Graphic promoting ACUE webinar 'preparing an inclusive online course'

Preparing an Inclusive Online Course: Webinar Recap

“It’s even more important right now to ensure we’re creating courses that are inclusive,” Farrah Ward opined in the webinar Preparing an Inclusive Online Course, the second webinar in ACUE’s Inclusive Online Teaching webinar series, presented in collaboration with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU), The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), Every Learner Everywhere (ELE), the National Association of System Heads (NASH), and Strong Start to Finish (SSTF).

Ward noted that students usually have a choice in what kinds of courses they take, but COVID-19 has taken that choice away, and students are coping with the myriad challenges of remote learning, such as having to share rooms and computers, facing food insecurity, and more.

“It’s essential for faculty to remain conscious that students are learning in different ways,” she said.

The discussion also featured insights from José Antonio Bowen, PhD, former president, Goucher College and author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning; Santiba Campbell, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Bennett College; and Kristina Ruiz-Mesa, PhD, associate professor & basic course director, Department of Communication Studies, California State University, Los Angeles. Dr. Kevin Kelly, ACUE academic director, moderated the discussion.

Key Takeaways from the Conversation

Exercising empathy is crucial.

Displaying empathy was a theme of the webinar. Ward commented that faculty never truly know what students are going through — that there could be a reason why they don’t want to share their screen or don’t necessarily know how to use the technologies.

“How do we show students we care?” Ruiz-Mesa asked. She emphasized the importance of transparency — explaining the reasons behind actions, as well as being critically self-reflexive. “I think we have to allow ourselves the grace and flexibility we’re hoping for our students.”
Focus on language and communication.

“We have to ensure we’re communicating [our] ideas,” Campbell said. She encouraged faculty to focus on accessibility, considering how your assignments will be accessed. She also suggested being flexible in terms of engagement, perhaps, for example, offering office hours via phone, DMs, GroupMe, or text at different times to accommodate working students.

“Think about what to include in an e-communication policy,” Bowen suggested. “How fast do you respond to email? When do you respond? Do you use Google or Facebook chat?” He also advised revealing something about your own personal habits to students, such as when you check and respond to emails. “Students need more accessibility and want more security.”

“Students should feel and know that they belong in this course, on this campus,” Ruiz-Mesa added. “Are we taking time throughout the semester to remind students about the resources that are on campus and off?” Ruiz-Mesa, for example, adds resources like mental health organizations to her syllabus with statistics and data about who uses them to reduce stigma. “Think about language; how is it working toward the goal of equity and inclusion?”
Structure and flexibility go hand-in-hand.

“We’re trending toward a perfect storm,” Campbell said, pointing out that systemic racism, COVID-19, election season, and the upcoming holidays are colliding to put students and faculty in under an enormous amount of stress and fatigue. “We can’t bring our stress and fatigue into the classroom.” Structure and flexibility, she added, can help.

Bowen agreed, noting that these are both things students have requested, and they’re not actually contradictory. For instance, he said, it might be time to relax some restrictions while giving students a structure for how to study and complete their assignments, along with opportunities for reflection. “It’s the communication that I have high standards and I’m going to help you get there. That combination is really the secret sauce.”

“Think about course design,” Ruiz-Mesa added. “I think about what I want my students to walk away with and carry into their careers. How can I make this course different? How are students represented in the material?”

Ward said that faculty should focus on the learning objectives. “One thing I think we’ll learn from this phase is how to restructure our courses,” she noted. “Many of us have been in a groove.”

Consider how students can formulate their learning identity.

“A big component of online teaching is ensuring students have an identity,” Campbell said. She pointed to the ACUE welcome introduction, saying that faculty shouldn’t just introduce themselves but also have students do the same, an activity that allows them to establish their identity.

Faculty, too, need to speak to different identities, according to Bowen. Rather than encouraging everyone to apply for a specific scholarship or internship, for example, instructors should say something like “I would love to have a more diverse lab.” “Not everyone hears what you think is neutral as neutral,” he said.

“Identity is what brings us together,” Campbell added. She said that before broaching more sensitive topics like race and gender, faculty can “start small”—sharing zip codes, mascots, and so on. “Start with a shared, common identity — then build to others.”
Self-care is important for faculty, too.

“Model for students that we’re human,” Bowen said.

This, the presenters agreed, involves self-care. “If you take care of yourself, you will be improving your course,” Ward said. “Faculty should give grace to themselves. You cannot help anyone else unless you protect yourself first.”

“Let students know you’re tired,” Campbell agreed. “Use other resources to assist you. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Words of Wisdom

As the discussion wrapped up, the moderator invited each panelist to share a final thought on the topic:

“Be bold, be brave.” —Dr. Santiba Campbell

“Think about things you can that will help your most disadvantaged students. It doesn’t hurt anybody!” —Dr. José A. Bowen

“Clear, concise communication of care.” —Dr. Kristina Ruiz-Mesa

Graphic with quote from Susan Barbitta.

