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Understanding Your Students and their Learning Needs

What does this Environment Look like for Students

Accessibility in Remote Learning

The university's responsibility to deliver disability-related accommodations continues to exist in the remote environment. The Accessible Learning Centre continues to provide appropriate accommodations and supports to students through remote delivery methods, which includes accommodation planning, exam supports, individualized learning strategy supports, assistive technology and transcription support.

During this time, faculty support in the accommodation process is essential as we create welcoming and inclusive environments for students. We must recognize that students' abilities as well as their access to resources will vary but our goal remains the same: ensuring equitable access to education.

What has changed is best practice to implement some accommodations. At Laurier, our commitment to the faculty engagement process will continue in this environment, specifically:

  • Faculty will continue to receive student accommodation letters via email at the beginning and throughout the course of the term as students activate their accommodations and register with the Accessible Learning Centre. Faculty can also access the Accessible Learning Online portal to view all their students and their respective accommodations.
  • Faculty will continue to complete Alternative Testing Agreements; providing accessible learning staff with important details related to scheduling of exams and permitted aids. Exam coordinators will provide support to navigate the data base including access to exam accommodation requirements for their students. Upon request, support is available to coordinate efforts with MyLS to ensure accommodation times are added for any timed assessments.
  • Faculty will continue to receive volunteer note-taking recruitment requests from the ALC note-taking office.
  • Accommodation consultants will continue to inform faculty of the unique requirements of students including the requirement for closed captioning and access to transcribed lecture material. Lecture transcription is considered best practice and all students can benefit from lectures with transcripts or closed captioning.

Some helpful videos to support your understanding of accommodation process and supports can be found on Connect: Accessible Learning Online.

The Complexity of Space

Remote learning has turned the physical learning environment into a complex issue. Our learning environments have been transported into not only our homes, bedrooms, and kitchen tables, but those of our students. It is important to acknowledge this and work to ensure students can feel connected while they engage with their learning. This complexity is driven by the fact that many students may not have appropriate learning space within their homes and therefore may be engaging with your course in private or semi-private spaces that they may not be willing to open up to their instructor or their peers. In some cases, it may not be safe to do so due to the nature of the material or their own lived experience within their home.

While virtual backgrounds can help alleviate this, those features do not work on all devices and can cause technical issues, so cannot be a solution for all students. Allowing students some ownership and flexibility on how they make their space available in the context of their learning is important to ensuring that they can stay engaged. Acknowledge the space where teaching now occurs within your course to show students that you are aware of the complexity that it brings. Allowing them the opportunity to decide how accessible they make that space can assist in building comfort and understanding.

Cameras On or Off

Within face-to-face learning, we have a constant stream of body language and facial cues that assist in our understanding of how students are progressing with the course and its content. Within remote learning, access to these subtle clues becomes increasingly more difficult. With that in mind, the move to remote instruction has seen some educators require a “camera on” policy within synchronous sessions. Such a strategy raises many difficulties that need to be considered.

As discussed earlier, this demands access to a student's private space that can create both a lack of comfort, and a lack safety for them in their learning space or home. It also highlights issues of accessibility as students with older technology, or without access to reliable high-speed internet, may lose connectivity when their cameras are switched on due to bandwidth or processor issues. It is important, therefore, to consider when it is appropriate to encourage students to all be on camera, such as in smaller classes or breakout spaces.

In a large class where you are giving a presentation, there is no benefit for students or you for cameras to be on. Zoom will only show a few student thumbnail videos at a time (possibly up to 49), divided into gallery pages too small to see useful visual cues. There are misconceptions as to what engagement “looks like” in a remote environment, and defining engagement as “eyes fixed on their screen” can lead to false assumptions about engagement. There is also some indication that when students have cameras on this undermines their learning as they lose engagement with the material as they focus on their own appearance and other student screens to socially compare their realities and space.

The importance here is that you have clear reasoning, which you discuss with your students, around why and when cameras are essential to their learning, and create the opportunity, where possible, to allow students to make the decision around how comfortable they are to share their home with their peers.

Building Awareness and Open Conversations

The reality of this move into students’ homes and private spaces increases the necessity that we speak openly about what that means and develop a collective approach to what is appropriate. The development of a classroom contract may be a good tool for developing this understanding. The real importance though is that we create the time to address what this environment looks like for our students, what the concerns are, and how we will collectively engage to address them.

