How to Make Your Online Course Accessible to Most Students

As most colleges and universities in the U.S. are moving their classes online, faculties and students are scrambling to transform their classes into a distance learning model in a very short time.

While moving offline classes online so suddenly is difficult for many students (e.g. anxiety, time management issues), it presents even more challenges for students who come from working-class backgrounds. These students, many of them first-generation college students, might not own a laptop computer. They might not have access to the internet. They might not even have a stable place to conduct real-time online learning. So, how can faculties make sure that their online courses are accessible not only to the privileged?

Make Your Course Materials Accessible Via Phone

While not every student has access to a computer, most young people own a smart phone and use the internet on their mobile devices. To make sure your content can be obtained via phone, use low-tech platforms—for example, YouTube, Google Doc, websites. If you can, stay away from sophisticated learning softwares such as VoiceThread and desktop applications such as PowerPoint, Excel.

If you haven’t done it yet, download the mobile app of the learning platform that your institution adopts (e.g. Canvas, Blackboard, D2L). See for yourself what you can do with your phone and what you can’t and the differences between the mobile and desktop platforms.

If you can, avoid the need for downloads. For instance, instead of putting the instructions for an assignment in a word document or pdf file, consider writing them out directly in the content area of the app. This is the same for readings. If you can find an online HTML version of the reading, use it instead of uploading a pdf file. If your students have already purchased a book for the course, try to assign readings from the book.

Include instructions directly under each assignment on Canvas

Adopt an Asynchronous Learning Model

Asynchronous learning means that students access the learning materials and complete the assignments on their own time and in the sequence of their choice. Instead of imposing students to learn the content or engage in an activity together in real time, students can choose when to do what at their convenience. I’ve written a separate blog post about asynchronous learning. You can read it here.

This model is especially helpful for underprivileged students and can alleviate much anxiety for them. For example, they don’t have to worry about showing their home to fellow students and professors. Being able to learn at their own pace means that a student is now able to help babysit their siblings or cook for their family, and do the readings or view the lecture after everyone goes to sleep.

Learning module on Blackboard for my Introduction to Sociology class

Record Your Lectures

As for recording lectures, I use my iPhone + a tripod to record them. There’s no need for a special microphone. Make sure the lighting in the room is good. And don’t get too close to the camera. When I want to show specific things in writing or drawing, I simply use blank A-4 printing papers and hold the iPhone with my other hand. I’m sure there are more professional ways to do this. But this is simple and it works.

Instead of doing long 50-minute videos, I keep my lectures very brief—no more than 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, students tend to become disengaged. My lectures often focus on no more than three concepts, as I don’t want to overwhelm them with too much information. To compensate for the lack of lectures, I assign more readings and add podcast episodes, documentaries, TedTalks, etc.

Upload Lectures on YouTube

After you record your lectures, upload them on YouTube. This is tied to the point about minimizing the need for downloads. I cannot recommend YouTube enough. Nowadays, most students are very familiar with the platform—they literally grow up with it. In addition, there are three functions on YouTube that are invaluable—(1) transcription, (2) speed controller, and (3) privacy setting.

First, YouTube automatically transcribes everything you say once you upload your videos. This is especially essential for students who have disabilities or those whose first language is not English. Second, speed controller allows students to speed up or slow down the lecture according to their needs. Students had told me that they often use them. In fact, when I view the vlogs they submit, I find the function extremely useful as well—it helps me get through grading more quickly. Third, you can set your video to be either, private, unlisted, or public. I often set my lecture videos unlisted, which means that people can only view them if they have the links.

Feel free to leave a comment if you have a specific questions. I will try my best to get to them.

Published by pandamotherly

I am Dr. Esther HioTong Castillo. I am Panda Mom. I'm a biracial sociologist mama with a 4 year-old daughter. Four years ago, my complicated birth and the sea-change in my career and family had thrown me into the downward spiral of depression and anxiety. Now, I'm sharing my story and writing my way to health and wellness at the intersection of trauma, intergenerational trauma, family, and parenting.

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