Teaching creative subjects online during the pandemic has clearly raised numerous complex issues regarding inclusive learning. In the first of two projects on this topic, Team Chamomile’s research project focused on the impact of asynchronous teaching on inclusive learning environments. The team undertook 12 structured interviews involving participants from South Korea, New York, Germany and the United Kingdom. Interviewees’ included technicians, visiting lecturers and graduate teaching assistants.
PUBLISHED ON 17th August 2021 | Photo by Ahmed Nishaath on Unsplash
Team Chamomile: Barbara Mueller, David Ross, Alexandra Davenport, Yue Wang, Lucy Turner, and Toyin Laketu
The core themes emerging from their analysis centred around staff experience, student experience and community building. Beginning with staff experience, the findings showed that teaching online during the pandemic had led to increased workload. Interviewees revealed how preparing online teaching sessions is time-consuming, particularly as this often involved rewriting existing teaching sessions for online delivery. It was also necessary for many staff to learn new skills to enable them to deliver their teaching effectively online. This finding was reflected in the literature by the view that ‘educators are required to reflect on their individual teaching practice and its transition to an online space (Wragg, 2020: 2290). However, interviewees also revealed that delivering sessions online afforded a greater degree of flexibility, a finding that was also reflected in the literature with the view that ‘blended learning provides greater flexibility for learning and organising busy life schedules’ (Fleischmann, 2021: 100).
Under the theme of student experience, the team found that while teaching online had sometimes led to increased student participation and attendance, on other occasions the reverse was true. This divergence was supported by literature which induced that while ‘many students felt more comfortable asking questions during live online classes’ (Winters, 2021: 121), ‘many students feel pressured by the need to perform online’ (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2020: 834). In terms of students’ learning experience, the interviewees perceived that students had improved their ability to self-regulate their learning as a result of learning online. But the literature regarding self-regulated learning indicates we must be cautious due to the danger that flexible learning may disproportionately benefit highly motivated students with strong organisational skills. Again, the topic of flexibility arose with interviewees stating that students had more flexibility regarding how and when they participated in learning. The benefits of increased flexibility are highlighted by Thompson and Copeland (2020), who state that ‘the flexibility provided in online classrooms can create an equitable and inclusive learning environment for students regardless of visible or invisible disability’.
For the third theme of community building, one interviewee highlighted how they and their colleagues often felt alone and that they were ‘representing the university single handedly’. The social messaging tool WhatsApp also emerged as an important tool for supporting social interaction and community building amongst students during the pandemic. However, Martin and Cannon (2020) note that while learning online may present benefits for some neurodiverse students we must avoid assuming this will always be the case. Interviewees indicated that learning online gave students more autonomy over how they interact and that this had potentially led to a more informal and less hierarchical learning space. The literature highlighted the need for tutors to be explicit about their expectations regarding online participation, for example by clarifying the frequency of asynchronous contributions and whether writing should be formal and academic in tone or less formal (Thompson and Copeland, 2020). It is also interesting to note the perspective from Marshalsey and Sclater (2020, 833) that ‘first year students saw their educators as peers as the hierarchy between educator and learner became less visible, with staff making efforts to be welcoming online and students and staff introducing their pets as part of the class’.
The four main findings emerging from Team Chamomile’s research were:
- The need to invest in digital training for staff
- The value of creating an online support community for staff
- The benefits of involving students as partners in their learning, and
- The advantages of being explicit about why you’re teaching in the way you are, and the value of ‘foregrounding your pedagogy’.
Team Oolong: Georgina Andrews, Liam Harrison, Jadwiga Bronte, Ashutosh Sharma, Keppel Nowson and Emily Langdon-Smith
In the second project on inclusivity, Team Oolong also investigated the impact of online learning on inclusivity in creative disciplines. Their research had two objectives: to investigate the effect of online teaching on inclusivity in creative arts institutions, and to explore how virtual classrooms affect accessibility for both educators and students. They interviewed 10 academics and technicians from creative arts backgrounds on their experiences with online learning and how it affected their and their own students’ accessibility.
The responses varied, indicating that the effect is both positive and negative depending on factors such as access to resources, student engagement and workloads. Their research led to the emergence of four main themes:
- Experiences about accessibility varied greatly based on student’s socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and the context of the courses.
- “Students reluctant to go forward to learning support”
- “Sometimes I don’t even know how its effecting some students. And that’s what I worry about”
Access to Materials:
- Accessibility for hands-on courses as greatly affected by access (or lack of) to materials, tools, resources and studios.
- “At one point I always presumed that everyone had a laptop and of course they don’t, and then that sort of kicks into what you can make available to students and what they can access.”
- “Licensing e-books is very expensive.”
- Students and educators’ engagement was challenging because they wouldn’t turn their cameras on and they muted their microphones.
- “Pre-lockdown students were able to adapt to online teaching relative ease whereas students who started their course online found it far more difficult.”
- “In the digital environment they’ve all got their cameras off, they’re all muted and you’re trying to get people to engage, I found it really hard to get that response.”
- Educators workload increased with extra pressures.
- “It made me ill.”
- “People expect higher quality… (like) Netflix…”
The findings from the research indicated an impact on student and staff engagement. This presented a challenge, the extent of which varied between interviews depending on the content of the courses, units, institutions and the students’ socio-economic and cultural background.
Based on their research, the team recommended that creative arts institutions build a stronger and more inclusive online community. This could benefit online courses and be an added benefit to in-person courses, because they create connections among people across organisational and geographic boundaries” (Wenger 2011: 3)
The literature also highlighted that “the emerging picture is one of adaptation, experimentation and motivation to learn more about the power and value of integrating online and physical pedagogies effectively and humanely in response to these challenges, and as reflective learning and teaching strategies develop from this period”. (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2020: 838).
Based on their analysis, Team Oolong’s key recommendation was that digital technologies should be made available for students in different time zones and international contexts. Tools should also include accessibility features like enlarged cursors, closed-captioning, keyboard shortcuts, alternative text, high-contrast themes and text-to-speech capabilities (Keystone, 2021).
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