Case study #2: Accessible online teaching

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Dr. Eliza Chandler, Assistant Professor, School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University

Tell us a little bit about your work and how things have shifted since COVID?

I typically teach my courses online, as I was doing in March when the pandemic hit, so not much changed in that regard. But, of course, the pandemic had an effect. In disability studies at Ryerson, many of my students are educational assistants (EAs) or Personal Support Workers (PSWs) or group home workers, so their work significantly changed. In a lot of cases that are undervalued positions, which suddenly became valued – and rightly so – as essential workers but with that shift, their material conditions became so much more precarious. So, there was a shift in students’ availability but there was also an emotional shift as well, which resonated in the classroom. There was also a shift between teaching remotely to students when I am in my office – with all of my office things!- and teaching from home.

One of the biggest shifts is how to stay connected with people. It would be easy for me to hibernate and do my work – and I’m not running into any of my colleagues to have those ‘in the moment’ catch ups about what they are working on or thinking about. I think we have all had to find ways to replicate those ‘hallway chats,’ that are so important to feeling connected as we have shifted to only ‘meeting up’ in meetings aligned with a specific purpose. Organizing standing check-ins can be useful. But I do miss the serendipity of running into someone I might not have specifically scheduled a meeting with. Especially at art openings – the amount of times I would go to a Tangled opening and leave with a new idea or connection. I haven’t found a way to replicate those unexpected encounters online, which I think are so important to our collective work.

How has accessibility shifted in terms of digital and technology? Have you been making changes?

I’m interested in what Creative Users is doing right now with these case studies. I’ve been teaching with Zoom and using it for meetings for a while, but my understanding of it has grown exponentially since the pandemic. Because everyone is using digital platforms, they are developing and sharing practices and protocols.

What other kinds of technology and tools have you heard of other people using?

I haven’t heard of many alternatives to Zoom necessarily, but now Ryerson is going fully online this fall, there are many online teaching workshops happening, which I find useful. For example, finding different ways to use JamBoards and parts of the Google Suite to replicate coming together and engaging in small group activities. It’s been good to learn pedagogical techniques. For instance, instead of having a group presentation, as I would in an ‘onsite class,’ I might have a group activity where students work together to produce a ‘weekly newsletter’ for the class. This newsletter might include an interview with the professor about their expectations for an upcoming assignment, a collection of news articles that are relevant to the class’s theme for the week, and reminders of important deadlines. This is an example of a group assignment that doesn’t require students to necessarily come together in real time, which might be hard right now. Instead, they can work collaboratively on google docs and JamBoards, for instance. I think the issues I’ve had with online teaching in the past have made me more readily able to find solutions.

In the beginning of the pandemic when everything shifted online, I noticed a taken-for-granted notion that if things are online, then they’ll naturally feel more accessible. And it’s true that there is a lot that is now possible that wasn’t possible – or didn’t seem possible – before. For instance, everything is relaxed – you don’t have to worry about arriving late to see a show, or eating dinner during an event. But at the same time, there are new challenges associated with online learning and artistic programming, especially when we think broadly about accessibility. Challenges that arise when we don’t have access to reliable internet or how to replicate ‘touch tours’ online. This is why it is important to develop protocol and practices for online accessibility.

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