In alignment with McMaster’s commitment to building an inclusive community and fostering welcoming teaching and learning environments, the following five articles were chosen to introduce different approaches to theorizing, researching, and applying considerations of equity in online education. From identification of barriers to learning and teaching online for particular equity-seeking student and faculty groups, to critical pedagogical frameworks emphasizing the importance of relationships, these articles offer insights applicable to enhancing inclusive excellence in Winter 2021 courses and beyond.
Quality of Life of Higher Education Students with Learning Disability Studying Online
*Disclaimer: We understand that usage of person-first vs. identity-first language can vary depending on the individual and their preference. We have chosen to use person-first language throughout this summary as it is the language used by the authors of the paper itself.
What is this research about?
Despite the increase in legislation and support programs, there are still significant barriers for students with learning disabilities within higher education. Barriers can stem from both personal learning challenges as well as external social causes. Students with learning disabilities often have difficulty reading and writing but may also receive additional negative attitudes from academic staff.
The lack of awareness about learning disabilities and the appropriate accessibility considerations within teaching practices can hinder students in many ways. Education in an online environment can often pose a different set of challenges for these students. This study investigates different domains of quality of life for students with learning disabilities engaged in higher education online. Research was conducted at a university in Australia that provides a great amount of online education.
What did the researchers do?
Interviews with the participants were conducted using open-ended questions. Participants included five female and three male students, all within the age range of 21 to 43 years. All participants were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Following the interviews, the researchers used a method of qualitative content analysis to analyze the data. To do this, they identified data from the transcripts of the interviews, paraphrased them and categorized them into separate groups according to similarities and differences.
What did the researchers find?
From their data analysis, five main themes of quality of life emerged. All five themes were associated with negative experiences from most participants.
- Stress and Anxiety: Components of online learning such as time constraints with written assignments, text-based online discussions as well as general stress regarding studying, all contributed to an increase in stress and anxiety. This in turn also affected participants’ sleep patterns.
- Self-Esteem: As many students with learning disabilities experience challenges with reading, writing and expression, the increased use of online discussion often led to self-consciousness and fear of seeking additional clarifications in class. Feelings of inadequacy were often reported when assessment results did not reflect the time and effort participants put into their studies, all of which contributed to lower self-esteem.
- Time Available for Other Activities and Personal Relationships: Due to their learning disabilities, participants placed more time into their studies and had less time available for other leisure activities or to spend with family. Although there were ways in which some participants were able to involve their family in their academic activities, the lack of time available for those relationships ultimately caused strain for many. Frustration with maintaining these personal relationships further contributed to the stress and anxiety that the students were facing.
- Financial Pressures: Financial costs associated with having a learning disability was also a source of pressure. For example, students incurred greater costs for psychological assessments to qualify for accommodations. Study resources such as textbooks were not always affordable and learning-related websites may be inaccessible to assistive technologies.
The researchers found that all five domains were intricately linked to the students’ investment of additional time into their studies. However, the study noted that most students found participating in higher education an overall positive influence, despite the challenges they faced.
How can you use this research?
This study provides insight into the challenges that students with learning disabilities face within online education. Educators and academic staff might consider the additional time and effort required of students with learning disabilities in their studies and adapt teaching practices in order to provide the most fulfilling and productive learning environment for all students. For example, online discussions can be adapted to have less emphasis on reading and writing so that students feel less self-conscious. In addition, educators can use this knowledge to encourage positive attitudes towards students with learning disabilities within and outside of the educational setting. They can provide greater accommodations such as extension of deadlines or alternative formats for assignments and do so nonjudgmentally and empathetically. Instructors can also teach students about the various barriers that students with learning disabilities may face and encourage an inclusive learning environment where all students can contribute unique perspectives to the classroom.
David C. Lambert and Rachel Dryer, School of Psychology, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, Australia
Lambert, D. C., & Dryer, R. (2018). Quality of life of higher education students with learning disability studying online. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 65(4), 393-407. https://doi.org/10.1080/1034912X.2017.1410876
Five R’s for Indigenizing Online Learning
What is this research about?
The Four R’s of respect, relevance, reciprocity, and responsibility were initially described by Kirkness and Barnhardt (2001) as a response to problematic postsecondary approaches to Indigenous students that sought to have them ‘adapt’ and ‘assimilate’ into university values. The Four R’s are instead proposed as critical components of Indigenous learning that adapt to First Nations students. A fifth R of relationships has been added over time. This article describes the complexities of bringing Indigenous values into an online educational space and explores how the Five R’s might mitigate these challenges.
What did the researchers do?
The team was involved in designing, delivering, and participating in the first online professional development course for principals of First Nations schools across Canada, a 200-hour course over 10 months. The project employed a decolonizing theoretical approach and Indigenous research methodologies to gather an understanding of the challenges and opportunities of incorporating Indigenous knowledge into online educational spaces. Online surveys and interviews were conducted with participants, alongside the review of existing data from coursework and designer/instructor self-reflections.
What did the researchers find?
The researchers explored two main themes: (1) the potentially conflicting values of online and Indigenous education and (2) ways of ensuring culturally appropriate and meaningful learning in the online learning environment.