Asking about Access Needs

One of the strategies for opening the conversation around comfort and what contributions look like is to ask students if they have any access needs that would help them participate in the class more fully or may limit their participation in some way during any given class. Rather than asking about accessible learning considerations and permanent accommodations, access needs can change on a class by class basis and can be more situational, like “my roommates are home, and I don’t have privacy to turn on my camera”, or “my internet has been poor all day and I can contribute better without my video on today.” It’s an opportunity to create dialogue about the broad challenges of remote learning and provides an opportunity for students to talk about what challenges they’re facing, create community, and help each other find ways to contribute and be accountable to one another.


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How Does this Environment Impact Student Learning?

Engagement in Remote Learning

Engagement within remote learning is more difficult than in face-to-face settings because of impediments inherent to the technology and the space. There are strategies to mitigate this which require focus and deliberate reflection. When we consider engagement, we need to think about it in terms of students engaging with the material, with us as their instructor, and with their peers, as all of these are important to assist student learning and to create an engaged learning community.

When designing course materials, it is critical to deliver the material in a way that engages students and allows them space and opportunity to seek support and guidance to enhance their understanding. There are many ways to do this, through using the tools on learning management systems like MyLS, to deliver content effectively to ensure that students are supported in applying content with access to the instructor as well as other course supports. Splitting your course delivery between delivering content (asynchronous) and applying content (synchronously; preferably in small groups) is a good way of approaching this.

When it comes to engaging with you as the instructor, the most critical factor for students is access. Be mindful that students have clear ways to access you and your support to guide them in their learning. Discuss your approach to delivering the course, how synchronous and asynchronous time will be used, how you will support them in their learning, and explain what you expect from them to maximize their learning and how you will be there to guide them.

Without this clarity, students will inevitably feel that they have been left to educate themselves, which is driven by confusion regarding how to connect with you and get your guidance. Clarifying this will allow them to understand how to navigate their learning more easily, seek answers, and understand how and when to reach out with specific problems or questions (office hours, email, class meeting times etc.).

Finally, when it comes to students engaging with their peers, a lot of this will happen naturally as students grow more comfortable in this new learning environment and leverage technologies to build classroom communities. You can assist with this within your class time by finding ways to encourage small group learning, where possible, by developing meaningful group projects when relevant to learning outcomes, and through active promotion of the development of communities amongst your students.

Being Available to Your Students

Your availability is essential to your students in allowing them to feel connected and supported in their learning. What was simple has become more difficult in remote learning. There are simple ways that you can achieve this:

  • Holding regular drop-in office hours so students know how to contact you. Consider referring to these blocks of time as Student Drop-in Hours so that students will know that this is time that you have set aside for them rather than other activities.
  • Consider holding an open drop-in session outside of office hours that’s not focussed on course material or questions, but rather on remote learning feedback, creating community, and clarifying common questions as an informal group.
  • For synchronous delivery components, let your students know you will be in class 10 minutes before it starts and 10 minutes after it ends to address any questions, as often happens in face to face environments.
  • Develop short weekly podcasts or video updates for your students to clarify essential course information.
  • Post in discussion forums to stay in more frequent contact with your students and to guide their learning, steering them away from misapprehensions and encouraging their progres.
  • Where possible, make your class groups smaller so that students feel like they get more of your time and attention.
  • Clarify your communication policy clearly so students know exactly how to connect with you, which email to use as contact, information students should include in their email (such as course section), your normal response time, and when students should not expect responses (not on weekends, never after 7 p.m., etc.).

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What Can You do to Support Your Students in Remote Learning?

Developing a Learning Community

Learning is a social and interactive process (Dewey, 1987: Vygotsky, 1980). In a face-to-face class, the class community is defined by the architecture that separates those within the classroom from the outside world and carries its well-established norms and expectations for interaction and participation that have been engrained in us from an early age. Additionally, visual cues, proximity to one another, direct communication, and a shared experience allow us to feel like a cohesive social group.

Now, consider the physical environment of a remote student alone with their computer screen. Social interaction must be intentionally created within a remote course, as these interactions no longer happen organically like they do in a shared space. Without the deliberate creation of social interaction within a remote course, online lectures (even synchronous ones) can feel like receiving impersonal digital information rather than being part of a dynamic classroom. We don’t want to give remote students a lesser experience than their classroom counterparts; therefore, we want to deliver remote courses that foster a learning community and provide a social component and an interactive user experience.

So how can you re-create this social and interactive community in your remote course?


Figure 1. Figure adapted from R. Garrison, T. Anderson, L. Rourke et al. Community of Inquiry Model.

