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Jessie Male

How can an instructor design an online course so as many students as possible can benefit from it?

Jessie Male is about to find out. Male, 33, is a Ph.D. student in English at Ohio State University, and she’s preparing to teach her first online course. But first, she has to create it.

The course in question is an introductory disability studies course, of which she is teaching a version (English 2277: Introduction to Disability Studies) on campus this semester. Male met with an educational technologist in her department Feb. 23 to discuss the work required to offer the course online.

She is now undertaking the bulk of that work: adapting the syllabus to fit an online setting. Beyond that lie administrative hurdles, including gaining the approval of several faculty committees in order to put the course on the calendar for this fall, or perhaps next spring.

Over the course of several interviews with Inside Higher Ed, Male spoke about her approach to course design and how her personal background influences the way she views accessibility issues.

During the interviews, Male spokes about “access moves” -- design choices that increase accessibility to education. Captioning a video lecture is an access move, for example. So is allowing students to revise and resubmit their work, offering students a choice of format to submit their work for their assignments, reducing the cost of course materials, and -- to some extent -- teaching a course online.

“It’s interesting to think about establishing an online space of its own as a movement toward accessibility, but it doesn’t necessarily became an accessible space unless there are very clear moves that are made to make it as such,” she said.

Broadly speaking, Male said, she is pursuing a vision of universal design, an architectural concept that has since made it to education. For Male, universal design means designing a course to work for everyone -- students with disabilities, students whose career or personal obligations prevent them from studying in person, students with anxiety, students taking a semester abroad, students who prefer reading a transcript over watching a lecture video -- everyone.

“I am very interested in ideas of universal design and not only building an online curriculum specifically for students with disabilities, but for students who might not be able to access an on-site education space for an array of reasons, whether it’s child care, temporary illness, disability or any other circumstance,” Male said. “It’s interesting to think about how many different students can be further accommodated by an online curriculum.”

Male also stressed that her approach to online education is one of many, and that she does not believe hers is necessarily the ideal way to design an online course. She has yet to finalize the syllabus, and she acknowledged that issues related to course materials and student services for now remain unresolved.

“I’m in the process of learning and discovering,” she said.

Male is not alone. Many faculty members -- and indeed entire institutions -- are struggling with making education accessible to people with disabilities. Just last week, the University of California at Berkeley said it would cut off public access to video and audio content after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found it inaccessible to people with disabilities.

Inside Higher Ed will follow Male throughout the process, from the design phase to the classroom and beyond.

Boilerplate Language No More

For Male, the project -- and her specialization in disability studies -- has a personal angle. Both her mother and aunt contracted polio in the 1950s, and they both have post-polio syndrome, a condition where symptoms such as pain and muscle weakness re-emerge years after infection. Her aunt uses a wheelchair for mobility.

“It’s something that definitely impacts the family as well and their identities as women with disabilities,” Male said. “That’s absolutely informed my life, the way I teach, my scholarship.”

A glance at Male’s syllabus (click on the thumbnail to read it) reveals one way it differs from many others. The first section students see (after Male’s contact information and where and when the course is offered) is dedicated to accommodating students with disabilities.

Much of the syllabus was written by Margaret Price, associate professor of English and coordinator of the disability studies program at Ohio State. Male has made her own changes to suit her way of teaching.

Following the boilerplate language directing students to the university’s Office of Student Life Disability Services, Price added some additional language, which Male decided to keep:

I assume that all of us learn in different ways, and that the organization of any course will accommodate each student differently. For example, you may prefer to process information by speaking and listening, or you might prefer to articulate ideas via email or discussion board. Please talk to me as soon as you can about your individual learning needs and how this course can best accommodate them.

Rather than tuck that and other information the university requires faculty members to include in their syllabi toward the end of the document, Male said the placement sends a message to students.

“This is an 11-page syllabus,” she said. “By highlighting it at the top of a syllabus, you’re saying to students that accessibility, accommodation, support is highly valued in this space -- and these are the resources that you need.”

Male said students in previous classes have seen the language as an invitation to disclose a learning disability or express a preference to learn in a specific way.

“I’m not demanding any level of disclosure, but I’m saying in order for you to be successful and for you to achieve anything you want from this class, it would be very helpful for me to have an idea how you best learn,” she said.

Other required language, which in many face-to-face courses could have been copied and pasted without a second thought, is proving more difficult to change so that it fits an online course.

For example, Male’s syllabus includes a section about the academic and personal resources available to students, among them the university's writing center and counseling services. But those resources are first and foremost intended for students on campus. At the moment, Male said, she isn’t sure how to extend those services to cover online students.

“This is also why the syllabus design is a very lengthy process that’s lengthy for a reason,” she said. “These questions will come up as you adapt.”

Changing Grades

In the face-to-face version of the disability studies course, students are graded on a 100-point scale. Their final grade is based on their performance in four short assignments (including an introductory exercise, a captioning exercise, a documentary analysis and a final reflection) worth 30 points; a group accessibility audit, 15 points; participation, 15 points; note taking, 10 points; an artifact presentation, 5 points; and a final project, 25 points.

Not all of those assignments will be included in the online version of the course, Male said.

The note-taking exercise is out -- no need to take notes when lectures are delivered in the form of a video with its own transcript, she said.

