While this article does not focus on equity and inclusion related to most marginalized identities, those needs still exist; see our articles on these topics, including how they can be addressed in virtual and hybrid environments.)
In a virtual learning environment — such as those used in asynchronous online, synchronous virtual/remote, and flex-hybrid learning — additional equity and accessibility concerns may arise. We need to recognize that not all students have the same technological resources to participate. Some students may also experience accessibility issues that they do not have in the in-person classroom, or their in-person accommodations may need to be addressed in different ways.
Technological equity challenges that students may face include:
- Lack of access to quality hardware and up-to-date software
- Lack of access to reliable internet service and high-cap data plans
- Power or communications outages during weather-related closures
You might see these difficulties manifest as dropping in and out of videoconferences due to a bad connection, inability to complete assignments that require specialized equipment students cannot access away from campus, not having a working webcam, and so on.
Students who are normally in-person learners may experience additional equity challenges in emergency situations like snow days or health quarantines. These may include:
- Lack of access to a quiet space to learn and study
- Housing issues that may be embarrassing if seen on camera
- Caregiving burdens (children, siblings, or elders)
- Lack of access to normal accessibility accommodations
We advise faculty to be as understanding as possible in these situations.
Tips for Promoting Technological Equity in Virtual and Hybrid Learning
Many of the strategies we learned during COVID-19 flex-hybrid instruction may help achieve technological equity in virtual learning. Draw upon the strategies you found to be effective. We also recommend the following:
- Use clear communication methods like Canvas Announcements to communicate with the class. Announcements are easy to find in the smartphone app as well as the full browser interface.
- Use technologies that operate across multiple platforms. For example, make sure your chosen videoconference tool operates across a wide variety of browsers, operating systems, and both desktop and mobile devices.*
- Consider due date extensions for students who are temporarily remote (e.g., students in quarantine) or during campus closures, particularly if students might normally rely on on-campus facilities to complete their work.
- Record videoconference time that is dedicated to lectures, demonstrations, or review so students can access it later in case of technical difficulties.
- Accommodate students who need to turn off their cameras during videoconferences. On poor or mediocre internet connections, turning off the outgoing video can make the connection to the call more stable.
- During weather cancellations or emergency campus closures, use asynchronous activities or a blend of synchronous and asynchronous work to facilitate at least partial participation by students with technical difficulties. Learn more in our Teaching Remotely Toolkit.
Tips for Accessibility in Virtual and Hybrid Learning
Any disability accommodation letters are still binding in virtual and hybrid situations. In some cases, the nature of students’ accommodations may have no additional impact in virtual learning environments. However, in other cases, accommodating a particular disability may be quite different. Here are some suggestions:
- Select virtual platforms (synchronous and asynchronous) that are more accessible. For example, choose Zoom or Meet over InSpace for videoconferencing if you have students with certain types of accommodations, and for first meetings.* Canvas is highly accessible for discussions, quizzes, etc.
- If you create an exercise that requires doing a reading or watching a video, ensure that the material is accessible when such accommodations are needed. For example, choose a reading from a normal class text, major website, or accessible PDF rather than a scanned PDF, and check to make sure that assigned videos have decent captions. This is a best practice for all class material, whether you have students with known accommodations or not.
- Explore our other articles on accessibility.
If you have a student with accommodations who must participate remotely for an extended period due to a situation like quarantine after disease exposure, speak to the student and, if necessary, the Office of Accessibility, to determine how to meet their needs. In some cases, the Office of Accessibility may provide you with additional guidance.
“Above all, be kind to learners. Times of disruption are stressful and minimizing this stress and providing a sense of support can have consequences for learners far beyond the success of a particular class.”Hicks, Brule, and Dubrowski
* InSpace is making significant accessibility improvements for users with hearing, visual, and fine motor disabilities, as well as students who work with an aide. However, these functions are not yet complete. We do not recommend InSpace in scenarios like snow days where you do not have an opportunity to assess whether everyone can use it first, though it may be appropriate in many other situations. Keep an open dialogue with your students when using any new technology.
Aimi Hamraie, Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-10, Mapping Access, March 10, 2020
Cat Hicks, Dr. Emeline Brulé, Roberta Dombrowski, You Have To Put Your Class Online: Simple Things to Think About, March 2020
Melanie Ho, Three principles for safeguarding student success in the transition to remote instruction, EAB, March 16, 2020
Robin Paige, Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely, Reflections on Teaching and Learning, Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence, March 13, 2020
Teaching in Times of Crisis, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
Lindsey Passenger Wieck, An Equitable Transition to Online Learning: Flexibility, Low Bandwidth, Cell Phones, and More, Pedagogy Playground, March 9, 2020