The sense of community in a face-to-face learning community is not easy to replicate remotely. The Community of Inquiry model by Garrison, Anderson and Rourke (2007), provides a useful schema for creating an effective remote educational community. According to this conceptual model, deep and meaningful learning occurs in a remote environment when there are sufficient levels of three inter-related “presences”:

  • Social presence: Relates to the creation of a supportive environment in which learners feel a sense of belonging and are able to express their ideas and collaborate on the construction of new knowledge. In the absence of social presence, learners feel unable to disagree, share viewpoints, explore differences or accept support and confirmation from peers or facilitators.
  • Cognitive presence: This is the creation of an environment that promotes critical thinking in relation to the content area at hand. It is the design and development of instructional materials that enable students to construct and confirm meaning through related reflection and discourse.
    • Recognize a problem (a triggering event).
    • Explore possible solutions (through brainstorming, communication, divergent thinking).
    • Integrate findings (convergent thinking).
    • Resolve the problem (by applying, testing, and defending possible solutions).
  • Teaching presence: Describes the creation of an instructional relationship appropriate to the learning community and the topic at hand. It is defined as the “design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes” (Garrison, Anderson and Rourke, 2007).

The Importance of Flexibility

One important way to support your students in remote learning is by being flexible. Being flexible with how you allow them to engage with the course, the material, with you, with their peers, and with assessment will allow students some sense of being able to navigate the course and display necessary learning. Being flexible, listening to where your students are at and what they are struggling with, whilst ensuring that the core student learning outcomes are held central to your decisions, will ensure that you can collaboratively navigate this environment in a sustainable way. Ensuring synchronous sessions have asynchronous options (however that may look for you) is helpful so that students have the flexibility to engage with course content in a way that reflects their current schedule and living situation. Thinking about offering flexible approaches to assessment, through utilizing options like “Best 5-out-of-7” or developing alternative assessment options that meet outcomes, and drive student interest, is also beneficial in supporting student engagement through flexible practice.

Being Realistic about Expectations

Being realistic about your expectations of your students and yourself in remote learning is also important. In this environment especially, it is important to consider your course and its outcomes and what is essential for students in their learning progression as they move through their degree program. Remote learning offers us the opportunity to eradicate the clutter from our courses and get back to the core learning that students need in order to progress.

Think through your assessment and consider how realistic it is. Think about scaffolding large pieces of assessment so students can get formative feedback on their progression, but above all try and stay away from adding more assessment. Adding more assessment will just add to the complexity of the environment, make managing workload and engagement difficult for students, and lead to assessment burnout for them and yourself. Think carefully about how much your students can do in this environment with weaker access to the supports and community they need to be successful. If you are looking to add an array of small ungraded quizzes to your course, think about them as tools for your students to monitor their progress as opposed to new assessment. This will give them the ability to monitor their learning without the added pressure of new assessment and give them flexibility around how and when they engage. But most of all recognize that everything takes more time in remote learning, for you and your students, and ensure that you are building a course structure that you both can manage along with your other priorities while also ensuring essential learning is prioritized and assessed so that outcomes are achieved.

Strategies for Supporting Your Students

The abrupt move to remote instruction brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone involved in higher education. For some students, the supports provided to them by being on campus, such as community and safe and supportive learning spaces, may be lost or in short supply now that they are learning from home. For others, the demands on their time may have increased to support family members or they could be suffering from financial hardship brought on by the pandemic. In educating the whole person, we need to ensure that we create spaces that are safe, supportive, and provide the tools they need to succeed. The same can be said for you as an instructor in this difficult time, and we encourage you to develop systems and supports around you that prioritize your mental health. Your health and wellbeing are essential for you to navigate this period and to continue to support your students as they learn to exist in this new reality.

Here are some strategies to support your students in remote learning:

  • Email or contact your students frequently to let them know you are there to support them.
  • Humanize yourself. When engaging with students, be honest about how you are coping. Make it lighthearted but honest so they can connect with you as a real person.
  • Don't be afraid to repeat things and assist with building connections between content. Use phrases like "Do you remember when we covered...”
  • Assist with building community for students by offering to assist in creating course-approved social groups or to use other social connection platforms using apps like WhatsApp, Discord or Twitter, etc.
  • Consider creating a community discussion group to assist with the gaps left by not being on campus. It can be a positive place where students can connect, share stories, and build social connection.
  • Let your students know frequently that you are there for them and be prepared to outline supports (both academic and regarding mental health) that are available to them.
  • Most importantly, ask your students what they need. How can you help them? How can you make learning in this moment more meaningful and connected?

Source: 10 teaching strategies to support students and help them continue to learn during this time of uncertainty,


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