Skip to main content

Using Generative AI to make language more accessible

Educators can use generative AI to transform dense, technical material into clear, easily understandable content. This improves students’ comprehension and makes the learning experience more inclusive to a wider audience. While students are growing in their knowledge of complex academic topics, sometimes academic terminology can be a barrier. Particularly early in the course, students may not yet be familiar with the jargon and language of your subject matter. In addition, you may have learners in your course with a wide range of educational and cultural backgrounds. Some of your students may be from countries outside of the United States, and English may not be their first language. By demystifying complex concepts, jargon, and metaphors with generative AI, educators are empowered to create more equitable and effective learning environments for our diverse array of learners. 

For example, you can use the following example prompt to get started: 

In this prompt, we are asking ChatGPT to rewrite text to an 8-10th-grade reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Scale. This is the reading level recommended for a general adult lay audience. Feel free to adjust this to fit your target audience. 

Example: An Online Course on Neuroscience

Drafting

Now imagine that you are a renowned neuroscientist and a highly regarded faculty member at Michigan Medicine. You are interested in developing an online course that will bring neuroscience concepts to a lay audience. You are excited to get started, but as you begin to develop content, you quickly realize that your typical content is aimed at seasoned medical students and filled with jargon that may be daunting to those without prior knowledge. You realize that generative AI may be able to assist you in breaking down concepts into simpler terms. 

You fill in the example prompt with some of the text from one of your old in-person presentations with key concepts that you would like to include in this online course: 

In response to your input, ChatGPT gives you the following output: 

In this example, ChatGPT keeps all of the main concepts intact while using simpler language, providing definitions of terminology used (rather than removing it entirely), and breaking the large paragraph into more digestible, smaller paragraphs or chunks. 

Refining 

As a content expert, it is important to read through the output and ensure that all key concepts remain intact. It is also up to you to determine whether the revisions are sufficient and appropriate for your audience. You may choose to ask for stylistic revisions as well. For example, ChatGPT wrote the text as though the course is currently happening. However, you plan on delivering this information at the beginning of the course to talk about what the learner will learn. This is your preference. 

You can ask ChatGPT to revise with the following: 

ChatGPT will then go through and make the requested revisions to the text using the appropriate tense that you indicated in your input: 

Continue to refine as needed. Consider feeding into the chat examples of your tone of voice so that the content is not only accessible for learners but also contains a human element. In addition, you can increase your expectation of language understanding as your students grow in their knowledge and your expectations of understanding increase.

Echoes of “Can we have a study guide?” still reverberate through the virtual classrooms, even as summer takes hold and the allure of relaxation sets in. Study guides offer a temporary solution to students’ hunger for knowledge, providing them with the fish they need to satisfy their immediate needs. This approach, however, creates a cycle of dependency, requiring another fix before the next test opens. This is not the way. Instead of spoon-feeding, students should be taught to fish.

Though study guides have their merits, their direct impact on learning is not always evident. Tests can be a significant source of stress for students, which in turn hampers their performance. Study guides can help alleviate this anxiety and improve exam scores (Dickson, Miller, & Devoley, 2005), but they don’t necessarily foster deep, long-term learning. If the goal is to guide students’ online study habits before a test, then they should receive guidance not only on what to study but also on how to study effectively. Problem Roulette is the way.

Problem Roulette is an invaluable personalized online learning tool that directs students’ attention to the study skills that work best for them. It offers a collection of previous test items for students to practice with and, starting this Fall 2023, will begin providing tailored study tips based on proven theory and algorithms designed to enhance test performance. In essence, Problem Roulette will not only feed but also teach students to fish. It will give them the confidence boost they crave through exposure to test-like items, while teaching them personally relevant study skills that can be applied to new situations. 

How will Problem Roulette work in online learning environments? In short, it will harness the power of gameful learning. As students engage with practice test items, the system will collect statistics on their performance, which will then be visualized and presented on a student-facing dashboard. This feedback will include information on the number of problems completed and the number of consecutive correct answers. These metrics will be compared with predefined volume and streak goals established through previous research (Black et al., 2023), known to maximize course performance. Consequently, the game for students becomes achieving their target volume and streak goals, which intrinsically incentivizes their study. To attain these goals, however, they must study effectively by consistently answering questions correctly in a row. As students strive to meet their volume and streak targets, they will simultaneously discover the study habits that yield the best results for them individually.

In the realm of online teaching, Problem Roulette emerges as an empowering force, equipping students with the skills they need to become self-sufficient learners. It shifts the focus from mere information consumption to active engagement, encouraging students to take charge of their own learning journey. By embracing Problem Roulette, educators can foster a generation of online students who not only excel academically but also possess the essential skills to adapt, learn, and thrive in the digital age.

Generative AI can be a valuable asset to instructors looking for assistance with creating various aspects of course design. For example, generative AI, such as ChatGPT, can be a valuable tool for educators in drafting learning objectives. Using GenAI in any setting is usually a process of drafting and then refining prompts until the desired result is achieved. In this article, we will outline some ways to generate and refine learning objectives for a course.

Learning objectives are concise statements that articulate what students are expected to learn or achieve in a course. They play a crucial role in guiding both teaching strategies and assessment methods, ensuring that educational experiences are focused and effective. Clear and well-defined learning objectives are essential for aligning educational activities with desired learning outcomes. By analyzing a vast array of educational content and pedagogical methods in its training data, AI can offer a wide range of learning objective recommendations, which educators can then build off of, using their knowledge as experts in the field. 

