We must factor in digital exclusion when designing online teaching

Badly designed sessions are big on waste: waste of talent, waste of concentration, waste of ability and waste of time, says Christian Gilliam

March 2, 2021
Remember digital poverty when designing university lectures and sessions online
Source: iStock

Concepts such as inclusion and engagement are front and centre of current pedagogical discussions, but unfortunately the attention we’re giving them has resulted in neglect of the less titillating but more practical aspects of online teaching.

They are just as integral to good pedagogical design as the more theoretical elements – after all, technologies determine the final form in which an online class will be delivered, and it’s widely acknowledged that form determines both reception and comprehensibility. You may have truly superb content, but if the form is lacking, the content is undermined.

This is not to say that the theoretical and practical aspects of teaching can and should be treated separately. Far from it. If inclusion and engagement are to be a methodological and ethical end, then we cannot, as teachers, ignore either digital exclusion or the digital poverty gap.

THE Campus resource: Online courses with equity at their core

A recent study here at Cambridge found that the digital poverty gap has increased for schoolchildren since the start of the pandemic. The gap does not exclusively concern schoolchildren, though, as the research confirms. “The likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, such that only 51 per cent of households earning £6,000-£10,000 had home internet access compared with 99 per cent of households with an income of over £40,001.”

Digital poverty is a very real thing and very likely to affect a large proportion of students. 

“Exclusion” is a more useful and inclusive term, though. A “poverty gap” implies inequity is a matter of material wealth and its attendant technology capabilities only − between those with fast internet, fancy computers and, ultimately, reliable performance; and those with slow, old and relatively inexpensive computers (if the student has a computer at all).

“Digital exclusion” encompasses digital poverty and the simple but ever-so-important fact that some students are more technologically capable than others. It is often assumed that students, by virtue of their average youth, are a monolithic block of technological whizzes. Certainly, there is a correlation between material capability and technical capability, but it is not a necessary one. 

I have had students complain that online classes can be too disorientating and frustrating to engage with. They cited one teacher’s habit of sharing up to seven (!) resources within a one-hour session.

I understand the feeling. Staring at a screen for a continuous amount of time is a strain on the eyes and the mind (cue the 20-20-20 rule). Clicking between documents, downloading and waiting for them to open, and figuring out how to engage with them, all while paying attention and actively listening − that’s hard work. This is compounded by inadequate computers and slow internet connections that struggle to process multiple applications. 

What this all amounts to is waste: waste of talent, waste of concentration, waste of ability and waste of time. In short, a wasted opportunity for meaningful inclusion and engagement.

This is particularly true of those from the already excluded groups, with such barriers intensifying their exclusion and further limiting their social mobility. It is wrong to assume that students possess the IT skills necessary for a resource-heavy online class, let alone that they have the technology for it. In fact, the assumption itself can prevent students from coming forward and admitting their struggles.

THE Campus resource: How to reach remote students with limited access to technology

Clearly, then, the first solution to digital exclusion is to drop the assumption that our students are technological whizzes with whizzing machines.

It seems only right that we show sensitivity to this notion in our class designs and modes of delivery. We should make it a priority to discover what our students are technologically comfortable with and what equipment they have available. A quick survey can capture most of this information without feeling too intrusive for the student. Collating responses before the module starts is ideal, allowing the teacher to appropriately adjust the form and delivery.

Another example of digital sensitivity is seeking presentational consistency – it’s better to send one document per class with all materials enclosed and ordered in linear fashion. Once you send it, allow time for students to open it and orientate themselves. 

Finally, avoid activities that need digital multitasking − going between two or more documents, two or more programmes, or between the teacher’s shared screen and a document. This is simply too distracting and, more importantly, it unnecessarily adds variables and increases the probability of difficulty. The more complex the mechanics of an online activity, the greater the risk that a student will be excluded.

We can consider this the Occam’s razor of pedagogy: the simple is the most beautiful and correct. So, keep the activity simple in focus, remembering that it should only be included in class design for the purposes of enhancing engagement. Adding activity for the sake of it is poor pedagogy.

So many issues from a seemingly innocuous disparity. And we have yet to even consider differences in learning types and abilities. That in itself is worthy of discussion, and when included with the above, reveals a matrix of variables to contemplate when designing online teaching with engagement and inclusion in mind.

Perhaps pushing us to reconsider engagement and inclusion, with their many nuances, is an advantage of being pushed online. Either way, the immediate consideration for us is as simple as it is effective: less is more.

Christian Gilliam is a researcher developer for the arts, humanities and social sciences at the University of Cambridge.

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