- Conflicting Values of Online and Indigenous Education: Indigenous pedagogy emphasizes learning in community, place, and context, with customization to specific learners, and attention to holistic engagement. Online education, contrastingly, can feel ‘place-less’, where communication is technologically-mediated and community is a virtual construct.
- Ensuring Culturally Appropriate and Meaningful Learning: To mitigate these challenges, the course was carefully designed and facilitated with attention to Five R’s. These R’s of respect, reciprocity, relevance, responsibility, and relationships are briefly overviewed below, with some examples provided by the authors of how these values were reflected in their particular course.
- Reciprocity framing course design and relationships (e.g., horizontal knowledge sharing among participants; synchronous sessions for checking-in and discussion; assignments that involve ‘giving back’ to the community)
- Relevance of learning to First Nations culture and ways of knowing (e.g., fostering community and oral communication; selecting course material and activities that speak to participants’ daily lives).
- Respect for First Nations cultural norms and values (e.g., course content by First Nations educators, academics, and Elders; activities encouraging immersion in local experiences and traditions; incorporation of learner feedback).
- Responsibility to First Nations culture, values, practices, and ways of knowing (e.g., flexibility in course design to support participants’ work, family, and community responsibilities).
How can you use this research?
Readers are invited to consider how they might attend to the Five R’s to bring Indigenous values into online and/or in-person educational spaces. For example, exploring ways that online learning environments might foster relationships among students and between students and instructors, and how course learning might be integrated with students’ local community contexts.
- Danielle Tessaro, graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
- Jean-Paul Restoule, Indigenous curriculum design lead and research lead for the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course
- Patricia Gaviria, Joseph Flessa, Carlana Lindeman, Coleen Scully-Stewart, members of the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course design and research teams
Tessaro, D., Restoule, J. P., Gaviria, P., Flessa, J., Lindeman, C., & Scully-Stewart, C. (2018). The Five R’s for Indigenizing online learning: A case study of the First Nations Schools’ Principals Course. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 40(1), 125-143.
Restoule, J. P. (2017). Where Indigenous knowledge lives: Bringing Indigenous perspectives to online learning environments. In E. A. McKinley & L. T. Smith (Eds.), Handbook of Indigenous education (1295-1317). New York, NY: Springer.
What Would Paulo Freire Think of Blackboard: Critical Pedagogy in an Age of Online Learning
What is this paper about?
Paulo Freire is seen as one of the foundational thinkers in the critical pedagogy movement. This movement argues that teaching and learning activities cannot be separated from social justice. In his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues the means of how education is taught, learned, and shared are inherently political.
However, nearly all of Freire’s writings and research were done in the pre-internet era. A lot has changed in how we deliver education since 1968, when Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published. One such difference is now some educational experiences are offered entirely online through learning management systems. What would Freire think of online learning? How can his principles be applied to modern educational technology? The author of this paper wanted to explore these questions. Their goal was to provide teachers guidance on how they can embed critical pedagogy principles into online teaching.
How did the researcher answer these questions?
The author uses two different frameworks, the primary one being Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy lens. They also use Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology, which puts forward the idea that technology does not exist in a silo. Technology influences how we view the world and is in turn influenced by our social and political systems. The author chose these models to help explore the tension that often exists between the goals of technology and the goals of the learning process.
What did the researcher find from their analysis?
Six main ideas are explored in this paper. The author applies Freire’s principles to each aspect of online education.
- The Political Nature of Education: Online courses have historically been ground in a transactional model of education. This is where students are “consumers” of education, and the online environment maximizes the potential number of consumers. Critical pedagogy urges instructors to embed discussion with their students which critiques the social implications of the platforms being used in their courses.
- The Transaction of Knowledge: Often online education can be very unidirectional due to how learning management systems have been traditionally programmed. There is an implicit assumption that instructors are the transmitters of knowledge, while students are empty containers waiting to be filled. Freire encouraged instructors to open a two-way dialogue with their students centred around discussion and problem-solving. Knowledge should be shared by all learners and instructors to result in mutual learning.
- Assumption of Access to Technology: There is often a belief that all incoming learners are more technology-savvy than older generations. This doesn’t acknowledge that many learners do not have access to technology or stable internet. These barriers are often tied to economic and racial disparities. The author points out that a learning environment that is inaccessible to a large portion of the population is “inherently problematic”. This inequality must be acknowledged and addressed by instructors.
- Lack of Community: One advantage of online education is that learning is not tied to a specific location or timeslot. However, this can result in a social disconnect within the classroom. Freire emphasized the creation of a learning community as a key part of teaching. Engaging students not only cognitively, but socially and emotionally is important to include in the online context.
- Opportunities for Dialogue: Online discussions are not contained to a class timeslot or other synchronous limits. This opens up opportunities for prolonged, deep conversations among learners and instructors. When pushed beyond superficial posting, online discussions can help students gain a deeper understanding of the material and their world.
- Access to Information: Never has more information been so widely available to so many people. From Wikipedia to open-access textbooks to YouTube, finding information for personal interest or class projects has never been easier. Open access to information has the potential to be a great equalizer for oppressed and marginalized people. However, learners must know how to critically analyze the information they find. With the overwhelming amount of information out there, selecting credible sources can be a challenge.
