Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What College Professors Could Learn From High School Teachers 1: It's Not Them It's You and Accessibility

I said the other day that I was going to write a post, series of posts, about what as a previous high school teacher I though college professors should think about. It came about as a reaction to a Twitter discussion about disability and accessibility.

One response was this:
Teach them to read a syllabus.
And it was a complete headdesk moment.
The "it's in the syllabus" jokes are constant. And rotate regularly. And completely miss the point.
I wrote this last year, and shared on Twitter, that this past year, changing how I reframed the syllabus had radical results.

Most people's syllabi make some reference to the syllabus being a "contract" between the student and professor. Most tell students they are expected to know everything on it. And many syllabi are 10-15 pages long (in large part to now required boiler plate information).
But there are several issues with this.
  • Do your students understand what a contract is? Do they understand what your expectations are of the contract? Do you discuss it with them? Do you explain how a contract in your class works? Do you check for their current understanding?
  • What do you want your syllabus to do? Does your syllabus actually accomplish this?
    • I realized this year that what I really wanted my syllabus to do was act as a "How-To" guide to my class. I wanted it to be a resource for them to use. And changing this perspective, reframing the conversation, made a huge difference.
    • This past year I presented the syllabus to the students in this way. I told them on the first day that the syllabus was their "How-To" manual for the class. I told them I was not going to read them it, it was a reference and resource for them, and I was going to go over the highlights. And the highlights are presented in memes (presentation below).
    • And this past year I didn't receive a single "it's in the syllabus" question. Because I reframed the information and presented it in such a way that they understood.

As a high school teacher I was taught that reflection was key to better teaching. I was taught that when something goes wrong I needed to ask myself first what I had done that perhaps led to this result. This is not to say that sometimes it's the students checking out, or not doing. But even then there's the question of WHY are they checking out? WHY are they not doing?

Over a year ago, I had a conversation with a professor about the gap between high school pedagogy versus how pedagogy is framed in college teaching.
Last week I completed a survey and was interviewed about the role of digital pedagogy.
These events, plus the Twitter conversation about accessibility made me think about addressing these gaps. So this is the first in a series of posts. I see them as functioning in conjunction with the resource manual I've created.

So, to address the questions of WHY your students might be checking out, not reading, not doing, I want to touch on some accessibility issues.

Seating arrangements: In high school how you set up your classroom is the first step in accessibility. It is a clear indication of how you run your classroom and what your class culture is. Do you put students in rows? Do you have them work in groups? Do you cluster desks/students together in pods? How your classroom is set up reflects how your class runs. I put students in a horseshoe for seminar/discussions/lecture (we have large tables in some rooms, desk chairs in others). For all other work, and most of the time, they are in what I call pods, small groups where the focus is on them, talking to each other, working together. I am also on the look out for people I need to move. If I notice students squinting, I move them closer. Each of our rooms has a teacher computer, projector and screen. I make sure that students can see it from wherever they are. I also make all lecture notes available on the hyperlinked syllabus so they can refer to it later. I also take pictures of board notes and post for the students.

Accessibility of media: 
  • Do you post pictures/images as part of your class? Do you fill out the text descriptor box? Students who have vision issues depend on these if they cannot see the image.
  • Do you use video in your class? Do you ensure that they all include closed captioning? 
  • When designing your course documents or Blackboard/Moodle do you make sure that you don't use color coding for color blind students? Do you bold and underline text in addition to highlighting for color blind students?
  • Do you present Web 2.0 tools that students can use to help them write, brainstorm, research?
  • When you give presentations, or visual media, is there an aural or written component for students to read/follow?
Other accessibility issues can be a little trickier. A lot can be addressed with course design, the rest with just being aware.
  • You're not allowed to ask in most case about accountability, but you should make sure your syllabus TELLS them that so they know they have to advocate for themselves. Be prepared as well, and have on hand, and make available, a list of resources for them on campus.
  • Be open to students discussing issues, difficulties they have when working. If they feel comfortable talking to you you can often in office hours or one on one work on a solution.
  • There is also the issue of socio-economic accessibility issues. If you require computer work you have to be prepared to address and offer solutions to students who don't have wi-fi at home, or a personal computer. Be sure that assignments an deadlines don't punish students for lack.
    • All the work in my classroom requires a computer- assignments and research. However, I make students aware of all the computer locations on campus, I make them aware they can check tablets out of the library to bring to class, and I offer through Google Docs the ability to work remotely in some cases. Deadlines are announced at the beginning of the semester and not changed, so students have plenty of time to get things done. They're not exempted from anything, but course design anticipates need.
I hear a lot that "teaching is not what you're here for" in grad school. I've also noticed a concern with pedagogy, specifically digital pedagogy, as a set of boxes to check off but little focus on actually WHY pedagogy is important, or what it looks like. So I hope this inaugural post, and the ones that follow serve as a resource.

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