We asked a student in need of accessibility accommodations to describe their experience in their favorite online course.
Other posts in this series include Student Voices: What Makes an Effective Online Course.
How did the instructor’s method of communication help you to succeed in the course?
I think the communication piece was absolutely critical. I think that, being an adult learner with a disability, I was one that was very proactive on the front end. I actually emailed the instructor and said, “For this to work for an adult learner with a disability, communication has to be constant, whether it’s on the forum or via email. It’s got to be. If an adult learner has a question, there can’t be a lag time. It has to be within 48 hours.” The professor has a life too. We have lives and commitments as adult learners, so communication is really critical, especially on the front end when you’re seeking the accommodations. Let the instructor know the strategy you use (I’ll talk about that some more in a later question).
It was good that the faculty led that first week of the forum to give people kind of a template for how that would work throughout the course. The work was front-loaded. Now, I’m very proactive, but I would say that not all students are proactive. So, a faculty member may have to take the initiative and reach out to that student at the very beginning.
Did the course include group work? Did you find this beneficial? Why or why not?
The class that I was in did include group work. There were two weeks where we were broken into a smaller group to design the forum questions and PowerPoint for that week for the rest of the class to react to. Then we acted as facilitators of that conversation. We did that for two of the eight weeks. I think that, because it was an adult learning and adult development class at the doctoral level, group work is to be expected. When you get to the dissertation, you’re going to be doing focus groups, so it’s a training ground for that next stage. It was beneficial in this regard. I usually prefer to work on my own, but there is an understanding at the doctoral level that you have to do group work as that’s what’s going to be expected later on in that dissertation process anyway.
We also did group work when I was an undergrad. In undergrad, it was very difficult to do group work, because at that level you just don’t have the life experience, the work experience or the academic experience, so there are group members who lag behind. You’ve got the one who’s not going to do the work, the one who needs an overabundance of communication to pull them along, and then the one who does a lot of the work to make up for everyone else.
At the master’s and doctoral level, it’s totally different. Everybody’s coming in with work experience, life experience, and the expectation that they’re going to do a master’s thesis. Everybody works well together. At the undergraduate level, group work does not always work as well.
I think with undergrads, you have to make your groups a lot smaller, maybe groups of three. There’s less possibility for infighting and conflict, and it can serve as a stepping stone in the group work development process. The faculty member would also have to set very, very clear expectations. Clear expectations, and small groups of two or three – I think that’s what you need to make groups work in undergrad.
Tell me more about the student facilitated discussions you had in this course.
With the student facilitated discussions, we knew from the very beginning that they were coming. One of the very first emails we received outlined that we were going to be broken up into facilitation groups. The instructor then asked us to start thinking about people we wanted to work with, to split up into groups of three, and to let her know. Then the instructor sequenced it and assigned each group their weeks for facilitating the forums.
She also facilitated the very first forum to give us a template for what was to come: a PowerPoint, based on the reading for the week, plus five applied learning activities to go with the PowerPoint. She clearly modeled what was expected. Then everybody had to comment on at least two or three forums facilitated by other groups.
When it was your week to facilitate, you stayed out of the conversation and just facilitated it. We had to, for example, post our material by Tuesday, and then commenting was from Wednesday to Saturday. As a facilitator, I would go on and monitor the discussion every day.
I would say it was good. You had to be very on top of the work, but that’s the expectation at this level.
What were the most helpful elements of the way the course was structured?
One of the accessibility elements I liked was the color scheme that was used. It also helped that the headings are much larger than the text. A lot of it comes down to how you manage your own time, which I’ll talk about later. I think somebody with a disability needs to allow extra time anyway, and they would probably already know that.
This seemed like quite a forum heavy course – what did you think of this approach?
I thought it was really good, particularly in how it was set up. The instructor created structure – it wasn’t a free-for-all. You have to have very clear weekly expectations for a successful forum. It can’t just be like a chat room. I also think you have to break people up into smaller groups. We were a cohort of nine, which worked well. I think if you had a cohort of 25 or 50 you’d have to break the class up into smaller segments for the forums to work. Even if you had 15 people, you might want to do two groups of seven and eight on different forum threads.
Once you start the conversation with nine or ten students, you could potentially end up managing 50 different posts at once, so I suggest splitting larger classes up.
The nine of us in this class already knew each other. I think it can work even if you don’t know each other when the class begins. The online platform gives people the freedom to put things out there. I think if people don’t know each other they might say, “Okay, I’ve got nothing to lose. I can just put it out there.” I think it would work either way. Although I do I think there would be benefit in having a series of icebreaker activities online to allow new students to get to know each other a little bit. Maybe as an introductory Week 1 thing, when you discuss the core syllabus course expectations. I don’t think you should have everybody jump in cold with, “Hey, let’s get it into course content”. It would take a couple weeks for people warm up then.
How did you go about managing your time in this online course?
I was someone who was very proactive on the front end. I talked to the faculty member at the very beginning. She also had a problem solver forum. If you had questions about an assignment, you could post them in the problem solver and then she would comment. This way, everybody could see the instructor’s response. I think that was critical. It also meant the instructor wasn’t getting a hundred emails from different students. At the beginning of the course I also requested a copy of the syllabus and the list of readings as soon as it was ready. I read through the entire syllabus, and I was the one who would take each assignment and post my questions in the problem solver. I took the lead on that.
My questions were answered, but it was good for everybody else too. With the forum content, I immediately did the activities on the first day that they were open, and I didn’t let it drag out. I also had to prioritize my time and decide if I wanted to spend time creating my own responses to the activities and proofing my own work, or if I wanted to spend the majority of my time responding to my classmates. I had to choose. I made my content a lot shorter and posted it on Wednesday so I could focus the majority of my time every other day from Thursday, Friday, and Saturday reading and responding to my classmates’ content. I had to make a strategic choice. Because of my visual impairment, I couldn’t do both.
I think that’s advice for anybody. Any learner with a disability should think of a strategy to manage their classes. Some adult learners might not know that they should do that. From the instructor’s side, they may have to initiate a conversation at the beginning of the course around the best strategies to help students with disabilities succeed.
What is the most important thing for instructors designing online courses to keep in mind?
I think the most important thing is to set clear expectations, especially when working with students with disabilities. I think instructors shouldn’t always assume that students will come to them. At the beginning of this online class, the instructor sent me an email to kick off the accessibility discussion, and that kind of caught me off guard because I’m so used to being proactive. Try to reach out to your students who need accommodations as early as possible.