Equity, Accessibility, and Universal Design: So Much to Consider
Equity, Accessibility, and Universal Design: So Much to Consider avatar

A few years ago, I took J. Luke Wood’s course on Teaching Men of Color in the Community College. Many of the same suggestions made here for the online environment were discussed in that course, but more specifically in the context of how we address and welcome men of color in our classes and in the college community in general. I remember thinking that much of what he advised seemed so inherent to what I was already doing. In particular, one suggestion he made was so simple yet powerful: when you are walking around campus and encounter a man of color, look him in the eye and say hello. Of course my thinking is we should be doing this for every student as basically we are acknowledging the individual and reinforcing that s/he is important, valued, and belongs. As instructors at a community college, I believe that much of our work is assisting underrepresented students gain that sense of empowerment and belonging that may evade some in other walks of life. I suppose because I have focused my career on teaching composition to ESL students, and my classroom is home for underrepresented, often disenfranchised students, much of what he promotes is what I have dedicated my life to ensure happens in my classes.

So as not to have too lengthy of a posting, I will focus on responding to how I address some of these issues in my classes and how it will happen online. First, I was happy to read his take on working with ESL/multilingual students and how the focus should be on communication of ideas (content) over form. This paradigm shift happened in ESL pedagogy back in the 1960s-’70s when the audio-lingual approach was replaced with the communicative approach (and all the later iterations of pedagogical constructs that grew from here.) But this is an important message to share with all educators: a second language learner will always have some “language variation” to vocabulary, syntax, usage etc., that might not be to exacting standard American English, but that should not drive our response to students’ work whether in speech or writing. But the challenge becomes where is that line when these issues interfere with communication? How do we address issues of language proficiency that might still need some development in order to address the higher order concerns? This continues to be a challenge for all of us and it is likely to become even more prevalent as developmental and even ESL classes are no longer viewed as positive or necessary in the era of placing all students directly to transfer courses. But is it equitable to not hold any standard or basic expectation? This is what I have been struggling with to find a quality answer (and sorry, I still do not have one.)

I appreciate that Wood’s also clearly states that as equity-minded instructors we need to continually reflect on our role in and responsibility for student success. I do think we need to be “intrusive” (I wish there were a better word) with regularity in our work with students. The first day of class, I have students complete a basic survey (phone, email, college schedule, work etc.), but one of the most important questions I ask is: is there anything happening in your life situation you would like me to know about? This has been a very eye-opening experience, and sometimes I am surprised by how candid the students are to share some very intimate and personal details with me in the first week. I have learned that some students are temporarily homeless; others dealing with a court issue; some concerned about deportation; others sharing their sense of insecurity or depression. This information helps me understand the student and their larger life and the impacts these can have on their education. Then within the first couple weeks in the semester, I have a mandatory office visit. It is simply a fifteen-minute chat at my office where we see each other outside of the classroom. We can talk about these issues or any other the students might be experiencing. It also gives me an opportunity to offer some personalized feedback of something they have done in class. I think both the survey done electronically and the office hours converted to the online classroom with Skype or Zoom would work quite well.

Another important aspect to equity and accessibility in my classes is ensuring that all students are active, contributing members to our learning community. I don’t want any student to feel invisible and in fact have created multiple opportunities that require that each student’s voice is heard each class. For example, in my first class meeting, students are put into groups of four, and each group member is responsible for recording and then reporting out information discussed in response to one of four prompts. This is a low-stakes way for each student voice to be heard in the class by all. They will receive positive reinforcement for their efforts and this helps build their confidence. I can see this translating online quite naturally in other group work and/or by simply having students record a video doing things like introducing themselves, responding to a reading, or sharing a journal response. Then ensuring that I provide personalized feedback to the students not just publicly but also individually is very powerful. It takes me a few minutes after each class to compose a couple sentence email to individual students identifying something positive they did in class and thanking them for it. Students have regularly told me that this simple email was impactful and a great motivator for them to continue those efforts.

Yikes, this post is getting long, so I will move to my final issue of universal design in an online course. I have commented on this in the past but I think it is critical that we structure our courses so they are completely accessible to view and work through on a cell phone. Yes, this is an issue of accessibility for students who don’t have computers or easy access to them, but most of our students do have smart phones. Even for the students who do have laptops, I think the phone is becoming the device from which students conduct their lives, including school. So it is critically important to me as I design my online class that I pay attention to the details and learn the coding necessary to ensure as seamless transition from a computer or tablet screen to a phone screen. I know I have slowly moved more of my work away from the laptop and to my phone- my email, my calendar, my checking in on Canvas, my composing of ideas. . . I am not at the point of composing lengthy text like this on my phone, but as the cell phone screens get a little larger, it is a distinct possibility. I think for many of our students, the cell phone will act as their primary computer.