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From: Beth McMurtrie
Subject: Teaching: How Students Can Help Create More Accessible Courses
This Week, I:
- Tell you about a project in which students and professors collaborate on accessible course design
- Point you to stories and discussions on teaching you may have missed
- Remind you that there’s no newsletter next week. Enjoy your Thanksgiving!
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This week I:
- Tell you about a project in which students and professors collaborate on accessible course design.
- Point you to stories and discussions on teaching you may have missed.
- Remind you that there’s no newsletter next week. Enjoy your Thanksgiving!
Collaborating with Students
A lab class in which students are required to stand for long stretches. A professor who enforces strict policies to prevent cheating. A course that requires hours of screen time every week.
These are just some of the ways in which students with disabilities are put at a disadvantage in college, says a report by a group of students and professors at the University of Texas at Austin, “Transforming Higher Education from the Inside Out: The Collaborative for Access and Equity (Pilot) Impact Report.”
The collaborative is the brainchild of Stephanie W. Cawthon, a professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. The student-led project “puts disability front and center in conversations about teaching practices on campus,” she said, something that has not always been true in broader discussions around diversity equity and inclusion.
Cawthon, who is deaf, has long been interested in understanding how deaf and other disabled students participate in educational systems. By seeing students as partners, she said, faculty members can gain a deeper understanding of how disabled students experience education and the contributions they can make toward enhancing a course. Even faculty members who have worked to make their courses accessible, she said, may not realize the consequences of some aspects of their teaching.
The collaborative, which received support from Microsoft, included five student coaches, who paired up with one or more of the seven faculty members who participated in the pilot project. They worked together over the semester, with the students attending classes, reviewing the syllabus, and meeting regularly with their faculty partners to discuss topics like group work, presentations, course planning, assignments, and technology. Student ambassadors and others were also involved to amplify the work of the collaborative across campus.
Soren Aldaco, a third-year undergraduate, was one of the student coaches. Aldaco, who uses they/them pronouns, got involved because of a longstanding interest in disability studies. Aldaco was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and, as a teenager, with autism.
Aldaco paired up with an associate professor of special education with whom they had taken a couple of classes. Aldaco called the professor “spectacular” but said they were still able to offer insights that could help improve her courses. “There was some content that didn’t sit right with me as a neurodivergent person.”
One of the assignments, for example, said something along the lines of, “simplify it like you’re talking to a neighbor or somebody on the spectrum,” Aldaco recalled. “I remember sitting there like, I’m a person on the spectrum taking this course, having to understand the super complex version. And it was one of those moments where I was like, you know, it’s almost like the class is designed to be about these people without these people taking it.”
Deanna Buckley, an associate professor of practice in the college of natural science, was one of the faculty members who volunteered to participate in the pilot. Buckley, who helps train teachers through the High School Research Initiative, recalled her own time in college as dominated by professors’ unyielding policies and rules, something she hopes to change.
Buckley, who once taught in middle school to gifted, neurodiverse students, said she hopes to help train future teachers to appreciate each student’s unique abilities. Her student partner, she said, went through her syllabus and sat in on classes to give her timely, specific feedback. It was hugely helpful, she said, to hear what resonated with the student and what didn’t. She plans to expand the use of Google slide decks, for example, which are highly collaborative, and include a wider range of campus resources in her syllabus and in discussions with students. “The one thing I took away is to feel confident to talk to other professors who don’t use those things” in their classrooms, she said.
Cawthon said she made sure to include students with different types of disabilities, including multiple sclerosis and mental-health issues. Parts of the report highlight the insights and experiences of the students and faculty members who participated in the project. The student with MS, for example, wrote about the challenge of standing for four hours in a general chemistry lab.
Cawthon noted that many faculty members still don’t understand the many ways in which disabled students may struggle in class. The chemistry professor, the student wrote, did not want to allow anyone to sit or lean on a stool, arguably for safety reasons.
The report notes that another barrier to adding accommodations to courses is the fear that students might abuse them. One faculty member called that the “‘strawman’ of the malicious student.”
Cawthon said it’s important for faculty members to be proactive about accessible course design, since many students don’t tell anyone about their disability. Perhaps they feel they need to handle it on their own. Or getting an official diagnosis for an accommodation request would be time-consuming and expensive. “The process is belittling in many ways,” she said. “Someone is judging you, evaluating you. There comes a sort of stigma and questioning: Should we allow you to have access? That setup is just, like, ‘prove it to us.’”
In the report, faculty participants described the back and forth they had with students, and how it built awareness and empathy on both sides. One professor wrote: “I kept thinking, my goodness, if every professor had one student and they did this all the time, how much good would come from that? We were both expanding our minds.”
Cawthon and her team have been working on sharing their findings across the UT Austin campus. And she plans to expand the world further through a website and training materials on how others can implement a similar project on their campus. In the meantime, the report includes an explanation of how the collaborative worked, insights from the project, tips for students and faculty members, and recommendations for campus leaders who want to start these conversations on their campuses.
This project got me wondering about student-faculty partnerships in course design. Have you collaborated with students to develop a course or improve your teaching? If so, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.
- Do you teach at an open-enrollment institution? You may want to read the responses to this tweet by Melissa Johnson asking for teaching advice from those who work at such colleges.
- In this Grading for Growth guest blog post, Chris Creighton discusses why instructors who use alternative grading systems should consider alternative forms of assessment.
- Inside Higher Ed reports on efforts by faculty members to create a more “frictionless” syllabus.
Catch You Next Month
We won’t be sending a newsletter next week. Beckie and I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving and a bit of a break. We’ll be back in your inboxes in December!
Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.