As faculty worked to adjust their courses in the lead-up to Johns Hopkins University’s first-ever fully-remote semester this fall, they considered the ever-changing needs of the diverse student population.
A new class, designed by Hopkins staff, is giving instructors at Hopkins and around the globe tools to help their students conquer these new challenges, be they issues with internet access, learning styles that conflict with an all-digital environment, or mental burnout from trying to engage with a rigorous college schedule in the midst of a global pandemic.
Registration opened in August for the inaugural Inclusive Online Teaching course, hosted by Coursera. In the class, Paul Huckett, assistant dean of Learning Design and Innovation at JHU’s Whiting School of Engineering, and Brian Klaas, instructor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, provide structural and technological advice to help faculty members create a teaching environment that is accessible to everyone and accounts for an array of challenges that people are facing in the midst of the pandemic.
The course was modeled after Hopkins’ Universal Design for Learning Initiative. The initiative, launched in 2019, focuses on ways to incorporate inclusive teaching practices into the classroom for the benefit of all students. According to Huckett, UDL practices help ensure that classes are equitable and accessible to anyone who wishes to participate.
“If you follow these practices, you make learning better for everyone, not just for people who may be on the margins or who have an accommodation request,” Huckett says. “If we think about our courses in the basis of design, then accessibility isn’t something retroactive, it becomes an integral part of the way that we teach.”
Through videos and readings, the two-week course tackles communication barriers, provides ideas for how to represent classroom content in a variety of formats, and explores how to incorporate active learning into the learning experience.
The course invites instructors to think about implicit biases they may have overlooked in transitioning their classes to an online environment. Are there assumptions being made about students’ availability, workspace, ability to engage with material? If so, what alternatives can be provided to increase the information’s accessibility in a holistic approach?
As an example of Universal Design, Klaas highlights the importance of captioning for video content. While captioning provides accessibility to students with disabilities, it also provides added value for ESL students, those who don’t have a quiet place to listen to a video, and students who digest visual content more easily.
“Additionally, if you have students who are essential workers, they don’t necessarily have the time to sit down and watch two hours of a lecture each day,” Klaas said. “But if you provide an audio-only version of your lecture, even a student who is working for Instacart or who’s on their rounds at the hospital can be listening to your class while they’re commuting or even doing their job.”
The class is held as a Coursera teach-out, a short, issue-based syllabus open to learners around the world. Because of its accessibility, it provides a space for experts of universal design to share and compare ideas.
“We know there are faculty who have been using UDL for years, while teaching inclusive design and building courses around these principles,” Klaas said. “We want to tap into their great experiences and ideas and hard work.”
The class began Monday, Aug. 17, and is open to everyone. Additionally, all Coursera classes will be offered to Hopkins affiliated students, staff, and faculty for free through the end of the calendar year.