Articles

A computer monitor displaying lines of code

Generative AI for Course Design: The Basics

Learn more foundational information about Generative AI
A man smiles while working on his laptop

Learning objectives and outcomes

How to craft good learning objectives for instruction

Using your preferred GenAI tool, here is an example prompt that you can use to get started: 

This example prompt can be modified to fit your needs. For example, you may choose to add more ideas and give additional context about the course. The more detail and context you provide in your input, the better the AI output will be. So please feel free to add in outlines, syllabi, or any other materials that may help your GenAI assistant better understand your vision. 

Example: An Online Course on the Cold War

Drafting Objectives

Now that we have our example prompt, let’s see an example of it in action. Imagine you are an instructor for an introductory online course on the Cold War. You plan to use ChatGPT to generate some ideas on potential learning objectives to get you started and guide your curriculum creation. You already have some general ideas on what you want to cover: causes, major events, and overall impact. You fill in the prompt as so: 

You press enter and ChatGPT provides you with the following learning objectives: 

Refining

It is now up to you as the expert to determine which learning objectives are the most relevant and how you should go about revising them. For example, you may look at the list and notice that there are no learning objectives that ask the learners to create something with the knowledge they’ve acquired throughout the course (e.g., a final project). You return to ChatGPT and ask the following: 

In response, ChatGPT provides you with the following: 

If you disagree with this suggestion, you can reply with “More?” to get additional ideas. ChatGPT will then provide you with a longer list: 

You can repeat this process as often as you’d like – adjusting the prompt and adding additional context (e.g., outlines, key ideas, information about your teaching style) to get better responses. When formulating responses for you, ChatGPT looks at the entire chat log so it is recommended that you continue to add to the same chat for best results.

In our next article, we’ll explore how to use Generative AI to improve accessible language in your course.

Introduction

If you have been anywhere where teaching is involved, you have probably heard mention of “learning styles.” “I’m a visual learner” vs. “I’m a hands-on learner” or “My instructor didn’t teach in my learning style” are all the types of commentary that are common when some individuals talk about their own learning. Although it is deeply appealing to be able to categorize individuals into easy methods of learning, unfortunately, it is deeply flawed, has little empirical evidence to support it, and might cause more problems than it solves.

What are learning styles?

To best understand why learning styles are problematic, it is important to clearly define learning styles. The idea of learning styles is that there are stable, consistent methods that individuals take in, organize, process, and remember information, and by teaching those methods, students learn better. 

One popular concept in learning styles posits that the modality of information is critical – a “visual” learner learns best by seeing versus an “auditory” learner who learns best by having things spoken or described to them. Learning style theory would suggest that by using visual aids, a visual learner would organize and retain information better than say, an auditory learner. The implication is that matching modality information to the modality of learning style is critical to student success.

At face value, the concept of learning styles makes sense. Individuals learn differently. Most educational settings are trying to reach large numbers of students in personalized ways.  It would be useful to have an easily applied theory that would help all students learn! As educators, we want to recognize the “uniqueness” of each student and help learners in any way we can. This desire has led educators to look for easier ways to navigate the complexities of teaching. Unfortunately, learning is not that simple.

Do learning styles really exist?

In general, most learning style theories make two presumptions: 

  1. Individuals have a measurable and consistent “style” of learning, and 
  2. Teaching to that style of learning will lead to better education outcomes, and conversely, teaching in a contradictory method would decrease achievement. 

In other words, if you are a visual learner, you should learn best if you see things, regardless of the situation. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you will learn best if you can physically manipulate something, regardless of the topic. However, neither of these two assumptions shows any grounding in research. These two propositions are where we can see the concept of learning styles breaking down.

Are learning styles measurable and consistent?

Did you know that there are actually over 50 different theories of learning styles by various researchers? Researchers have been trying for years to find a correlation between individuals and how to help learning. Some theories suggest the modality of learning matters (like the common VARK theory) while others propose details like time of day and temperature of the room define a learning style. One study that suggested using a cell phone was a learning style (Pursell, 2009).  Just the number of different styles makes it difficult to measure and make sense of an individual style. 

In addition, most learning style inventories rely on a student’s self-report about how they perceive they learn best. These self-reports are generally not validated in any way.  Generally, humans tend to be poor judges of our own learning. Therefore, these surveys are generally measuring “learner preference” rather than “learning style.” You may think you are an auditory learner but until it is validated that you objectively learn better through audio format, it is a preference, not a style. 

Also, when reporting results, many studies will rely on “student satisfaction” as a measure of success, or rely on students’ reflections as a measure of success in a class. For example, many measures of learning styles will ask students how they believe they learn best. Unfortunately, satisfaction with a class or a student’s recollections of success are subjective measures, and generally not accurate (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013, Kirschner, 2017).  While understanding a learner’s preference is useful as is understanding student satisfaction with a lesson, it does not have the same weight as necessitating teaching to that preference. 

Finally, ​​”styles” are unstable and unreliable. The research on learning styles has suggested that these preferences may be unstable – they be topic-specific, but they also change over time (Coffield et al., 2004).  That means that although an individual may be a kinesthetic learner in history this week, that person is a visual learner in math when talking about calculus (but not about geometry), or prefers to learn how to ride a bike kinesthetically instead of reading about it in a book. This questions whether a learning style is a “trait” (or something stable and persisting for a person) or a “state” (something that is temporary and may change). Learning styles as a state of mind are not particularly useful. How can a teacher know the preference of an individual student today in a given subject? 

Does teaching a learning style result in better learning?

