Welcoming and Engaging Social Interactions 

Component of Online Teaching Accessibility Goal Decisions within Instructor Control
Social Relationships in the Course A supportive and welcoming online space where students are engaged, included and able to learn How you create the conditions to encourage students to interact with you and each other in a respectful and positive manner

Social interactions within an online course are shaped to a large extent by the communications and opportunities to connect with other students that the instructor builds in. There are many small actions that you can take to recognize and affirm students’ lived realities, model the empathy and consideration you expect your students to show you and each other, and cultivate a respectful learning environment. These efforts can collectively make a big difference to students’ experiences with online learning.

Applying the FAVE Principles to Social Relationships in the Course

Flexibility
  • Seek student feedback on how the course is going and how they are doing. Adapt as you go.
  • Enhance motivation and engagement by providing students some choice and control throughout the learning process.
  • Offer some flexibility and understanding around deadlines, extension requests, and other individual student requests. Recognize that there may be emergent gaps in a student’s formalized accommodation plan, and that some eligible students may experience barriers accessing formalized accommodations. Connect with Student Accessibility Services for further support.
Alignment
  • Rather than trying to reproduce an in-person course (e.g. 3-hour lectures), align course design with the nature of the online environment and its particular opportunities for student engagement. Scan MacPherson’s MacVideo channel for webinars on motivating and engaging students online.
  • Enhance and sustain student engagement and motivation through strong alignment between learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessments. Choose readings/material, activities, and assessment formats that cohere well with the essential learning goals of the course.
  • Make relevant connections between course material and students’ social worlds and lives (e.g. ties to current events). Check out these resources on community-engaged and experiential learning in the online education context.
Variety
  • Offer multiple ways for students to engage with you (instructors and TAs) and their classmates.
  • When designing your course, select a variety of assessment formats to keep students connected, motivated and engaged. Check out the MacPherson Institute’s compilation of resources on assignment alternatives for remote teaching. Consider assessments that help students connect their academic work to external events, experiences or contexts to enhance interest and engagement.
Explicitness
  • Be present in the course in a frequent, consistent, and visible way to adjust for a lack of physical face-to-face proximity. An explicit instructor presence through check-ins, feedback, and online discussion increases student persistence and provides important emotional support (Hanover Research, 2020).
  • Consider checking-in directly with individual students to see how they are doing, especially those with disability-related accommodations and those who are less visibly engaged in the course (where possible / applicable). If you’re in a small class/tutorial, you might even host an individual meeting with each student as part of course participation.
  • Communicate class routines and consistently enact these to enhance trustworthiness, transparency, and reduce feelings of confusion or overwhelm. For example, post a weekly update around the same time or schedule announcements in Avenue to Learn.
  • Share information with students about support services that are available to them, such as this Learning Remotely for Students guide prepared by the MacPherson Institute, and student-focused information on McMaster’s Accessibility Hub. Students may not be aware of services they can access virtually, and they may be facing new barriers in an online environment and uncertainty about where to go for help.
  • Offer explicit instructions about and expectations for participating in the online learning environment, including practical details about the options for participating, how participation will be evaluated, and the rationale for these decisions, as well as guidelines for inclusive and respectful participation (Hanover Research, 2020). Respond to incidents of disrespect or exclusion that may make some students feel unsafe or unwelcome. Check out McMaster’s Inclusive Teaching and Learning Guide for additional resources.

Case Study with Manifying Glass

Case Study: Disabled Student Responses to Pandemic-Provoked Online Learning

Accessibility – why now? Why did it take this long? Some students with disabilities may be facing complex feelings as they watch the university mediate systemic barriers in response to the global pandemic, barriers that were otherwise left unaddressed until now despite years of disabled student advocacy. As Stephen Campbell (2020) writes in this blog post,

“The idea that suddenly so many courses and modules can be taught and studied away from the campus must come as a surprise to those disabled students who either underachieved or dropped out of university precisely because this very flexibility was not available to them.” As McMaster students have shared with us, “Profs are more open to offering accommodations now that there’s a pandemic… but it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to do this” (event hosted by MSU Maccess and the Equity and Inclusion Office, June 2020).

Read more about this dissonance in Campbell’s (2020) piece, Isabel Abbott’s (2020), “Letter to my abled friends”, and Yvonne Syed’s (2020) contribution to McMaster’s Silhouette newspaper.

Shifting nature of disability identity in online environments: Another response we have heard from students is how learning online has changed the visibility or perceptivity of their disability from how it might otherwise be observed in an in-person environment. Some might experience this reduced visibility as a welcome relief from stigma and discrimination, where they have some more control over how they choose to bring their disability into the classroom (Pichette, Brumwell, & Rizk, 2020).

Others, or in other moments, may find this shifted visibility alienating, especially when disability comprises a significant aspect of their identity and sense of self. They may now have to overtly and intentionally disclose or talk about disability to increase its visibility in ways not required before – such as to explain their embodied experiences of pain, the barriers they are facing in the online environment, or the importance of disability in their thinking and analysis. Disabled educators may likewise be facing impacts of this “invisibility” in online environments.

This invisibility may also contribute to decreased awareness of and attentiveness to the constant presence of disability in online classrooms (whether or not it is visibly apparent to us). If we’re not already in a habit of considering disability, we may need to make even more intentional efforts to do so when teaching online. Hopefully these efforts will continue into our in-person classrooms as well so that we can further address our students’ many disability experiences that will never be visually or verbally disclosed to us.

Beyond making our classrooms accessible for students with disabilities, we might also consider:

  • How we will demonstrate and sustain our commitments to disability inclusion beyond our present moment so that the accessibility gains provoked by the pandemic are not lost when we return to physical classrooms.
  • How the online learning environment not only shifts students’ experience of studying and learning, but also potentially their sense of self, identity, social relationships, and connection to community.

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