Equity and Success for Online Community College Students

Like all institutions across the country — and the world — North Carolina’s community colleges have faced unprecedented challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted higher education in March of this year. But these institutions have risen to the occasion to ensure student success and create learning environments that promote equity among students.

Graphic with quote from Susan Barbitta.Susan Barbitta, executive director of NC Student Success Center (NC SSC), and Lisa Chapman, president of Central Carolina Community College (CCCC), recently joined Sherri Hughes, assistant vice president of professional learning at the American Council on Education (ACE) for a conversation on how the state is adjusting to online teaching and striving to achieve student equity during this uncertain time.

The discussion was part of the Conversations on Student Success series, produced by ACUE and ACE.

Key takeaways from their conversation

Leveraging System-level Support

Barbitta, who leads one of 16 student success centers nationwide, described her role in “helping colleges connect the dots within their own campus and across the state.” In an effort to serve colleges and support students, she said, it’s essential for student success centers to provide resources to address equity challenges, especially now.

The NCSSC serves 58 colleges across the North Carolina Community College System (the System).

Given how many faculty had little to no experience teaching online, the center realized they needed to take a pedagogical approach to ensure faculty were prepared to teach effectively and inclusively. 

Barbitta and her team decided to partner with ACUE. “The data was what led us to make this decision,” Barbitta said, pointing to how institutions, such as Broward College, had improved completion rates, particularly among Black and Pell-eligible populations, after partnering with ACUE. She also noted that faculty who had previously completed ACUE courses spoke highly of the program. 

“They were learning tangible activities they could embed in their courses immediately. That made the decision to move forward with ACUE easy.”

With support of the Every Learner Everywhere (ELE) initiative Achieving the Dream (ATD), the Center enrolled in July 2020 nearly 100 faculty across North Carolina’s community colleges in ACUE’s microcredential course, “Creating an Inclusive and Supportive Online Learning Environment.”

So far, Barbitta said, the program has been a success. “We’ve received several unsolicited emails about how helpful faculty are finding the course,” she noted.

In fact, early success prompted the NC System to scale the program—they added 18 additional cohorts of faculty across the system, now reaching well over 500 faculty members and tens of thousands of students.

Barbitta hopes that participating faculty will share the knowledge they’ve learned from ACUE with their colleagues to “disseminate the information more broadly.”

Chapman, meanwhile, noted that CCCC was developed historically as a vocational/technical school. Like across the NC System, while many program areas  had a strong online presence, there were a number of faculty who had no experience teaching online when the pandemic forced the college to turn to emergency remote instruction.

Chapman knew the college needed support to provide professional development to those faculty. “Serving in a system works best if you leverage the power of that system,” she added.

When they had the opportunity to participate in ACUE’s microcredential on effective online teaching, faculty across disciplines — cosmetology, criminal justice, nursing, broadcasting, EMS, and many others — were eager to join.

“I have such great admiration for the way our faculty were willing to adapt,” Chapman said. She noted that those faculty have been communicating with their colleagues. “That’s one of the powers of the ACUE model — folks are leading and modeling the instruction. We clearly see that people are appreciating this opportunity.”

Chapman also emphasized the importance of providing professional development opportunities that faculty can put to use while they’re still learning. “You don’t want something they have to wait to implement.”

Ensuring Equitable Outcomes

Barbitta emphasized that the need for best practices in online teaching and strategies for achieving equity is more apparent than ever before.

Chapman emphasized that sentiment. “[Ensuring equity throughout higher education] has become more important as we see what’s happening with the pandemic,” Chapman said. Central Carolina has implemented a 2020-2024 Strategic Plan. “We have a vision of exceptional learning for all.”

During the Q&A portion of the webinar, a participant asked about the unique challenges of community colleges with regard to online teaching. 

“A large percentage of students we serve are students that don’t have the resources they need to switch to different types of modalities,” Chapman said. She described how most community college students prioritize education but also have multiple, often competing priorities, including work and family.

Barbitta added that commuter students have particular challenges, as they often rely on the library or student center for resources like laptops and wifi.

In today’s learning environment, faculty are the most consistent, and sometimes only, connection, a student has with the college. The NC SSC is optimistic about the impact they’re able to make by developing faculty to teach online with evidence-based teaching practices proven to lead to stronger levels of academic achievement regardless of race, ethnicity and income level.

“What Keeps You Up at Night?”

Chapman said that first and foremost, she is concerned for faculty and students’ safety. She also wonders what they can do differently to help serve students.

“I hope we can help our faculty and staff understand the obstacles we’re facing and empower them with skills to help students overcome that and address the educational divide,” Barbitta agreed.

In terms of advice they’d give to other faculty and educators as they navigate these challenges, both Barbitta and Chapman urged institutions to support the faculty who are most uncomfortable with the move online to increase their comfort — and encourage faculty to support one another.

“Most of the time I’m seeking the advice of so many of my colleagues,” Chapman said. “Clearly, we can get even better, so let’s not lose that momentum. It doesn’t set us up for failure; it sets us up with an opportunity for improvement.”