Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.
School closures caused by the global pandemic triggered significant challenges for education systems to respond to the needs of vulnerable student groups whose learning and well-being tend to be the most impacted. The term “vulnerable students” and the minority groups they encompass varies across contexts, is used to address the systemic barriers that increase the risk of vulnerability for some students, including those from low-income families; immigrant, refugee, ethnic minority and indigenous backgrounds; those with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations (LGBTQA+); and those with disabilities and special education needs. Recent data indicates that a significant percentage of vulnerable students have been “lost” in the process of school closures over the past year, and that learning losses might be severe. Specifically, educational gaps between vulnerable groups and others have been exacerbated, generating higher dropouts and absenteeism, as well as long-term social and emotional impacts (OECD, 2020; Wohlstetter & Parham, 2021).
Making learning accessible through an inclusive learning community is crucial for all students to feel seen, valued, and to maximize their potential (CAST, 2018). Ensuring that all students feel included is especially vital in the online environment, where they are likely to feel less connected to others to begin with. In a time when addressing inequities is essential to helping students through and beyond the pandemic, we need to ensure that levels of support vary depending on individual needs. To begin, there are immediate logistical challenges of ensuring that all students have suitable physical learning spaces, educational materials, and the basic technology they need to learn remotely. Next, there is the need for ongoing support to engage in online learning activities, and receive the necessary attention and motivation to persist toward course completion. Vulnerable students typically have less access to suitable learning spaces and educational tools, and require additional attention and appropriate support. A prominent focus throughout my book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners is ensuring equity, access, and inclusion; and promoting learner empowerment.
Ensure Equity, Access, and Inclusion
With the rapid increase in online education offerings, learner populations have become increasingly diverse. However, access to education does not always necessarily ensure or engender inclusion. Diversity includes the many characteristics and attributes that make individuals different, where inclusion includes the social standards and behaviors that help people feel accepted. The implication of inclusive pedagogy is that curriculum and pedagogy will provide a sense of belongingness through course materials that represent a variety of perspectives, and that can be meaningfully applied in a diverse set of real-world scenarios.
The shift in educational delivery has offered instructors the ability to develop and deliver innovative methods of teaching and learner support. Some of these positive aspects are promising and if strategically applied, these have a huge potential to meet the needs of learners. However, the pandemic and resulting digitalization of education has also redefined the discussion around accessibility and inclusion, highlighting—and indeed exacerbating– the “digital divide” and the challenges confronting educational institutions in their efforts to provide equal teaching conditions that will meet the specific needs of underrepresented communities (Correia, 2020). Online learning opens up access to education, but it does not necessarily provide equitable access. In order to offer equitable instruction to all learners, it is therefore important to consider accessibility because of the unique needs of every learner. Each individual has preferred modes of receiving and processing information or demonstrating knowledge and abilities. It is therefore important to provide for flexibility in the ways that information is presented, in the ways that learners can become engaged and respond or demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It is critical, therefore, to minimize the barriers in instruction by providing appropriate accommodations, and maintaining high achievement expectations for all learners.
Facilitate Learner Empowerment
My book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners takes the concept of engagement one step further to focus on the key concept of learner empowerment, and the competencies needed by instructors as facilitators of learning, especially as they work with students from vulnerable, disenfranchised, or marginalized groups. This book is grounded in the idea that the learning experience is a shared space, but the primary owners are our learners. We empower learners to claim their rightful space by relinquishing some of our own power, building authentic working relationships, and offering opportunities to interact and engage in open discourse and collaborative learning. The role of individual agency is critical in promoting motivation. Giving learners the opportunity to share their knowledge, skills, and understanding with others strengthens learning and increases motivation while also building inclusivity and social connection. Developing self-advocacy skills to be able to communicate learning needs supports greater persistence. Intentionally incorporating voice and choice into adult learning experiences is critical for making learning meaningful and relevant, and for promoting a growth mindset. Remember, the goal of education is to meet the needs of all learners, offering them the ownership and autonomy to actively engage in the learning experience, so that they are empowered to implement changes in their own personal and professional lives, and ultimately in the lives of others in their communities.
Guidelines for Ensuring Inclusivity and Empowerment
Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which maximizes student performance and success, argues that inclusion is a prerequisite for academic success (CAST, 2018). Based on the principles set forth by UDL, there are some important recommendations ensure accessibility for all students:
Accuracy and Relevance.
- Make sure that equity content is accurate and that it is also relevant with regard to the course learning outcomes.
- Your pedagogy and teaching approach–not the convenience of technology–should drive all of your content choices!
Provide Easy Access to Resources.
- Establish clear academic, administrative, and communication policies for instruction. Include an accommodation statement in your syllabus or curriculum.
- Be sure to provide easy access links to libraries, learning resources and appropriate social media, with both synchronous and asynchronous options.
- Consider whether video is really necessary, given how streaming videos require strong internet connections (which is not always the case for all learners).
- Explicit organization and clearly labeled segments clarify expectations and requirements, reduce anxiety, and facilitates ongoing motivation and learning.
- Intuitive navigation means using consistent design features and protocols. Instructions, materials, and assignments should be found in a consistent, predictable place in every course.
Make Changes as Needed!
- Include a feedback or learner-review component, throughout the course and/or at the end of the course. Be willing to obtain constructive feedback, and actually use this.
- Seeking feedback ensures that your students see themselves as partners in the learning process and that their perspectives and input are heard and valued.
As higher education becomes more diverse, institutions need to integrate inclusion with their school’s cultural values so that all learners feel valued and capable, and are motivated to strive for success. This becomes even more crucial as institutions increasingly move away from traditional face-to-face teaching and toward embracing technological advancements that allow for hybrid or remote classes. By ensuring access, and by promoting and maintaining an inclusive learning community, instructors can support improved academic performance and outcomes for all learners.
- How and in what ways will I remain inclusive in order to meet the needs of all my learners?
- How can I ensure that all learners feel that they “belong”?
- How and in what ways do my own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, assumptions, and lack of knowledge and exposure can impact my learners and their learning?
Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners. Teachers College Press.
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Correia, A. (2020). Healing the Digital Divide During the COVID–19 Pandemic. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 21(1), 13–21.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (November, 2020). The impact of COVID-19 on student equity and inclusion: Supporting vulnerable students during school closures and school re-openings
Wohlstetter, P., & Parham, K. (2021). It’s Time for Boldness, Not Retreat: Centering School Reopening Efforts Around Addressing Inequities.