Even more importantly, however, is the second assumption – does teaching to an individual’s learning style lead to achievement? Simply put, there is no evidence that supports teaching to a person’s specified learning style results in better learning (Alley, et. al., 2023; Cuevas, 2015; Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Pashler et al., 2008; Rogowsky et al., 2020). No study has shown that teaching to an identified learning style results in better retention, better learning outcomes or student success. Instead, we see that teaching to a self-identified learning style has no impact on learning in children or adults (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Paschler et al., 2008; Rogowsky et al., 2015, Rogowsky et al., 2020). Some research suggests that some students performed better on tasks when taught in a different modality than their self-identified “learning style” (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006, Rogowsky et al., 2020). Most studies of learning styles use a methodology that uses multiple styles to all learners – meaning that there is no way to isolate learning style to teaching method. This leads us to ultimately conclude that while the concept of learning styles is appealing, at this point, it is still a myth.

Alternate explanations to learning styles

Anecdotally, there are many stories about the success of leveraging “learning styles.” If learning styles are not empirically supported, how are these successes explained? There are alternative explanations for why teaching in multiple methods increases achievement that do not prescribe students into style categories. Multi-modal learning explains how learning improves with various methods of teaching.  

Learning requires sustained attention. Therefore, if an educator can capture and maintain students’ attention, students’ learning outcomes likely improve.  Providing engagement with content in multiple forms – be it through hands-on activities, or different modalities – makes students pay attention to content in different ways, and requires learners to integrate knowledge in new ways. If an educator is using multiple methods and modalities, it’s just more interesting, and students pay more attention, which leads to better learning. Mayer and colleagues (2001, 2003) have extensively studied how students learn with visuals and audio, and the interaction of the two. What he and his colleagues suggest is that by providing dual streams of information in multiple methods engages learners to work harder at understanding the material, which leads to better learning. It may be that the research on learning styles is actually showing that teaching with different modalities is just more interesting to students rather than catering to a particular style of learning ​​(Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006).

Why learning styles are dangerous

While the intentions of learning styles are good, the implications of learning styles are more destructive than helpful.   On the positive side, reflecting on how one learns is always a lesson. However, by focusing on a style suggests that learners are passive vessels at the whim of the method of teaching. Ultimately, most educators want students to actively engage in their learning. The best learning takes place when an individual can connect and incorporate information into his or her personal experiences and understanding. By focusing on a student’s learning style we reinforce a simplistic view of learning. Learning styles suggest that individuals have one way to learn best. Unfortunately, learning is complex, and not easy. This is hard and takes time! It has very little to do with the way information is handed to a learner, but rather, how the learner processes that knowledge once they have it. It is important to remember – learning is within the control of the learner. 

Thinking critically about learning styles

If learning styles do not impact an individual’s ability to learn, why is there so much talk about them? Articles and books are still being published about learning styles and how to tailor teaching to reach every style. Research on teaching and learning is a complicated discipline, and being able to examine theories and concepts like learning styles critically is important to anyone working in education. The challenge is to keep a skeptical eye when you hear about research supporting learning styles and ask the right questions to make sure you are getting good information.

What should you think about the next time you encounter learning styles in the wild?

  1. What framework of learning styles are they referring to? Some are more empirically vetted than others. The most popular learning style VARK (Visual-Auditory-Read/Write-Kinesthetic) is also the least validated. Find out more about the learning style being discussed.
  2. How are they measuring both learning style and success? Are they self-reported? Are they looking at academic results or a self-report of satisfaction with learning?
  3. Is the study carefully controlled? Many studies fail to tailor the learning to a particular style. Rather, the lesson uses all the styles to reach all the students. There is no way to truly measure success.
  4. Learning styles can be controversial with some people. They aren’t necessarily harmful if they encourage people to reflect on teaching and learning in different ways. They can be harmful if students believe that their learning is outside their control.

References

Alley, S., Plotnikoff, R. C., Duncan, M. J., Short, C. E., Mummery, K., To, Q. G., Schoeppe, S., Rebar, A., & Vandelanotte, C. (2023). Does matching a personally tailored physical activity intervention to participants’ learning style improve intervention effectiveness and engagement? Journal of Health Psychology, 28(10), 889–899. https://doi.org/10.1177/13591053221137184

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles?  What research has to say to practice: Learning & Skills Research Center.

Cuevas, J. (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3), 308–333. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878515606621

Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.006

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

Krätzig, G. P., & Arbuthnott, K. D. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 238–246. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.98.1.238

Lau, W. & Yuen, A.  (2009).  Exploring the effects of gender and learning styles on computer programming performance:  Implications for programming pedagogy.  British Journal of Educational Technology.  40(4), 696-712

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles:  Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Pursell, D. P.  (2009)  Adapting to student learning styles:  Engaging students with cell phone technology in organic chemistry.  Journal of Chemical Education.  86(10), p1219-1222.

Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037478Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2020). Providing Instruction Based on Students’ Learning Style Preferences Does Not Improve Learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00164

Introducing Extended Reality (XR)

Extended Reality (XR) allows learners to reach beyond the classroom into another setting through 360 videos and other simulations that can be used on different platforms whether that is headsets, web browsers, or mobile devices. Creating these learning activities in XR allows learners to practice needed skills in a simulated environment.  These low-stakes practices enable students to try and fail, get feedback, and try again without the usual costs of in-person scenarios. Courses such as First Aid, electric wiring, and public speaking could be augmented with opportunities to practice the necessary skills and behaviors in a low-stakes environment. All courses could integrate XR whether in a classroom with headsets or online with mobile devices or web-based browsing. Digital accessibility considerations are not always at the forefront in design such as the visual, auditory, cognitive, and motor needs of learners. Yet they are necessary requirements to make sure all learners can participate in learning and not be left out as new technology is integrated into online classrooms. Thus questions such as these can arise amidst excitement – What are the accessibility considerations in the XR space? How accessible is XR?

