Inclusive learning: What have we learned from the Coronavirus Pandemic so far?

This post is the second of a series aiming to explore themes from the Learning and teaching @York in the Coronavirus Pandemic: A conversation event, following on from the following recent posting that explored the theme of academic community building and attention to social/affective aspects of learning:

Academic community building: What have we learned from the Coronavirus Pandemic and what next?

The session took place in December 2020 and brought together a group of around 80 staff and students to share experiences of teaching and learning under COVID in Autumn term 2020, focusing on the following questions:

  • What have we learned from our experiences of teaching and learning in the Autumn term 2020 online and on-campus?
  • What positives can we take forward and share from these experiences in the immediate future and in the post-COVID University?

A similar Spring-term event is planned for March 17th.

This post focuses on the theme of inclusive learning, teaching and assessment.

We can better see the value of peer groups and staff-student relationships for working together, to create good learning environments that aren’t just ‘people in a room talking to each other,’ so that no one gets left behind or forgotten

Inclusive learning themes were prominent in the panel presentations and discussions, and were also reflected in many of the participants’ responses to the question of what we have learned during the Pandemic, which we collected as part of the sign-up process. These focused particularly on the value of blended or flipped approach to teaching and learning and the use of digital resources to ‘create space’ for more responsive (and inclusive) approaches to contact time:

  • Blended learning could allow us to provide more time for close contact with students by allowing larger group lectures to happen online
  • We are now really questioning the value of in-person didactic lectures (and I LOVE lecturing!) and we will no doubt move to a more flipped model post-Covid where we use valuable in-person staff-student interactions to consolidate understanding rather than deliver material.
  • We can shift our contact time to be more active, and to support learning in different ways than we have done before, and to be accessible to students (and staff) who aren’t able to be present in person at times.
  • Not everything has to be bound by the confines of physical geography.

They also pointed to the importance of flexibility, choice and recognition of diversity, as well as the rapid development of skills to design and integrate learning resources and activities:

  • Opportunities for flexible engagement have benefited a wide range of learners.
  • A lot of students really like learning at their own pace.
  • The developments in online teaching and course writing have the potential to allow us to reach more students.
  • Working from home can be less stressful for staff and students.
  • Considering how to support inequality amongst students, recognise support that is important for staff even in non-Covid times and approaching work and people with compassion
  • Better accessibility practices – making transcripts, using closed captions, using subtitles. Breaking down the learning for each week into clear step-by-step chunks.
  • Flexibility. Some activities are appropriate to do online. We now have the skills!

And they referred to the importance of partnership between staff and students to develop effective approaches and environments:

  • We can better see the value of peer groups and staff-student relationships for working together, to create good learning environments that aren’t just ‘people in a room talking to each other,’ so that no one gets left behind or forgotten.
  • That students and staff can work together in maximising the potential to learn new ways of learning through this period.

As with academic community building, inclusive learning has not suddenly become an issue during the pandemic but the situation has thrown some of the key issues involved into sharp relief and also provided some pointers towards effective practices. The Inclusive Learning and Teaching and Assessment Project (ILTA) was established pre-pandemic and has now developed into Inclusive-Learning@ York. This aims to support and guide staff towards effective inclusivity practices across the University, and provides a reflective framework supported by resources focusing on the following inclusivity themes:

  • Curriculum Design
  • Active Engagement in Learning
  • Accessibility of Teaching, Learning and Assessment
  • Teaching and Learning Support
  • Evaluating Teaching, Learning and Assessment, Students as Partners and Student Voice

Many of the panel presentations and discussions at the workshop in December focused on these themes. Presentations on the effects of the pandemic at the Institutional, Departmental and programme level are highly pertinent. These were presentations considered in the previous post on academic community building and the social/affective aspects of learning. These stress the close connection between inclusivity and community building, highlighting the importance of communication and increasing opportunities for dialogue and feedback to both these concerns.

Adding to these from the student perspective, Daniel Hobbi’s reflections on his experiences online learning during the pandemic as a second-year Education undergraduate student led him to reject what he sees as a deficit model. He highlighted the flexibility and choice that online approaches have brought and how this has allowed him to access learning materials at a time and place to suit his timetable and priorities as well as offering him opportunities to participate in alternative ways. This has, he feels, led to improvements in his engagement with the programme. Lexi Fields, a first year undergraduate student in the Department of Biology also highlighted some of the benefits she perceived in terms of flexibility and opportunities to review materials and access further support.  However, in summarising her experiences at the start of the Pandemic, she also provided a timely reminder of the need for greater consistency and clarity of communication required for inclusive online learning. She recommended that programme teams look to provide clear introductory information on how the VLE is to be used and what the timetable of online activities and assessments looks like across separate modules. She also recommended consistency of video length and assignment information to maximise opportunities to plan workload and prepare for assessment. 

From the staff perspective, Penny Spikins from the Department of Archaeology reflected on the ways in which replacing live lectures with recordings has triggered her to experiment with audio description and ‘podcasting’ approaches to meet the needs of different students in her cohorts, including those with disabilities. She acknowledged some of the losses involved in reduced opportunities for in-person interaction as well as the workload challenges involved in preparing recorded materials. However, she emphasised that developing the podcasts has brought opportunities to maintain and rethink ‘personal’ contact, and to stimulate thinking and engagement with students in different ways.  Feedback suggested that, as well as working well for students with specific disabilities, the approach has increased flexibility and ease of access for all students. Phil Martin (International Pathway College) also described how the use of the Xerte authoring tool allowed him to create accessible interactive materials to support his students, helping them to prepare for taught sessions and consolidate knowledge and skills through self-study activities with built in feedback. Both Penny and Phil highlighted that they would be likely to continue with these approaches to support blended learning approaches in the longer term.

Nicola Sinclair from the Department of History of Art also provided some insight into experiences of the use of asynchronous discussion-based activities integrated with seminars alongside one of her students, Gabriel Vyvyan. She outlined how the tasks were designed and delivered to maximise engagement and inclusivity. This involved attention to integration, purpose, structure, clear expectations and attempts to ensure a ‘low entry threshold’, whilst incorporating ‘scope for the most engaged to spread their intellectual wings’. Gabriel outlined how this worked from the student perspective, emphasising how the asynchronous discussions provided useful preparation for live seminars. The discussion highlighted the workload implications for staff and students, along with the delicate balance between staff and student responsibility for leading and summarising discussions and connecting them to live seminars. The presentation made clear the importance of feedback and ongoing dialogue between staff and students and the value of ‘continuously seeking to make students part of the conversation about how we learn as much as what we learn’, emphasising this key inclusivity theme.

The recordings and resources from these and the other presentations are available from the following site:

Learning and teaching @York in the Coronavirus Pandemic: A conversation

Further guidance and resources

For those looking to further reflect on their provision and develop strategies for inclusive learning, the reflective questions on the Inclusive-Learning@York website provides a useful starting point.  

The digital accessibility at UoY site also offers a useful entry point to a wealth of guidance, case studies and resources related to accessible practice and tools that can support staff and students such as Blackboard ALLY.  This includes links to examples of inclusive teaching and learning practices including case studies from Emily Brunsden (Physics) and Mark Egan (Management).

The following links also provide an overview of user-research work carried out with students with disabilities before the onset of the Pandemic as well as a report into student experiences of digital accessibility at the University.

Watch out also for relevant Learning and Teaching Workshop events such as the workshops on diversifying and decolonising the curriculum as well as a range of relevant internal and external e-accessibility events.

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