RECAST | A teaching puzzle: remote learning and barriers to access

———- Forwarded message ———-
Date: Apr 2, 2020, 1:12 PM -0700
To: Williamson, Elizabeth <>

Dear colleagues,

I want to begin by celebrating the creative, student-centered work all of you have done to get spring quarter off the ground. You have had to work harder than any of us expected, and you’ve been generous with each other and our students as you navigate this profoundly challenging situation. Thank you.

A puzzle
I also want to lift up a puzzle that is already familiar to many of you–namely, the fact that our students have uneven access to technology and high-speed internet. Some students will have difficulty participating in the meaningful synchronous learning opportunities you are designing (i.e. they may not have enough bandwidth or the right tools to attend live online sessions in real time). Students who were already vulnerable are now doubly and triply impacted. Staff have been working hard to narrow the opportunity gap, and hopefully you’ve already sent students to this resource page. That said, you have very likely been hearing from students who have challenges that cannot be met by the available resources.

The national context
You may be aware that other schools are temporarily re-imagining the way faculty assign credits given the extraordinary barriers students are facing. There is no one size fits all solution, but the bottom line is this: students who were already vulnerable are most likely to be negatively affected by new barriers to accessing learning materials.

A proposal
Evergreen faculty are exceptionally skillful problem solvers, and I am sure that many of you have already come up with good solutions to this problem. If you have, I’d love to hear them! The discussion boards on the Keep Teaching Canvas site are a great place to share your ideas with other faculty, and I look forward to continuing to work through this puzzle with all of you in whatever venues make most sense. In the meantime, an informal workgroup consisting of several CAT leaders, deans, and the Washington Center director pulled together some conversations this week and came up with the following expectation:

Given the barriers students are facing, the awarding of credit will not be dependent on a student’s capacity to participate synchronously. In other words, we expect faculty to design learning experiences for students who can participate in live online class meetings, and an alternate pathway for those who have limited access to tools like zoom. We see this as an ethical response to the situation our students are in, given that the shifts we have had to make in our pedagogy happened after registration took place.

We hope we can all collaborate in holding each other accountable to this commitment to inclusive pedagogy. To be clear: we are not saying that all students should automatically earn credit, or that we should permanently shift to a new way of assessing student participation.

The good news
First, we are uniquely positioned to respond with flexibility and compassion to the differential impact this crisis will have on our students. As Brad Proctor pointed out in an email thread that preceded (and is independent of) the proposal above: “Where other students are terrified about their grades–and where other faculty members are currently stressed about how to maintain their grading ‘standards’–we can deal much more humanely with recording student work during this difficult transition precisely because of our narrative evaluations.”

Second, there is a crew of folks (myself included) who are ready and willing to help you figure out how to create the most equitable learning environment possible. There are several great resources linked to the Keep Teaching Canvas course that discuss balancing synchronous and asynchronous learning. In addition to many helpful resources and discussions, you will find a helpful matrix of low bandwidth/high bandwidth combinations published on the IDDblog.

Here are some additional guidelines and questions that may be helpful for you in navigating the challenges of synchronous learning online:

  • Consider your own workload (i). Set aside some time every week when you are not available for any kind of online communication, and make this boundary clear to students.
  • Consider your own workload (ii). Design a clear rubric that indicates how students will earn credit, including possible alternative ways of earning credit. Many of us have experience crafting these kinds of rubrics with students in the contexts of ILCs and INTs.
  • Think creatively about your expectations around attendance and participation. What learning outcomes do attendance and participation lead to? What are some other ways students might demonstrate that learning?
  • Think creatively about credits. We have tremendous autonomy in how we label our credits, which gives us the chance to indicate that students are doing credit-worthy learning without having necessarily demonstrated proficiency or the ability to move toward more advanced study (e.g., “Pre-calculus” vs. “Concepts of Mathematical Reasoning”).
  • Think creatively about narrative evaluations. How can you use the narrative to qualify the credits earned? To indicate places where the student still needs to learn and grow?
  • Help your students think critically about their options. If students are having difficulty accessing learning materials, engage them in critical problem solving about how they might complete the work and learn the material. Consider advising them to move to a different offering (or to withdraw) only as a last resort.

Thank you for getting to the end of this very long email, and thank you for cultivating a spirit of compassion and understanding towards yourselves and our students.


Elizabeth Williamson, Ph.D.
(pronouns: she/her)
Dean of Faculty Hiring and Development

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