There are research groups and associations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and XR Access that focus their work on XR and accessibility to build collective knowledge and practice. Here at the University of Michigan, the Center of Academic Innovation has experts in XR and accessibility such as Pamela Saca, the learning experience designer for accessibility. She will provide insights into these questions along with the resources to dig into to make sure as innovation expands, so does access for all.

How XR makes learning experiences more accessible

While many immediately think of the accessibility limitations inherent in XR technology, there are accessibility benefits as well. XR promises great potential for communicating and engaging more effectively in a remote, immersive environment for many learners who may not have had the opportunity before the integration of XR. The aspects of XR allow for engagement in both technical and humanistic fields of study and in allowing practice for skills such as wiring. It is poised to impact any discipline where objects of study are spatially relevant, allow students to gain confidence in analytic skills, and increase access to things that would cost time, money, or safety (Cook and Lischer-Katz).

There are also specific tools that increase accessibility. When thinking about the 1 in 4 people in the United States with a disability (CDC), these benefits can allow students to be more active participants in the classroom while also enhancing the learning experience of content. XR features can increase accessibility by enhancing surround sound from one side of the body over the other, using a technology that allows a virtual reality headset to dynamically highlight sharp contrasts of picture quality in peripheral vision for visually impaired users and enabling walkability for those confined in a wheelchair through movements similar to walking around a boardroom table. XR tools support students to engage and change the tools so that they fit their needs and fulfill the vision of building the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors for their course.

Accessibility challenges with the use of XR

However, there are accessibility challenges with the use of XR, that can affect all learners, even without disabilities. Students working in noisy spaces may also have challenges hearing. Some students struggle with new technologies or have motion sickness when using a headset. Some XR tools like 360 degree videos or first person perspective movement depend heavily on motion controls. The technology requires the user to manipulate their body to control their movements and placements which forces the challenges in accessibility when there are learners who have difficulties with motion controls.

Planning for Accessibility

Although Pamela Saca, the Learning Experience Designer for Accessibility at the Center for Academic Innovation, believes that extended reality could support many people in their learning, she knows nothing can be 100% accessible because one thing that “works for one person will be in direct conflict for what might work for another person.” In her work in design teams, a change made to help one type of learner and their specific accessibility needs may make it more difficult for another. Therefore, she suggests the following considerations that can help design teams and instructors make more inclusive choices.

  1. Consider accessibility from the beginning. The XR collaborative recommends planning XR experiences explicitly considering accessibility at the start of your project. It’s more efficient and less expensive than having to remediate. Think about the types of learners you may have in your course and what kind of needs they may have. This could include captioning audio or providing alternatives for physical movements. There are resources for testing accessibility whether that be through user testing before launch, XR Guidelines, or the W3C amongst others that need to be implemented throughout the design process from ideation to implementation. 
  2. Build with an audience in mind that is as inclusive as possible, or better yet, involve people with disabilities as members of the course design, managers, and testers. You may find challenges you hadn’t anticipated due to your own design bias.
  3. Test the learning activity with a diverse group of people to ensure ample feedback and to be able to build in alternative activities if it is not 100% accessible. During one set of user testing, what designers thought to be a great design instead had a lot of challenges. The XR experience had to be changed to accommodate the broad population that would be using it, even if it didn’t align with the originally planned experience.

Extended reality is a tool that can be used to enhance learning through low-stakes practice, continuous feedback, and real-life situations. It, like many other learning technologies, has limitations and introduces the possibilities for exclusion whether that be because of technological difficulties, inaccessibility, or other issues unknown to the designer. Extended reality, like many technological innovations, is exciting but should also be used for expanding learning for all.    

References

CDC: 1 in 4 US adults live with a disability | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC. (2019, April 10). https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0816-disability.html

Cook, M., & Lischer-Katz, Z. (2020). Practical steps for an effective virtual reality course integration. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 27(2–4), 210–226. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2021.1923603

Additional Resources

XR Access: A community committed to making virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (XR) accessible to people with disabilities

World Wide Web Consortium: The W3C mission is to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the We

How this will help:

Identify ways that you might encourage active participation in web conferencing sessions.
Know where to find resources related to creating participatory environments.

The basics

When groups including classes meet in real-time online via a video conferencing tool, it’s tempting to just use the time for a presentation or a question and answer session. However, there are ways that you can deliberately use technology in these sessions to enable meaningful participation, deeper learning, and stronger connections.

There are two basic ways to encourage participation in this environment: 

  1. Utilize activities that can be completed by everyone at the same time. For example, you could post a question or prompt in the chat feature of your videoconference tool and then ask everyone to respond at the same time (called a “chatterfall” or “chatstream” or “backchannel”). Another easy technique is asking everyone to contribute simultaneously through an annotation feature or shared workspace such as a Google doc.
  2. Break the whole group up into smaller groups. In classes larger than 5, it helps to create pairs or smaller groups using breakout rooms. Depending on the size of your class, you can also easily scaffold a series of small group conversations (e.g. first as pairs, then as groups of four, etc) by combining breakout rooms.

