Art by Gabby DiGiovanni
As students begin online classes this semester, Pepperdine professors and faculty are working to meet students’ needs and make sure classes are accessible to everyone.
Pepperdine entities like the Office of Student Accessibility, the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Seaver Student Success Center are trying to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic by working to assure students are not overlooked due to disability, technical difficulty or time zone differences.
“If we truly believe that the student is the heart of the educational enterprise, like it says on the Pepperdine affirmation, then we have to adjust and make things accessible,” said Christopher Heard, Religion professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.
A Student Perspective
Junior Lauren Watson registered with the OSA in February, right before Pepperdine transitioned to remote learning.
Watson said she struggles to absorb course material from written textbooks alone and has recently found she learns better when she has access to the audio version of her textbooks, which the OSA helped her secure for this semester’s classes. This way, she can use the audiobook to guide her note-taking, which she can now do anywhere.
“This is the first time I have the audiobooks, which have been such a time saver,” Watson said. “I’m reading the textbook and actually understanding it before I get to class, which is weird because usually I have to wait for the teacher to talk about it to fully understand it.”
Students registered with the OSA can still receive notes from designated notetakers for their classes this semester, as they would under normal circumstances. Watson said having access to these notes is helpful for when a Zoom lecture may go too quickly or is unclear. Something the OSA can no longer provide students, however, is a distraction-free environment to take exams.
“Students now create their own distraction-reduced environment where they live,” Sandra Harrison, executive director of the OSA, wrote in an email. “Their faculty provide the extended time as needed for any timed quiz or exam, [and] we help students think through their context and what can be changed. Headsets are helpful, [or] keeping their cellphones in a different room while they are in class.”
Watson said she misses using Payson Library as a quiet study space, and she frequently visits coffee shops in her hometown of Jackson, Miss., to do schoolwork. Despite the interruptions and notifications that may come up while on a Zoom call, Watson said she actually finds herself getting more distracted in a physical classroom setting than she does while taking classes online.
“If anything, I get distracted in classrooms because I feel awkward getting up in the middle of class and getting water,” Watson said. “I need to get up sometimes and just move around. But when I’m in the comfort of my own home, I can just do whatever I want, and I don’t have to be thinking about, like, what everyone else is going to think.”
Watson said something professors can do to help keep students like herself on track is dividing Zoom lectures up with breakout rooms and scheduling plenty of breaks.
“[Participating in breakout rooms] reels me back into class, which is nice because I would not raise my hand if I were on campus in Malibu, ever,” Watson said.
Heard said — through the Center for Teaching Excellence — he encourages professors to place less emphasis on synchronous classes, which may be challenging for students with a considerable time zone difference or poor WiFi to attend. Instead, he said professors should focus their attention on the learning that can take place on students’ own time.
“My advice for professors is to deliver information asynchronously,” Heard said. “Use whatever synchronous time you have for interaction because if a student’s main activity in any particular moment is receiving information, there’s no need for us all to be doing that at the exact same moment. […] Fundamentally, the question is: What’s the benefit of being together in the same virtual space at the same time?”
Heard said a major reason professors should record their lectures to be watched asynchronously is so the lessons are accessible to all students and can be watched back, paused and rewound. Heard said the religion classes he teaches this semester will only meet synchronously a few times for community building and discussion.
“If [students are] being graded on whether they’re on Zoom [or] getting a participation grade for participating in synchronous Zoom sessions — if that student has limited access to a strong internet connection, then what we’re really testing is how good is the internet connection, not how well do you understand this material,” Heard said.
A goal Heard said he has for all professors is to go beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and approach learning from the perspective of the Universal Design for Learning. In this way, the more channels a professor can provide students for learning and communication, the more students will benefit.
Under the ADA, a professor only needs to provide captions for video content for hearing-impaired students, but a student whose first language is not English may benefit from having those captions as well, Heard said. In his classes, he subsequently posts videos of his lectures in Courses with written transcripts accompanying them.
“I don’t know if I have anybody who actually needs [transcripts] from an OSA perspective, but I know that those things are in place if anybody needs them — that way, everybody benefits from them,” Heard said.
The OSA also advises professors to assess their students’ knowledge in ways other than a timed exam, as this may pose a struggle for students without strong WiFi or a quiet place in their home to take a test.
“We are encouraging faculty to think through ways to assess students in perhaps new ways, as their disciplines allow,” Harrison wrote. “We have urged professors to consider if papers or presentations or projects would be a good alternative to an actual exam this fall.”
Elaborating on this idea, Heard said professors should try to accommodate students’ different strengths by providing more than one format for assignments and projects. For example, Heard said a student who believes their on-camera skills are stronger than their on-paper skills may be better suited to produce a video for a class project rather than writing a traditional essay.
“If [a different style of exam] meets the same learning objectives, why not accept that?” Heard said.
The OSA is also collaborating with the Seaver Student Success Center to refer students to the tutoring and skills training they may need to succeed in online classes. The SSCC offers 65+ online tutoring sessions for students each week, covering most subjects, as well as academic coaching and learning skills workshops.
“We’re here to support you, to be your allies, be your cheerleaders, whatever it is you need, regardless of where you are,” said Marissa Davis, director of the SSCC. “Whatever it is you have to do, know that you can meet with one of us and talk about best strategies for how you go to school online.”
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