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An opportunity for creativity and inclusivity: an entirely asynchronous online first-year history course

In this guest post, Miranda Melcher uses a detailed example from her own experience to demonstrate how a change in delivery model can be an opportunity to embed creativity, accessibility and inclusiveness from the outset, with positive results for everyone.

Miranda has taught in a variety of environments, including as a graduate teaching assistant in the departments of War Studies and Defense Studies at King’s College London, a fellow at the Ecole de Guerre, a PhD tutor with widening participation initiative the Brilliant Club, and through 1:1 tutoring for students with learning differences aged 13-70. She is a co-author on the forthcoming book, NVLD and Developmental Visual-Spatial Disorder in Children (Springer).

Reconnecting with values

I believe a teacher’s job is to create and facilitate multiple different pathways to help students achieve success. Rather than simply knowing the facts and ideas themselves, teachers are also responsible for content delivery, which is complicated by the fact that students do not uniformly learn in the same ways.

With the recent pandemic-related scramble to convert courses for online delivery, students and teachers alike have expressed concern that the new platforms will not adequately engage learners. My experience is that – if done well – online teaching arguably offers even more opportunities to expand teachers’ horizons regarding the pathways available to help students achieve success in their courses.

A transformative experience

An experience that solidified my belief in the creative and inclusive potential of online courses occurred in spring 2019, when I designed and taught an online course, “Asia since 1500”. This consisted of 45 lectures and assignments for first-year undergraduates at Northern Illinois University (USA).

I aimed to create a course suitable not only for prospective history majors but also for first-time history students, non-traditional students, and all types of learners. The course was completely online and asynchronous, meaning that there was no face-to-face interaction between myself and students outside of optional appointment-based office hours, and none directly between students.

Designing for flexibility

Each lesson centred around an analytical question that students engaged with by accessing specific materials and then submitting an answer to the question. Students received an email at the beginning of each class day: explaining what the analytical question was, the ideas I wanted them to think about, the critical thinking skills I was looking for, and the assessment options. The central question and resources were then on Blackboard, along with the assessment submission area.

Students explored each central question by reviewing, as desired, a range of curated materials (all available online and coordinated with library services to ensure access): academic articles, book chapters, encyclopedia articles, podcasts, YouTube videos and visual art. [Be sure to check out Miranda’s post on using podcasts.]

The resources were arranged in a particular order, but students were also explicitly, repeatedly told that the course could be successfully completed even if they only engaged with 60-80% of the materials, and that choosing which materials to work with and how they would engage was up to them.

The course included 48 assessments: one short piece per session (three per week, for 15 weeks), and three larger assignments. I built in the small assignments to check for understanding and participation; given their frequency, it was an effective way to keep track in near-real time if students were having issues with either the content or the structure of the course.

Richer understanding through choice

The mix of materials and short frequent assessments encouraged students to build richer understandings of the historical trends as we moved chronologically throughout South, South-East, and East Asian history. Students could respond to the question via standard written responses, oral recordings, or even diagrams or drawings so that students could take control of their own learning in terms of content and pace.

The range of ways available to achieve the goals of the course was to enable students to have agency to help direct their own learning according to their specific abilities and needs. Allowing students a choice of format enabled those with less confidence to hone their strengths and focus on the content without worrying about conquering a weaker delivery method, while simultaneously offering a way for other students to challenge themselves.

Additionally, it provided access to all students so that they could decide for themselves what kind of materials to engage with and which type of assignment to submit, developing the decision-making and self-assessment skills so important in higher education.

Supporting study skills

Key to the success of the course was my decision to design the larger assignments to ensure that students could successfully meet the department’s general standards solely through skills developed through the course, rather than assuming specific prior knowledge, preparation, or even reading or writing ability. In order to ensure this was possible, I made sure to provide information not just about the content of the larger assignments, but also about the processes and skills required to succeed in producing them.

Knowing that many students might lack a strong prior academic background, I shared with students the general marking criteria for the department, with my own explanations of what specific words meant and how I would apply the criteria, including examples for each type of assessment.

To help students lacking academic writing skills, I also shared an extended version of a document, “How to Write a Good Essay,” which I acquired by proactively reaching out to another professor in the department. In my expanded version, I included not only information about research skills and academic databases, but also academic writing basics like how to frame an argument, what to include in an introduction, and how to outline an essay.

After sharing these expanded explanations around assessment expectations, I saw few of the common first-year errors I had been told to expect and which I have seen in other universities. Students showed high responsiveness to my feedback comments by improving in subsequent assignments and by reaching out proactively in advance to discuss later assignments and even design their own final assignment questions.

Student feedback

My revised version of “How to Write a Good Essay” has been incorporated into the courses of both its original author and my supervisor in the department. In the mandatory post-course survey, my students ranked the “clarity of materials provided by the professor” higher than the departmental average.

During the course, I heard from over a quarter of the students that said they did not fit what they saw as the traditional first-year student model for a variety of reasons including part-time status and juggling work commitments, caring responsibilities, learning disabilities, and less-confident English skills. Many said that they had not expected to be able to complete the course, but were now not only completing the course, but in fact revising future course selections to build on the concepts and skills they had been introduced to!

Mine was the sole online-only course in the history department and was evaluated against all other history courses at the university. 37/41 students completed the course and 73% of students submitted all assignments on time, both higher numbers than expected for first-year courses in the department. The supervising professor said that my course had “Opened their [the faculty’s] eyes” to the possibility of achieving a high standard of teaching and learning online.

Agency and choice

This experience confirmed for me that giving students agency and choice by providing a variety of types of materials to engage with, as well as choice in the type of assignments, improves student completion rates and grade progression. The feedback strongly suggested that this is because students are empowered to develop both their knowledge at skills at their own pace.

Additionally, this entirely asynchronous course proved that the same quality and quantity of content could be understood by students without any direct interaction, provided that courses have highly detailed structures where expectations, processes, and outcomes are communicated to students at every step.

During the current rapid shift to online learning en masse, I would strongly advise professors, decision-makers, and others in higher education to use this opportunity to not just move courses online, but to use the guiding principles outlined in this blogpost and do so creatively and inclusively, as these latter two aspects are real drivers of both measurable and intangible success.

Get involved

Thank you to Miranda Melcher. Has your approach to online, blended or hybrid learning provided new opportunities for inclusive practice? Get in touch to share your experiences. Find out more about accessibility in our lively accessibility community.

 

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