When planning participatory synchronous sessions, feel free to keep the technology simple: we recommend using Zoom and a tool from the Google suite (such as docs or slides). Think about activities that you’ve run in-person and then work to adapt them in order to optimize the opportunities afforded in a remote environment. Consider the essence of that activity and build out from there rather than trying to translate it directly. Although technology can often help, sometimes activities just don’t work as well in a remote environment, and that’s okay. In this way, you’ll be using technology deliberately in the service of your goals rather than using technology for its own sake. 

Accessibility is another major consideration when running participatory virtual classes or meetings. Before meeting remotely, you’ll want to get a sense of any accommodations that your students may have and work to make sure that all shared materials are accessible and easy to use. In understanding the needs of your students before a meeting, you can choose the activities and/or the technologies that will work best for that particular group. Additionally, it’s important to combine synchronous meetings with robust asynchronous tools in order to maximize the accessibility of your course. 

For specific ideas and activities that you might try, check out our Facilitation Guide: Participatory Sessions in a Virtual Environment. This guide is designed for those new to teaching or facilitating remotely and is built around using Zoom and the Google suite to encourage participation. It includes sections covering general recommendations (such as those found below in the Practical Tips), ideas leveraging specific tech features such as chat and breakout rooms, and an appendix that walks you through how to use Zoom if you need help with the technology. 

The guide also includes full instructions for a number of activities. These activities are largely centered on Liberating Structures, a suite of activities designed to encourage better collaboration and full participation by all group members. However, these activities will feel very familiar for a teaching environment. For example, 1-2-4-All is a kind of think-pair-share, Carousel Brainstorm is a series of brainstorms that build upon one another, and Shift and Share is a set of rotations for small group presentations.

Practical Tips

If you’re looking to encourage more active participation in a remote class or meeting, here are a few of the general recommendations taken from the facilitation guide to get you started: 

  • Build an agenda with ample time for activities and breaks.  

Because there is so much to process when meeting remotely, you should be prepared for activities to take longer, and Zoom fatigue is real. You’ll want to create an agenda that includes plenty of time for all activities as well as breaks for classes longer than 60 minutes. 

  • Create separate, shared workspaces for small groups that include all activity instructions. 

If you have small groups working in breakout rooms, create a dedicated workspace for each small group that includes all of the activity instructions and space for them to record notes (called a “harvest”). This workspace helps to keep small groups on track, allows you to monitor progress, and leaves documentation for everyone in the class to use—not just that small group. See the Template Slides and Template Text Collaboration Document in the Resources section below for examples of harvest spaces.  

  • Set clear expectations at the beginning. 

It helps to give students some expectations and guidelines so that you are creating a comfortable environment for participation. Some ideas include:  

  • Ask students to mute themselves unless speaking. Be clear that you’ll mute anyone who doesn’t abide by this expectation. 
  • Recommend that students configure their screens so that they can keep the chat window open during the entire class, rather than flipping back and forth. 
  • Encourage students to keep a piece of paper and writing utensil nearby.  
  • Let everyone know that video conference tools such as Zoom are strict facilitators; for instance, they will probably be whisked away from a breakout room while in the midst of a sentence. 
  • Acknowledge that a remote class will feel different than a face-to-face class, and that’s okay.
  • Enlist students to help with facilitation. 

There will be some additional responsibilities and considerations when meeting in a videoconference session, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. To help with this, consider having 1-2 students act as “backchannel” moderators for the class. These students could be responsible for keeping track of questions, making sure all activity instructions are posted in the chat, and/or possibly summarizing the session at the end.

Resources

University of Michigan

Other resources

How this will help:

Understand key principles of ethical community engagement and how to operationalize them when designing and teaching online community-engaged courses.
Learn concrete suggestions, resources, and strategies for addressing the needs of students and community partners during online community-engaged teaching.
Discover ways that Ginsberg Center staff can support your community-engaged course, from finding remote engagement opportunities for students to helping prepare your students to partner with communities and maximize their learning.

The basics

Community-engaged learning is when “students engage in activities that address human and community needs, together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes” (adapted from Jacoby, 1996). In your face-to-face classes, you may have experience working directly with community partners in various ways to integrate students into community-engaged learning.

But what does this look like in an online class? Or when the community engagement is virtual? When shifting to an online environment, many community-engaged instructors at the University of Michigan have expressed the difficulty of balancing students’ needs for accessible and empathetic virtual instruction, community partners’ rapidly-shifting needs and priorities, and general public health and safety concerns. However, online instruction does not mean isolated – instead, it is possible to leverage technology as well as use it as a lens to examine community engagement.

The Ginsberg Center is a community and civic engagement center with a mission to cultivate and steward equitable partnerships between communities and the University of Michigan in order to advance social change for the public good. Our Best Practices for Online Community Engaged Teaching and Learning provides tangible suggestions, resources, and strategies that are rooted in the 6 key principles that guide our work. The guide also synthesizes research on online service-learning and community engagement with a particular focus on the opportunities available at the University of Michigan. We offer highlights from our guide below:

1. Connecting Civic Learning Across Contexts:
We support students’ integrative learning across classroom, co-curricular, personal, and community settings. Reflection is a critical component of this integration throughout the partnership process.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Have students reflect on their assumptions about technology and how these assumptions may impact their work with community partners.
  • Use technology to allow students to reflect in multiple ways: online journals, group discussion boards, videos, and audio recording. 
  • Take time to reflect upon how using technology has affected your approach to teaching and community engagement.

