Every Learner Everywhere
Achieving the Dream

Reflect and Check: 3 Steps to Equitable Online Course Design In Higher Ed

Equitable online course design for college and university classes often requires flipping the usual perspective, says Dr. Ruanda Garth-McCullough, Associate Director of Teaching and Learning for Achieving the Dream.

“Most of us were taught to treat everyone the same and ignore differences,” she says. “Equity requires educators to shift their thinking and be comfortable with acknowledging the differences — identifying differences — and addressing students differently.”

A principle of “treating everyone the same” may not result in the equity that a college classroom strives for. If they are going to close equity gaps and improve learning outcomes for Black, Latino, Indigenous, and poverty-affected students, instructors will need to understand how every student walks in — or logs in — with unique needs, perspectives, and barriers.

Equitable online courses don’t ignore differences

Equity can’t be achieved with so-called “colorblind” or “impartial” approaches. Equitable online course design considers representation of student identities, including culture, race, gender, and sexual orientation, country of origin, first language, economic class, and religion. Equitably designed courses also consider access — not just during admissions but after students get the acceptance letter and progress toward a degree.

Achieving the Dream (ATD), one of the partner organizations of Every Learner Everywhere, helps community colleges identify and confront systemic inequities, and equitable course design has been one of the organization’s priorities since its inception.

According to the ATD team, in order to design courses from an equity perspective, institutions and faculty must first understand who their students are. That understanding should inform what content is included, what policies are required, how class meetings are conducted, and what expectations the course rests on. Then open lines of communication should ensure student needs are being met.

Start by working from actual data about students, such as demographics, technology access, and outside obligations to family and work. These and other other factors all influence how individual students interact with the course. Something on your syllabus as innocuous as “check for the problem sets online on Tuesday and respond by Thursday” may be a significant challenge for some students.

At an individual course level, Susan Adams, Instructional Designer at ATD, recommends faculty do an informal assessment of students that asks questions like:

  • Is this your first time taking a course online?
  • What concerns do you have about taking the course?
  • How are you accessing the course?
  • How can I best facilitate your learning?

Hearing from students about their experiences will reveal surprising barriers to access that may conflict with initial expectations in the course design. For example, they may learn about certain days that a student’s community sets aside for religious observances, a lack of private work space, or less familiarity with academic culture.

Learn more — Disaggregating Learning Data to Support Equity Efforts: Resources for College and University Instructors

1. Break barriers to access

Garth-McCullough and Adams have been contributors to several publications in the Every Learner Everywhere resource library, including Caring for Students Playbook, which outlines six recommendations for supporting equitable learning through more student-centered course and program design.

They say that equitable course design will have the flexibility to let students work with their unique scheduling, technological, and personal needs.

This is particularly important recently, since many courses were forced suddenly online in 2020 due to COVID-19, and not every student has the same access to internet, laptops, or quiet home offices. As Every Learner Everywhere Director Jessica Rowland Williams discussed in an interview, some students are “attending” online classes from their cars and writing assignments on their phones.

But, as we noted in another article, a pandemic isn’t the only barrier to access. Equitable course design is an investment in a future that includes all students, even when campuses are fully “open” again.

Keep in mind that not every student will have access to the same wifi, devices, and bandwidth that we might take for granted. Equitable course design will provide multiple ways to engage with the course, including:

  • Downloadable modules so work can be done offline.
  • Lecture notes incorporated inside a slide deck as well as on their own document.
  • Collaborative note taking, which can help students learn during the lecture and also creates a resource that can be referenced after the lecture.
  • Audio files as an alternative to video, because they require less bandwidth to download.
  • Posting video to platforms like YouTube where they can easily be viewed without downloading.
  • Mailing printed materials to students who may not have any way to access the internet.

While many students may do fine with online learning, Francesca Carpenter, ATD’s Director of Equity Initiatives, says to keep in mind there are others who didn’t anticipate this way of learning and may be struggling.

“A lot of students want face-to-face instruction to get that connection with their instructor,” she says. “When you put them in this virtual environment, you remove that unless the faculty member knows how to create and cultivate those relationships.”

Many students may also depend on the resources that a campus provides, including a computer lab, internet access, and quiet places to study.

2. Use representative content

Representative content is essential to equitable course design. When students see their identities reflected in the course material, they’re more likely to engage. Curricular materials that represent economic, ethnic, racial, and gender diversity let all students know that they are included in the academic experience.

One way to ensure greater diversity of content, says Carpenter, is to use open educational resources (OER). “This is your opportunity to really expand what your students have access to and are able to learn more about,” she says.

OER also can enable the co-creation of content with students, she says. It provides an opportunity for a student to be published and for subsequent classes to continuously iterate on the content and activities of previous students.

“That creation of ongoing, living assignments gives students a power they didn’t have before,” notes Carpenter.

Related reading — Curricula That Account for All Students: A Look at Culturally Responsive Teaching in Higher Ed

3. Open the lines of communication

Check in with students regularly to make sure they know what resources are available, and make space for them to ask for the help they need.

Adams suggests creating a learning pact with students at the beginning of the course. It sets expectations about communication for both faculty and students and creates a supportive and trustworthy environment.

To make sure students feel comfortable getting help if they need it, Garth-McCullough recommends putting resources in syllabus statements, and issuing regular reminders to students of the resources available for food insecurity, housing, unemployment, and more.

“It’s important to keep that open dialogue where you create a space for them to be critical about what’s working and not working,” says Garth-McCullough. “Students will tell you, but we rarely ask.”

Students succeed when they’re supported

In today’s uncertain situation, it’s essential to understand student goals and make sure the course connects with those goals, says Garth-McCullough. “More than ever, students are going to question if this is where they need to be.”

She recommends surveying students about their goals at the beginning of the course, then working continuously to tie the learning back into those goals.

This helps demonstrate to students that you care. And when students understand you care, adds Carpenter, they’ll be more engaged. “If you’re just in there to be a talking head for two hours, that’s not going to work for students who need support.”

Download  Caring for Students Playbook: Six Recommendations

‍Originally published October 2020. Updated September 2021 with additional information and references.