The assignment is an attempt to help students take ownership of their own education, she explained. Instead of a student who missed class emailing her to ask what he or she missed, Male assigns a student to take extensive “collaborative” notes from one lecture. The student has to make sure to identify important questions discussed during that lecture and define relevant concepts, then make the notes available on the class’s learning management system.

“I really can’t imagine how to replicate the kind of goals that I have for the collaborative notes and apply them to an online space,” Male said. She added that she will probably add one more short assignment in its place.

While the course is housed in the English department, it is not writing intensive, Male said. Students are free to turn in assignments in the form of video or audio (as long as they provide captions, of course).

Students also have options for how they can satisfy the class participation requirement. The syllabus makes it clear that students who don’t feel comfortable raising their hand can participate “through email correspondence, discussion board, office meetings or short response papers.” That means finding out how to grade class participation won’t be an issue once she begins teaching online.

Participating in class discussions online counts just as much as in person, Male said. “Why wouldn’t it? They’re engaging with the materials. They’re asking questions. They’re responding to each other.”

She added, “When I first started teaching … I made a lot of assumptions about what participation was. I assumed it was the way I participated as a college student -- raising my hand, being active in conversations, providing my perspective or opinion, arguing with my classmates, etc. -- really asserting myself as an active presence vocally. That’s not the way lots of students want to communicate or [that] is best for them to communicate.”

The artifact presentation and group accessibility audits will also make the jump to online, although in a slightly tweaked forms. The first -- a five-minute presentation during which students talk about anything from an anecdote to a Facebook video related to disability -- will be handled as discussion threads on the online messaging board.

“It no longer becomes a launch pad for discussion, but instead becomes an opportunity for students to be engaging with the outside world and applying it to the questions we’re asking in those original course objectives,” Male said.

And the group accessibility audit -- where students examine a physical or digital space of their own choosing and evaluate how accessible it is -- will lose the group part. Working with other students will be optional, since students will likely be much more spread out than those taking the course on campus.

“Again, we’re thinking about different ways of accessibility and accountability,” Male said.

How (and When) to Communicate

While Male may have determined how she will evaluate participation in an online course, she is prepared that the ways in which she communicates with students will change.

First of all, there will be more of them. Prior to this semester, the largest course Male ever taught enrolled 24 students. She currently has 44 students in the face-to-face disability studies course. The online version of that course will also seat 45.

“You’re going to find other outlets to foster relationships with your students,” Male said. Then, with a laugh, she added, “It’s a little bit like [the ABC reality dating show] The Bachelor. You have to find some way of establishing yourself as a person in this space. There are all these ‘contestants’ [read: students]. What’s going to make you stand out?”

On campus, Male offers office hours. Online, she will offer videoconferencing hours to give students some semblance of face-to-face time. But she said she will enforce a window of time for students to connect online -- if that window doesn’t work, students themselves are responsible for emailing her to suggest a different time.

In addition to email and videoconferencing, Male will be active on the discussion board. She is also considering a mandatory midsemester check-in, meaning she will have connected one-on-one with each student at least once during the course. Feedback -- both her own and peer grading -- will be handled in more or less the same way it is in the face-to-face course: through the learning management system.

In other words, even though a fully online course gives students more flexibility to decide when they want to study, Male is not creating an expectation that she will be available around the clock.

“I believe in protecting myself and my time,” Male said. “I apply that to face-to-face spaces as well. I tell my students, ‘These are my office hours. If they don’t work for you, please email me. We’ll set up an alternative time.’ I don’t check emails on weekends. The labor involved in being a professor is exhausting, and it can be all encompassing if you let it.”

Access to Course Materials

Access to course materials has been at the center of lawsuits against colleges and universities across the country. Some organizations that advocate for the rights of people for disabilities, such as the National Federation of the Blind, are lobbying Congress to pass the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education (AIM-HE) Act, which is intended to help develop guidelines for accessible course materials.

Male said the purpose of her course is to give students a “taste” of disability studies. Therefore, all the readings in her class are available for free online.

“That’s also a question of access,” she said. “I don’t want to assume that a student can pay $50 for a disability studies textbook.”

The course also includes several films, and Male said she refuses to assign one unless she can find robust captions -- not automatically generated ones.

If there are students in her class who are working with the Office of Student Life Disability Services -- for example if they use screen readers or need physical textbooks -- she will be notified weeks in advance. But that is not a perfect system, Male acknowledged.

“That’s rooted in the assumption that all students are working with disability services, which is not the case, and I would assume not the case when students are taking online classes,” she said.

The introductory exercise -- the first assignment in the class -- presents another opportunity for students to talk about how they learn best and share accommodation requests, if any. But that still attempts to address issues after the fact rather than tackle them before class starts, Male said.

“That’s something I want to avoid -- the waiting to say, ‘This is what I need’ -- and move toward a space of universal design and pre-emptively thinking there are students who learn in different ways,” she said. “How can I present [information] visually, textually, as audio? Those are modalities I as an educator am still very much learning and working through and evolving.”

Despite the many changes needed to teach the course online, the course objectives and desired outcomes will remain the same no matter how the class is taught, Male said.

“These objectives to me would not be successful if they could not translate over multiple platforms,” Male said. “That’s part of accessibility and universal design -- that there are multiple modalities of design and leaning.”

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