2. Starting with Community: Our approach centers around community-identified priorities and how we can most effectively match University of Michigan resources and expertise to those of community partners working to address these priorities. It’s important to start with your community partners’ goals and priorities when deciding how and when to integrate technology into your engaged course.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • If community partners are co-creating the virtual course with you, ask about the partners’ technological preferences and capacity explicitly, and maintain a dialogue through the course.
  • Consider inviting community members to your virtual classroom as a guest speaker because community partners bring ideas, perspective, language, and knowledge to the table that can be inaccessible otherwise.
  • If the community members virtually “host” the students with their organization, communicate the roles of the community partner clearly and take an active role in managing your students’ participation.

3. Centering on Equity: We strive for balanced impact in our partnerships, which means that students, faculty, university staff, and community partners all have the opportunity to share their interests, goals, and expectations. Leveraging technology may bring more opportunities to converge interest and goals but may also present added challenges to centering equity..

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Co-create course objectives with your community partners, and use these objectives to determine what technological tools are most appropriate and compatible with the goals and capacity of the community partner.
  • Give community partners access to all virtual components of the course, including discussion boards, course announcements, and readings.
  • Develop a plan to prepare students for both synchronous and asynchronous interaction with community partners.

4. Fostering long-term Partnership: We focus on stewarding long-term relationships with community partners that last beyond a particular project or engagement. 

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Work with Ginsberg to learn about what technological resources and supports are available to you and your community partners through the university.
  • Discuss with your partner how they can continue to have access to any online resources (readings, recordings, discussion boards, students’ work, etc.) that were created during your course. 

5. Acknowledging Power: Cultural humility requires a recognition of power differences and conscious attempts to balance these differences through reflection and learning (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). Technology adds an additional layer of power and equity into the community conversation.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Consider how power imbalances might manifest in specific forms of virtual interactions (video meetings, phone meetings, email, discussion boards, etc.) and establish a plan for how issues will be identified and counteracted.
  • Invite your students to reflect on how technology can be used to decrease the negative effects of power and privilege and when it may exacerbate those effects.

6. Moving from Individual to Collective Action: We support coordination, collaboration, and increased coherence by bringing together parties with shared interests to amplify positive community impact.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Consider inviting community partners into the virtual classroom to share historical, political, organizational, and community contexts for the issues they are addressing and who else in the community is working on the issues.
  • Work with the Ginsberg Center to access our extensive network of partners so you can connect efficiently with partners ready and eager to collaborate.

Practical tips

  • Want some ways to get started in community-engaged learning right away?
    • Consider inviting community partners into the virtual classroom to share historical, political, organizational, and community contexts for the issues they are addressing and who else in the community is working on the issues.
    • Consider inviting community members to your virtual classroom as a guest speaker because community partners bring ideas, perspective, language, and knowledge to the table that can be inaccessible otherwise.
  • The Community Engagement: Collaborating for Change MOOC offers free, online modules to help you and your students prepare for community-engaged learning.
  • Ginsberg Center staff hold regular Community of Practice gatherings and workshops for instructors of community-engaged teaching. View our full calendar of events.
  • Read the full guide for Online Community Engaged Learning and the general guide for Community-Engaged Learning.

Resources

University of Michigan

How this will help:

Find online resources available from the University of Michigan Museums to include in your course

The Basics

The museums and special library collections of the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor support online teaching with a wide range of digital collection and exhibition resources. Many have educational staff dedicated to hosting and crafting synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences with their digital resources. By clicking on the links to specific museums below, you can learn more about each institution’s materials and support for online learning.

Please click on the link for resources from the various museums: 

University of Michigan Museum of Art

University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology

Papyrology Collection (University of Michigan Library)

Special Collections Research Center (University of Michigan Library)

University of Michigan Herbarium

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

William L. Clements Library

Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments

University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry

Bentley Historical Library

University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

Clark Library of Maps and Atlases

How this will help:

Discover tools to help plan an online course using design strategies

The basics

If you do any search for “online course design” or read any book on online design, just about every resource emphasizes the importance of planning for online course design. However, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you are considering moving a course online, even if you have support from others. Many instructors new to online struggle to engage with the planning for an online course in the recommended timeline (several weeks or months in advance). 

If you need help planning, this comprehensive course planning blueprint tool can help you reflect and guide your design process (want something simpler? Keep reading for additional options).

The blueprint is a spreadsheet is rooted in a backward design process. While by no means comprehensive (meaning that you still may have more work to do if there are media or instructional designers involved), it can give you a structure for planning your online course. It can also be a place to have conversations with others with your strategy already mapped out, cutting down on orientation time to your course.  Feel free to make a copy of it for your own use.

Our planning blueprint is made up of six parts:

  1. Course information
    Course name, number of students, etc.
  2. Course goals
    4-5 goals for the course overall – not specific to particular lessons. 
  3. Learner analysis
    Some questions to reflect on what your learners might be bringing to the class
  4. Learning Objectives and Content
    Breakdown of learning objectives by week, and what content is needed to support it
  5. Activities and assessments
    What are the assessments and activities that support your learning objectives?
  6. Instructor engagement plan
    What will your plan be to engage with students each week?

There are other tools available to help you plan, so feel free to find one that may align with your teaching. Ultimately, most design tools are going to walk you through a similar process, so what is most important is to find a tool that resonates with your teaching style.

Resources

University of Michigan

CAI – Online Blueprint Planning Guide

How this will help: 

Define inclusive teaching and CRLT’s 5 principles of inclusive teaching.
Discover concrete inclusive teaching strategies for online teaching.

