I have, over the past month or so, been in the fortunate position of trying something new; of trying to take all the lessons learned during the pandemic to design the processes that make more flexible courses and qualifications.
It is daunting, and exciting, and I’ve been able to try to practice what I have been preaching for the past two months. I’m happy to say it works but it isn’t without issue. The main one, as always being time.
Many of the people I’m working with (and myself if I’m honest) have been working harder this past year than in the years previous, desperate and under pressure to deliver the best we can for students, and who wants to add more work to that? Even if it helps in the long run, makes for better student journeys and outcomes in the long run, it doesn’t help the workload right now.
So we start small, a meeting to talk about a course. A course that has already been written and is possibly already running. This gives us something to work with rather than starting with a blank page but that raises the question of why look at it if the course is complete and the answer is feedback. It’ll have feedback from both the subject matter expert and the students.
Looking specifically at the purpose of the course, how students demonstrate they have met that purpose, and how students get from the start with ‘nothing’ to the end with ‘everything’. It isn’t a document heavy meeting, it’s a conversation to set criteria for reviewing the course and outline the student journey. This review might show that nothing needs to change which is wonderful. The student journey through the course has still been mapped and that map can be shared with students to help them make decisions about their own learning. More often though, small tweaks that make a massive difference are identified and the course is still mapped. Wins if you like for both academics and students.
As I said, our focus is on making the course flexible, enabling students to choose between online delivery and physical, campus based delivery, enabling students to swap between the two as circumstances change without having to change course. Flexibility in itself answers some accessibility issues. For example, if Eren is a campus student but broke his leg half way through the semester and couldn’t attend physically anymore, he could swap to studying fully online until he is mobile again instead of missing classes.
There is a massive caveat here that having online options does not mean that the physical campus doesn’t need to be accessible. It is an addition, not a replacement.
So, in a single meeting we’ve mapped an existing course and created review criteria to identify ‘quick wins’ as well as massive hole (though those should be few and far between). With a little more time, the review is complete and the results are in. I don’t want to minimise this though. Carving out time to do it is difficult, just less difficult that starting a new course right now. If a new course is really necessary, the criteria for review become criteria for writing, helping to give structure to the course and enabling it to be written in smaller chunks of precious time. Not less time, just smaller, slightly easier to find, chunks of time.
I can’t help but add a few criteria of my own in addition to the ones outlined in the WCAG guidelines:
- Who tells the story and who does that benefit?
- Whose voice is heard and how?
- Whose voice is not being heard?
Ok, so these are more questions than criteria but they are simple and important. Creating a community and sense of belonging in these physically distanced times is difficult and so it is more important than ever for students to feel included, to see themselves in their course. So I look to swap out case studies or reference material as quick wins. More time consuming but still wins is to:
- Look at the language — how are individuals referred to?
- Look at the assumed knowledge — is it expected that everyone would get the same cultural references?
- Look at what and how events are referred to — are they all from a specific locale are they always talked about from the same perspective
An example I read recently referred to the first industrial revolution raising the standard of living for everyone because it raise productivity and created economic growth. However, when the first industrial revolution began (1760) the British slave trade was not yet illegal, child labour was not yet illegal, health and safety laws protecting workers were not yet a thing and the revolution very much benefited from these things.
In addition wages did not rise in line with the increase in productivity nor did life expectancy increase. From the perspective of an economist, the standard of living increase but from the perspective of a ten year old boy working in a coal mine at the time, not so much. Not mentioning that elevates the experience of the economist, or indeed the mine owner, and belittles the experience of the ten year old.
That now seems like a long example but it does show how something can be true and still not give the full story. If the focus is on economics fine but economics is affected by the society it operates in and it is worth a mention.
One final thing is the effect it has on a student who comes from a poorer neighbourhood. Maybe it has no effect, no impact, but maybe it makes them feel a little less wanted even in an unconscious way. We’ve all had that feeling, not knowing necessarily why we don’t feel like we belong but knowing we don’t. If we can change that for students as we review a course, why wouldn’t we?
Alright, now I really have belaboured the point so I’ll finish by mentioning that, a very quick win is to simply provide a ‘map’ of your course to students to help them navigate it and make choices, additions and edits to materials are also quick wins in comparison to starting a course from a standing start. It might be possible that, having identified all of the changes that we want to make to a course, we simply don’t have time to implement them all.
I still count that as a win, it is a process that won’t be needed next time, or will be shorter next time as we’ll have already identified what we want to do and we can chip away at it as and when we have time and I can build that continuous improvement into the processes I’m creating.
I ‘m going to break with tradition and not leave a list of bullet points this time but reiterate the list of questions from above with a few additions.
- What is the purpose of your course?
- How do students achieve that purpose?
- How do student navigate through your course?
- Who tells the stories in your course and who does that benefit?
- Whose voice is heard in your course and how?
- Whose voice is not being heard in your course and why?