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How Distinct Approaches at Different Schools Affect Accessibility and Inclusion

Adjunct, or contract, instructors easily make up more than 50% of higher-ed faculty today.1Adjunct numbers are notoriously hard to pin down specifically because these workers often teach at multiple institutions. However, based on a study conducted in 2011 by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 56% percent of university professors were likely contract workers. See also, Wallis, Todd. (2018, April 11). The Rise of Adjunct Faculty: A Brief History. Inside Scholar. https://insidescholar.org/the-rise-of-adjunct-faculty/ In some areas that percentage2In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, many outlets were reporting overwhelming fear that adjuncts/contract faculty would be without jobs, without livelihoods, as enrollments were expected to plunge due to COVID-19. See e.g., “Barely Getting By” at Inside Higher Ed; “‘Incredibly Disposable’: Adjuncts, the ‘gig workers’ of higher-ed, fear losing livelihoods” at WHYY; and “Pandemic magnifies adjunct precarity: Here’s what we’re doing about it” at AFT Voices. Indeed, I was honestly expecting to have my first semester off (not by choice) in ten years; instead, I ended up teaching a typical load (six classes at three schools) and had to turn down two other institutions. spiked during a global pandemic as full-timers decided to retire, took sabbaticals, or refused to teach face-to-face. Theory and pedagogy of online instruction has long focused on accessibility3Accessibility and inclusion are the primary subjects, and top-billed principles, of both the CCCC’s Position Statement on OWI Principles and Effective Practices and GSOLE’s OLI Principles and Tenets. and given the emergency shift to remote learning that 2020 has brought, here’s my take on how higher ed is handling accessibility and inclusion in the learning environment at three different institutions with varying approaches to online learning.

A Fully-Online College

I currently teach one 15-week section of the introductory English course for a fully-online college based in New York. This school offers accredited degrees in a non-resident, purely asynchronous format to military and working adults. 

All courses in the department are developed for the LMS by course designers, with input from the program faculty director. Faculty contracted to teach the courses have no control over the instructional content and cannot add materials or make changes during the term. The faculty’s job, then, is to establish and maintain presence throughout each week, foster a sense of community among the classmates, and grade the weekly discussions and assignments. We are also asked at the end of each term for any recommended changes and suggested improvements to the course content and design in preparation for the next term. The upside to this is that the contract employee can step in fairly easily once he/she is being paid with very little non-paid, preterm prep time. In my fourth term at this school, I can say confidently that the pre-designed courses are done extremely well and provide ample, generally effective instructional material. 

However, the downside is almost entirely one of inaccessibility or exclusion. Each week, I provide a pre-week announcement, a mid-week check-in message, and respond to discussion postings on a minimum of three days. Each course module provides instructional material in multiple modes (at a minimum, written LMS pages and linked instructional videos, though not always duplicative) and requires the student to engage using the LMS and word processing software. To ensure that I am satisfying best practices for accessibility and inclusion, I often add explanations via the LMS’s announcements function or by messaging individual students. Sometimes a student will need the additional help or extensions of time but I’m unable to adjust the LMS for that student. The word processing software usage requirement often causes some hiccups as students are either not familiar with it, only have access to it on their “work computers,” or are trying to complete all coursework on their mobile devices (sometimes from the middle of the ocean if that’s where they’re stationed). Given the teaching environment, the way the course is marketed, and the diversity of the student population, there’s really no adequate way to combine temporal modalities by adding a synchronous component as Mick and Middlebrook recommend.4These online writing professors contend that the issue of asynchronous versus synchronous teaching should not be a question of either/or, but rather a question of how to incorporate both. Mick, C. S., & Middlebrook, G. (2015). Asynchronous and synchronous modalities. In B. Hewett & K. E. DePew (Eds.), Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction (pp. 129-148). WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/owi/chapter3.pdf. To be more accessible and inclusive despite the constraints, I often find myself responding to student requests for help well into the wee hours of Central Time.

A Brick-and-Mortar Institution with a Developed Online Learning Program

This term, I also teach one section of a first-semester, first-year-writing course and one section of an upper-level workplace writing course for a local university with an independent writing department and well-developed online/distance education component. The student population for these courses is primarily traditional, with some non-traditional students. Though both of these courses have been offered in a variety of formats (fully online, hybrid, hyflex, and traditionally face-to-face), the institution decided mid-summer to allow all faculty (including adjuncts) to choose a preferred delivery mode for Fall 2020, so long as the mode was selected prior to the start of the semester. 

