Every Learner Everywhere

How This Education Professor Is Equitizing Her Asynchronous Online Methods Course

Dr. Sarah Straub, an Education Studies professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, believes so much in the potential of asynchronous online learning to extend opportunity to more students that after the Covid-19 pandemic, she wanted to learn about transitioning more of her courses to that format.

Straub was assisted in that in 2022 when she participated in Digital Learning Praxis: Engendering Quality and Equity Across the Learning Lifecycle, a workshop facilitated by Dr. Angela Gunder of Online Learning Consortium. This virtual workshop, offered through the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board by Every Learner Everywhere and its network partners, addressed student-centered instruction through evidence-based strategies that impact student engagement, metacognitive skills, and long-term content retention.

Transformative framework

“When I first signed up for this training, my concept as to what I could get out of it was very narrow,” Straub says. “I was hoping to grow my individual skill set with a few new tools or a list of equity practices that I could essentially check off as I addressed them.”

Instead, Straub’s takeaway from the training exceeded her expectations. “I received a full framework for how to improve my classes overall in a holistic sense and through pedagogical innovation. There is a reason we do what we do and that impacts how we do it. I did not view online teaching in that way before this training.”

During the training, Straub said Gunder impressed upon members of the cohort the importance of ensuring the classes they currently teach in an online, asynchronous space create equitable digital learning environments for students. Since the first piece of information a student typically receives about a course is the syllabus, Straub started her course revision by reviewing the content of her syllabi.

Equitizing the syllabus

Straub chose to focus first on MLGE 4230, a middle-grades social studies methods course, because it was a single section and she was the only instructor of record on it, making it ideal for trying new asynchronous online teaching practices.

“There is a lot of research about what a syllabus should look like and sometimes the information we are required to put in by our departments can be very long,” she says. “When we looked at reimagining it, we moved the student support services, like Title IX, disabilities, and mental health supports, from the end of the syllabus to the beginning. This shows students that we care about their health and well-being first and foremost.”

Straub also revised sections to remove passive voice constructions (i.e. “Students are expected to . . . .”) in favor of active direct-address constructions that emphasize and explain the reason for assignments or processes (i.e. “You’re doing this because . . . .”) This allowed her to ground her syllabus in the why of the course instead of just telling students the expectations and the penalties for not meeting them.

Student responses to the changes Straub made have been enthusiastic. “By the spring semester I had a whole course revamped, and the survey results from those students stated that they felt like they had a relationship with me,” Straub says.

“I gave them all the opportunity to set up meetings with me at the beginning of the semester, so they liked the opportunity to have that one-on-one time. They felt like they could do collaborative planning with their peers and that the online classroom felt like a safe space.”

Straub was so excited to share what she learned that she sought out Dr. Rachel Jumper, a colleague at Stephen F. Austin State University, to work with her on extending her course redesigning efforts. The prior year, Jumper had won an Excellence in Teaching award, and she taught her courses entirely online. They collaborated to find areas in their courses where they could improve the asynchronous online learning experience for students by applying equity-centered frameworks. Their report on that project, Digital Learning Equity Analysis Project: A Collaborative Self-Study and Implementation Exercise for Improved Equity-Centered Practices, is now available.

Straub hopes the continued work she and Jumper plan to undertake will reduce some of the stigma that surrounds digital learning. “There is this myth that online teaching and learning isn’t as challenging, both for the students and the educator, or that students don’t interact as much with the instructor, but that isn’t true at all,” Straub says.

“You can create meaningful transformative experiences online. Students are part of a collaborative work environment, the curriculum is rigorous, and they create a strong bond with their professor.”

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