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On throwing a party. Inclusive practice in Higher Education
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! With spring slowly but surely on its way, how about taking a more fun and refreshing perspective on our teaching? We often think of our roles as educators in terms of knowledge provision, facilitation, coaching, often depending on our teaching philosophy. But let’s try for a moment to put another hat on: that of a host, organising a dinner party. This perspective, inspired by Maha Bali’s intentional hospitality, helps us explore our attitudes and behaviours in relation to our students and, more importantly, can support us in finding ways to be more inclusive in our practice. After all, who doesn’t want all their guests to fully enjoy the party? In this post, I reflect on designing an inclusive and welcoming learning space, explore the various nuances of inclusiveness, in terms of content sharing and interaction and look into how technology can help us create a more inclusive classroom. I hope you enjoy reading and as usual look forward to your comments and ideas!
Inclusiveness is not an easy concept, as it has a many nuances, especially when we talk about creating learning experiences for cohorts of diverse students. That’s way, in order to cut through this complexity and focus on what’s essential, let’s make an exercise of imagination: instead of designing and teaching a course you are actually organising a dinner party for your friends. What are the things you need to think about to make sure your guests are having a good time and making the most of the occasion?
First of all… the guests
Obviously, there is no better place to start than, well, your guest list. Who are they? Where do they come from? What do they like? Do they have things in common? Do they have any special needs? Being inclusive means, first and foremost, designing around the student. This requires getting to know the students very well and taking a genuine interest in them. While not the easiest task, it is something that can continue throughout the course, with the aim of creating an atmosphere of trust and dialogue. Remember: the better you know your guests the more successful the party will be.
All about the space
The next important thing to consider is the space. Size, organisation, furniture arrangement, light, accessibility, all really important aspects for creating the perfect atmosphere for your party. Unfortunately, all these are things we tend to take for granted in the physical classroom. Teaching online in the past years has taught us that we need to be intentional about creating a space that is welcoming, accessible and conducive to learning. Some of the elements that can help in this respect are clear communication, a friendly tone, providing support in terms of time and workload management, as well as efforts to make all aspects of the course accessible.
What do we share? And how?
Of course there is no dinner party without food. As we strive to create the best menu, we think about the quality, quantity and of course, the layout of our offer. Regularly taking a deep dive into the content of a course and trying to represent a diversity of voices in order to keep it relevant to students is very important. Clear and meaningful structure and sequencing are key to an effective learning experience, and so is attention to detail in terms of size, style and presentation of the content. An interesting approach is creating a “buffet” setup that encourages learner agency, as they can mix and match according to their needs. Attention to language and cultural references also contributes to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Get the party going
A good party is a party where people have fun. So, beyond food, we need to consider different ways in which our guests can engage with each other to fully enjoy the occasion. Whether this means playing a game or simply creating a pleasant atmosphere for guests to talk to each other, it’s up to you to come up with a good mix. Similarly, the key to a successful learning experience is to achieve a good balance between different types of activities: passive and active, individual, pair and group activities, independent, peer-reviewed, collaborative and tutor-engaged activities. Also, try to offer students the opportunity to use various ways of interaction as well as different media that allow them to express themselves in the best way possible. Don’t forget to ask them for their preferences and (re)design the course accordingly. It’s never too late to learn so we can improve the next party.
What kind of host are you?
How do we welcome students? What kind of atmosphere and culture we aim to create? How do we encourage and facilitate interaction? These are all extremely important questions that can help us evaluate our role and build our teacher presence. While in the physical classroom this happens more naturally, online it has to be more intentional and it requires finding the best ways to communicate with and support students. Working together with colleagues in a co-teaching or team teaching arrangement can be beneficial for both parties. We all want to be great hosts but often it just takes some practice… and a little help from your friends.
The virtual party
Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about- we all had plenty of that during the long pandemic years: meeting friends on Zoom, glass of wine or cup of coffee in hand, making small talk, sometimes playing games, in a word making the most of the situation. But if that experience taught us something, it’s that technology can actually enhance the feeling of presence and the ability to connect, the key is to use it purposefully. Technology that can support the learning process through multimodality, flexibility and accessibility. They can provide students with multiple means of perceiving, comprehending and expressing their learning. Don’t forget to choose the tools and media that are most suited to the learning goals and not those that are just fashionable.
One disclaimer: being inclusive may require more planning at the design stage and also more effort in delivery, but it is a very effective strategy to build a positive and productive atmosphere in the classroom and enable students to learn and develop in ways that suit them best. After all, a great party also takes effort, but I’m sure we all agree, at the end of the day, it was worth it.
Diversity & Complexity in the Classroom (University of California, Berkeley)- useful tips for addressing diversity in various aspects of teaching;
Increasing Inclusivity in the Classroom (Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University)- a very rich guide to creating an inclusive classroom, including further resources ;
Inclusion by Design: Tool Helps Faculty Examine Their Teaching Practices- a useful framework to use when designing our courses to respond to diversity;
Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia (Columbia University)- an overview of five inclusive teaching principles with practical strategies;
Inclusive learning and teaching: Quick advice overview (Plymouth University)- a list of practical tips to address diversity and create an inclusive environment.
This article is based on several sessions I ran for the Centre for Online and Distance Education (CODE), University of London and a blog post I wrote, as a CODE Fellow, for a project funded by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and developed by the Careers Group and CODE, exploring the concept of an inclusive curriculum to make employability development intrinsic to good teaching and learning.