The basics

Promoting inclusion and supporting a diverse student body is a core responsibility of instructors. The fulfillment  of that responsibility is dependent on an instructor’s ability to recognize and mediate the impact of systemic inequity on student learning. Online teaching can certainly present unique challenges to equity and inclusion. However, many challenges to equity in online teaching are continuations or magnifications of forms of inequity that exist in face-to-face instruction. Inclusive teaching is a research-based approach that can be used to address inequity in both online teaching and face-to-face instruction.

This resource outlines the five principle-based inclusive teaching framework from UM’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). This framework can guide instructional choices in all areas of online teaching (including course design, curriculum, policies, facilitation, and instruction) and is relevant to any discipline or teaching setting.

What is inclusive teaching?

Inclusive teaching does not describe any particular pedagogical approach but instead names an intention or commitment that shapes your approach to teaching. CRLT (Center for Research on Learning & Teaching at UM) defines inclusive teaching in this way:

Inclusive teaching involves deliberately cultivating a learning environment where all learners are treated equitably, have equal access to learning, and feel valued and supported in their learning. Such teaching attends to learner identities and seeks to change the ways systemic inequities shape dynamics in teaching-learning spaces, affect individuals’ experiences of those spaces, and influence course and curriculum design.

What does this definition of inclusive teaching mean for instructors? First, it is a reminder that inclusive and equitable learning environments don’t just happen. You have to take deliberate steps to think through the potential impacts of your teaching methods and intentionally choose strategies that will promote both inclusion and equity. 

Why inclusion?  Research across disciplines shows that student learning and success is deeply impacted by the extent to which they feel valued and supported in their learning. Students are meaningfully ‘included’ when they experience a sense of academic and social belonging. The interactions that students have with you and with each other are just one of many areas of your teaching that will shape how students experience your learning community. A student’s sense of belonging in your class will also be impacted by the decisions you make about course design, curriculum, policies, facilitation, and instruction. Academic and social belonging may be achieved when instructors take these and other actions: 

  • seek out and act on student feedback; 
  • highlight the diversity of contributors to your discipline; 
  • offer opportunities for students to make connections between course content and their own lives

Why equity? Students’ experiences inside and outside your class are shaped by unequal patterns of power and access; we call these patterns systemic inequity. Systemic inequities shape students’ individual and group-based experiences (think: race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, disability status, etc.) and produce vastly different relationships of power inside the classroom that impact student learning and success. For students who belong to dominant groups, systemic inequities can support their claim to community, to learning, and to academic success. For students who belong to oppressed groups, systemic inequities can reproduce experiences of exclusion, disenfranchisement and other forms of harm. Systemic inequities also impact you as an instructor; these patterns influence how you are treated by your students and inform the assumptions you make about learners.  

What does the impact of systemic inequity actually look like in a course? Consider these examples:

  • Discussion activities that are monopolized by students from dominant groups. 
  • Racist, sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, or ableist comments made by students or instructors.
  • Course content and learning activities that are inaccessible to students with disabilities. 
  • Instructors using examples that assume students come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. 
  • Students challenging the expertise of faculty and GSIs who are women, people of color, speak English as an additional language, and/or are otherwise historically underrepresented in U.S. academia.

Inclusive teaching’s focus on equity can help instructors notice the ways that systemic inequities actively undermine inclusion and community in the classroom. If inclusive and equitable learning communities are our goal, we must identify and disrupt systemic inequities as they surface in our teaching and learning practices. 

Five principles of inclusive teaching at UM

CRLT has identified five principles of inclusive teaching that can guide instructional choices toward the goal of creating inclusive and equitable learning experiences. These five principles are informed by decades of research on the relationships between systemic inequalities, social identity and student learning. As such, they reflect ‘best practices’ for teaching and learning for all students, while helping to equalize access to learning for students from marginalized and underrepresented groups at UM.

Critically engage difference

Students bring a myriad of social identities, experiences, strengths and needs to their learning. Such differences can be leveraged for learning when we look for ways to incorporate them into the way we teach, so that our students can draw upon their prior knowledge and experience. To ‘critically engage difference’, instructors must consider the ways that systemic inequities shape students’ experiences in class, at UM, and beyond. Given those patterns of power and access, instructors must then consider the potential impacts of their teaching practices on students, across social identity and other forms of difference. 

Structure interactions

Dominant relationships of power and access will continue to happen in your course unless you intentionally shape new pathways for participation and engagement that can disrupt those patterns. Structured interactions refers to the practice of using intentional mechanisms (e.g. protocols, processes, structured activities) to support students’ equitable participation in discussion and in other interactive elements of a course. Remember, you must acknowledge differences among your students and the impacts of systemic inequity in order to design structured interactions that will be most effective in your course.

Increase transparency

Transparency refers to the practice of clearly communicating norms, expectations, instructions, and evaluation criteria. Why is transparency important for equity and inclusion? Some students come into our courses with more training, more access to resources, and more familiarity with the customs and embedded assumptions of higher ed. These are ‘resources for learning’ that help those students succeed in our courses. Instructors can equalize access to these resources by being clear with students about what they are being asked to do and why and de-coding the embedded assumptions of the course (e.g. disciplinary norms for writing, assumed prior knowledge, effective study habits).

Foster academic belonging

As discussed above, student learning and success is deeply impacted by the extent to which they feel valued and supported in their learning. By fostering academic belonging, instructors help cultivate a student’s sense of connection to the course, to the discipline and to scholarly communities. Can students see themselves in your material and course content? Do they understand themselves as part of your learning community?  Such experience of connection can engage and motivate students, help students find relevance in what they are learning, and encourage students to seek help from instructors to further their learning.