How can you use this research?
This article raises more questions than it answers. Often our teaching practices are based on how we were taught or what is considered the norm. Freire and critical pedagogy encourage instructors to question the structure of education systems. Critical analysis is especially important in an online setting, where educational technologies play a key role in creating the learning environment. When entering an online classroom, instructors need to consider how they will foster dialogue with their students and create a community of learning in a digital space.
Drick Boyd, Eastern University, USA
Boyd, D. (2016). What would Paulo Freire think of Blackboard: Critical pedagogy in an age of online learning. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy,7(1), 164-186. http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/viewFile/1055/892
Radical Flexibility and Relationality as Responses to Education in Times of Crisis
What is this paper about?
“Flexibility” in education has been a subject of educational research for over a decade. In this field, flexibility refers to education that can adapt to student and market needs, rather than education that can be done “anytime, anywhere”. Some examples of this kind of flexibility could include shifting entrance/ completion requirements or providing multiple modes of access to allow student choice. “Flexible” frameworks are intended to make education more learner-centred and empowering. These frameworks promote increases in educational access, which in turn has the potential to improve university equity, diversity, inclusion, retention, completion and satisfaction. However, there have been a number of critiques to this approach to flexibility, such as the gatekeeping inherent in technological requirements, accessibility concerns, and quality-assurance issues.
Due to the rapid and on-going changes caused by COVID-19, the researchers propose that a flexible framework is required. This paper is an extension of previous work completed by Houlden and Veletsianos (2019; 2020) that critiques mainstream understandings of flexibility, due to emphasis on content delivery that leaves educational content unquestioned. In response to these critiques, critical flexibility considers flexibility broadly, and includes considerations about the nature of university learning, and the kinds of education universities provide, in addition to more “mainstream” logistical considerations.
What theoretical lens did the researchers employ?
In this paper, the researchers propose a model of “radical flexibility”.
- Radical flexibility considers more than the logistics of education and what practices can make education easier or more flexible. The scope of radical flexibility includes critical consideration of the purpose and nature of learning.
- A key element of radical flexibility is that it understands education as relational between learner and educator. This perspective is meant to challenge neoliberal and non-relational approaches to teaching.
- Radical flexibility is not meant to be a solution to the series of complex problems we face, but is instead meant to be a springboard for analysis.
- A key point of consideration for this framework is challenging who might be considered the “ideal learner”. In our current system an “ideal learner” is one that can “take responsibility” for their education on an individual level, regardless of what their non-academic obligations may be. This ideal learner requires both time and financial capital, which means that marginalized people are less able to access education, and often have other demands on their time, such as caregiving, or part-time work.
- In contrast, radical flexibility understands students as people who are a part of multiple communities, juggle many obligations, and have shared responsibilities. Radical flexibility therefore aims to create education that takes into account unique student knowledge and histories.
What conclusions did the researchers draw from their analysis?
Importance of Trust
- Radical flexibility is grounded in relationality and is a process of self-recovery and collective liberation.
- Radical flexibility involves building trusting relationships between educators and learners. Trust means listening to and responding to the needs of learners, which would involve shifting attitudes towards (dis)ability in the academy.
- Accountability should be created through collaboration between learner and educator rather than through monitoring or surveillance.
Implications and Applications
- One way to apply radical flexibility would be to eliminate institutional and instructor practices that inherently distrust the learner. Some examples of these practices include the use of surveillance technology, doctor’s notes to “prove” illness, or other “proof” of disability. Forcing learners to prove themselves can be dehumanizing and neglects consideration of complex student experiences.
- Radical flexibility requires evaluation of established practices. Reconsidering or rejecting principles of instructional design is an important part of radical flexibility. Radical flexibility also involves actively dismantling institutional forces that contribute to illness and disability for both learners and staff, which include racism and other forms of systemic institutional oppression.
How can you apply this framework?
As courses are being (re)designed for the current online context, reflection about potential applications of radical flexibility could inform course design. Considering courses through this lens allows for reflection regarding relationship-building both within and beyond the classroom. The application of radical flexibility also holds potential to increase classroom equity; reducing or removing the need for students to “prove” that they require accommodation, can greatly improve course accessibility, particularly for students with disabilities. Flexibility regarding due dates also makes education more equitable, as students have unequal demands on their time.
- George Veletsianos, School of Education & Technology, Royal Roads University, Canada
- Shandell Houlden, School of Education & Technology, Royal Roads University, Canada (former PhD student at McMaster University)
Veletsianos, G., & Houlden, S. (2020). Radical flexibility and relationality as responses to education in times of crisis. Postdigital Science and Education, 2(3), 849-862. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00196-3
Houlden, S., & Veletsianos, G. (2019). A posthumanist critique of flexible online learning and its “anytime anyplace” claims. British Journal of Education Technology, 50(3), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12779.
Houlden, S., & Veletsianos, G. (2020). The problem with flexible learning: Neoliberalism, freedom, and learner subjectivities. Learning, Media and Technology, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2020.1833920