From a faculty perspective, this freedom was beneficial because I could develop my courses from start to finish as fully online. I made this decision based on assumptions that students would not want to travel to campus only to sit, masked, in socially-distanced classrooms any more than absolutely necessary.5I wasn’t alone in these assumptions. The department/institution has since announced a new delivery format for Spring 2021, an online course with a required synchronous component, to fill a need discovered from student feedback so far this term. Unfortunately, students who had registered prior to the mode-selection may have been “stuck” in a mode they didn’t prefer. Now in week 3, I have students in first-year writing6The upper level course was already designated as online. The first-year writing course was designated as “hybrid, hyflex, or online; see instructor” until I was contracted to teach it. who are struggling and/or wholly adverse to learning completely online. 

How do I help these students for whom face-to-face instruction is no longer an option? Some may have determined, during the emergency shift to remote in the Spring, that they’re primarily auditory learners or need class discussion to flesh out and fully comprehend concepts; these are learning preferences, not issues requiring (or even allowing) formal accommodation by student support services. 

I approach this class the same way I do the fully-online school’s class in terms of instructor presence. Having control over the teaching environment, allows me more control over (and accountability for) the delivery format and the temporal modality. While I can ensure multiple modes of delivery for instruction and modeling, the temporal component is lacking. I wish that I had made the decision to include a synchronous component for these freshmen students. To be more accessible, I have since created a way for students to easily schedule Zoom meetings with me for one-on-one help. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to have any students take advantage of this option.

A Brick-and-Mortar Institution with a Traditional Emphasis on Face-to-Face Instruction

Finally, I’m teaching three sections of a first-semester, first-year English and composition course for a local university that, prior to this pandemic, primarily offered face-to-face instruction only. The student population for these courses is primarily traditional, with a large percentage being student-athletes, and very few non-traditional students. These classes are most often offered in a fully face-to-face format, and I regularly teach them with a supplemental LMS component. In response to the pandemic, the Fall 2020 registration schedule was altered to introduce new delivery modes including partially online7At this school, partially online is defined to include hybrid and hyflex, depending upon the instructor’s preferences and the assigned classroom’s capacity to satisfy social distancing guidelines., which requires students to attend in the face-to-face classroom at least once per week.

For the first two weeks of the term, due to classroom capacities, I had some students attending face-to-face and others joining via Zoom on different days of the week. Though I’d taught this type of “hybrid” or “partial webinar” class before, I found the delivery format to be both cumbersome and exhausting. Further, I was constantly concerned about the quality of instruction received by those students who happened to not be in the physical classroom that day. After surveying students about course delivery preferences, I altered the course schedule such that all students are in the face-to-face classroom on Mondays each week; then, I host optional Zoom Q&A meetings at class times on Wednesdays, and the week’s assignments are due through the LMS on Fridays. Mondays give me the chance to lecture, explain materials, model the writing we’re doing that week, and “see the whites of everyone’s eyes” to gauge progress. On Wednesdays, students are guaranteed to get help as they work on assignments. This delivery format has allowed me to combine temporal modalities more efficiently. Problems, however, include the reluctance of students to join in the Zoom Q&A meetings and students not rising to meet the challenge of the heightened literacy load.8Moving a class online will often clearly show student struggles with written text. See Harris, H. S., Lubbes, T., Knowles, N., & Harris, J. (2014). Translation, transformation, and ‘taking it back’: Moving between face-to-face and online writing in the disciplines. The WAC Journal, 25(2), 107-135.http://wac.colostate.edu/journal/vol25/vol25.pdf#page=107

Since implementing this new schedule, I’ve hosted two of the weekly optional Zoom meetings. For the first week, I had one student join in to ask questions in 2 of the 3 classes. For the second week, I had one student join in for the third class only. While I can’t be certain why more students aren’t joining in, I think it has to do with either (1) students not realizing they have questions at that point in the week either because they haven’t begun the assignments or because they think they understand sufficiently, or (2) a lack of confidence in asking for help, even in a less-public-than-the-classroom forum. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to sit in open Zoom meetings for three hours each Wednesday just in case.

Conclusion

Even before this pandemic, I was a proponent of quality online education. I believe it to be the trend and educators need to prepare themselves. That’s why I completed a graduate certificate in online writing instruction in 2019 and why I’m pursuing this additional certification in online literacy instruction. Unfortunately, the emergency shift to remote learning in Spring 2020 may have tainted many educators’ views regarding the effectiveness of online learning. That doesn’t mean we halt our progress or quit trying to improve the learning circumstances offered to our students. Even an experienced online instructor can struggle to ensure accessibility and inclusion in a variety of teaching environments, delivery formats, and temporal modalities, but ensuring that accessibility and inclusion for all students is all the more important going forward.