Provide flexibility 

Flexibility involves responding and adapting to students’ changing and diverse circumstances, engaging empathetically with student needs, and balancing intentional and inclusive design with a commitment to providing accommodations for equitable learning. This principle encourages instructors to provide students with choices for learning and multiple pathways to success that can meet the diverse needs of learners.

Practical tips

1. Critically engage difference

  • Use a background questionnaire to learn about individual students’ past academic experiences, goals, concerns, technology resources and preferences, or other information that would help you design inclusive remote learning activities and interactions.
  • Acknowledge the ways that world events may be creating barriers to students’ capacity to engage in coursework and the differential impacts these developments may have on different students. 
  • Draw examples you use to illustrate course concepts from a range of social or cultural contexts. Invite students to identify examples from their own arenas of knowledge or expertise.
  • Choose course materials and activities with a range of student access needs, financial resources, and technologies in mind (ex: tools and platforms that can be accessed by a cell phone)
  • Adopt digital accessibility practices including, but not limited to: alt text and image descriptions for images; closed captioning and transcripts for videos; screen reader compatibility for PDFs, docs, and webpages. Support your students in learning and using these accessibility practices, too.

2. Structure interactions

  • Develop guidelines or community agreements about interactions during the course.
  • In synchronous meetings, use strategies for including a range of voices. Take a queue, ask to hear from those who have not spoken, wait until several hands are raised to call on anyone, or use paired or small group conversations to seed larger discussion.
  • Provide multiple ways for students to participate in a discussion (e.g. backchannel chat, shared discussion notes)
  • Give all students time to gather their thoughts individually before sharing ideas with the whole group.
  • Vary your methods for engaging students, e.g. solo work, small group work, whole group work
  • Facilitate study behaviors by providing a process and/or online space for students to connect with each other to form study groups, ask and answer each other’s questions, and to share class notes.

3. Increase transparency 

  • Express your commitment to creating an accessible, equitable, and inclusive course. Invite student feedback about practices that do and don’t facilitate that goal. This could include short anonymous polls, midterm feedback, or more substantial written feedback opportunities. 
  • Explicitly communicate the purpose, task, and grading criteria for all assignments. Explain the purpose and give clear instructions for non-graded course activities, too.
  • Identify any assumed capacities, abilities, skills, or prior knowledge that is embedded in your assignments or your course. Connect students to resources that help them bolster those skills if necessary.
  • Give students guidance about how they can prioritize course tasks and allocate time strategically.
  • Share guidance on how students should communicate with you, including what kind of questions/topics are best for online course meetings, office hours, email, backchannels, etc.

4. Foster academic belonging

  • Learn and use students’ names and pronouns. Build rapport by encouraging students to learn and use one another’s names (including accurately pronunciation and spelling).
  • Normalize the fact that students will have a range of background preparation and allow for productive trial and error (e.g., through low-stakes practice quizzes, drafting opportunities, modeling or discussion of interestingly productive wrong answers).
  • Avoid making generalizations that may not include all students. These might include assumptions about students’ comfort with technology, their economic means, responses to current events, understanding of pop culture references, etc.
  • Highlight the diversity of contributors to your discipline (through the authors you assign, the research you highlight, the guests you invite to meet with your students, etc.)
  • Prepare outside guests to contribute to the inclusive environment of your class meetings (e.g., make sure they are aware of community norms, accessibility needs, etc.).
  • Consider self-assessment opportunities (e.g. non-graded reflections, self-assessment with rubric, goal-setting activities) as a way for you and the student to understand their individual progress and learning in relation to their individual circumstances. Make use of self-assessment to support student learning.

5. Provide flexibility

  • Build in opportunities for student choice (e.g. flexible or self-paced deadlines for assignments, multiple options for assignment topics, options for submitting assignments as writing, videos, slides, etc.)
  • Provide asynchronous options for class meetings and other course activities. Recognize that meaningful ‘discussion’ does not have to be synchronous.
  • Consider that students may not have a sustained private or quiet space to participate in online learning. Create learning experiences that can be accessed in small intervals over longer periods of time.
  • Understand that some assignments and activities you have used during in-person courses (as well as the pace at which you cover content) will need to be adjusted for online teaching. Be willing to create new learning experiences for students. 
  • When content coverage is in tension with responding to student learning needs, prioritize student learning needs. Be willing to adjust lecture pace, reduce information on slides, make lecture materials available to students for study and exam preparation, etc.

Resources

University of Michigan

CRLT – Overview of Inclusive Teaching 

CRLT – Inclusive Teaching Strategies Lists 

CRLT – Research Basis for Inclusive Teaching

Other Resources

Columbia University – Inclusive teaching guide

Research

Ambrose, S., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Chapter 6: “Why do Student Development and Course Climate Matter for Student Learning?”

Gurin, P., Dey, E.L., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 330-366.

Gurin, P., Nagda, B. R. A., & Zúñiga, X. (2013). Dialogue across difference: Practice, theory, and research on intergroup dialogue. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hausmann, L., Ye, F., Ward Schofield, J. & Woods, R. (2009). Sense of Belonging and Persistence in White and African American First-Year Students. Research in Higher Education 50(7): 649–69.

Tanner, K.D. (2013). Structure Matters: Twenty-One Teaching Strategies to Promote Student Engagement and Cultivate Classroom Equity. CBE–Life Sciences Education 12(3): 322–331.