Learning gains and equity during COVID-19 school closures

A dramatic decrease in learning gains While primary-school students made some progress while schools were closed, their learning gains were only half as large as they had been during regular in-person instruction in the preceding eight-week period. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that schools were required to move quickly to ad-hoc distance learning … Read more

The Best Source Of Education Research Is Your Classroom

Social Pulse by Terry Heick Looking for the best source of education research? The one with authentic data, practical studies, and a wealth of participants and possibilities? How about your own classroom? There is, increasingly, pressure to be research-based and data-based. Or ‘grounded in research’ and guided by ‘data-based decision-making. On paper, neither of these … Read more

How do genes and environment interact?

If we want to help children succeed and thrive so that they can reach their full potential, we need to understand their mental, biological, and emotional needs. Join Sean Sanders, Director and Senior Editor for Custom Publishing at Science, as he interviews outstanding researchers in a broad range of fields whose work either directly involves … Read more

Maths anxiety is a global concern

The negative link between maths anxiety and maths achievement is well documented across high-income countries, and new research points to a similar relationship in low-income contexts. This global concern needs to be tackled with early interventions for students, and teacher support. Such actions should reduce maths anxiety and improve maths performance. How often do you … Read more

What COVID-19 Has Taught Us about Access to Equitable Education

This post was written by NCTE member Micah Savaglio.

In a recent opinion piece published in Inside Higher Ed (“COVID-19 Has Taught Us What Intelligence Really Is”), psychologist and psychometrician Robert J. Sternberg says that “COVID-19 has taught us something important about intelligence,” which he goes on to define as “the ability to adapt to the environment.”
I admire Sternberg’s call for a broader concept of intelligence than most methods of assessment are designed to address. Yet if recent reporting is any indication, his opinion may ignore a wide array of challenges facing college and university students in the age of COVID-19.
As key disability studies scholars have shown, learning environments within higher education are often designed with only some, not all, bodies in mind. As a result, many students with physical, mental, and other disabilities confront barriers that prevent them from full and equal access to the spaces and activities of their classes.
In other words, when we fail to center disability in our course designs, we actively decrease access to equitable education for entire classes of people. At this critical moment in the fight for both disability rights and academic equity, it is time to radically rethink not only what higher education can look like but who gets to design it.
For instance, what if instead of focusing on rigid notions of ability, we started paying closer attention to the environments we expect our students to adapt to? What if, as Jay Dolmage has suggested, we “more consciously and systematically ask for and utilize feedback from students, especially students with disabilities?” It’s not enough to retrofit inaccessible learning environments for students who experience barriers to access; addressing students’ diverse access needs means taking a much more proactive and inclusive approach to course design.
In my research at Temple University on how undergraduate students experience course policies and practices in the first-year writing classroom, COVID-19 has taught me something important about access. I have consistently found what disability scholar Margaret Price calls “conflicts of access,” wherein conditions that enhance access for some students can decrease access for others (“Access” n.p.).
For example, several of the students with whom I spoke reported significant benefits to their participation as a result of the university’s shift to online instruction. Take Becca, who highlighted the conflicting relationship between her “really bad chronic insomnia” and her writing course’s pre-COVID, in-person attendance policy. Despite receiving disability service accommodations authorizing her to miss double the number of allowed absences without penalty, Becca reported that in-person attendance was “a struggle” that “really stressed me out,” adding that she “can’t wake up at eleven twenty” when “I’m up till six, seven in the morning.” Later in our interview, Becca reported that the course’s transition to primarily asynchronous online learning has “been good for me,” allowing her to engage course content in her own time.
But the same university-wide shift that made participation more accessible for Becca was experienced as limiting for Madison, at least in her non-English courses. Linking her disability and ADHD to “how I learn,” Madison described a clash between her preferred modes of communication and her asynchronous online courses. When I asked Madison to elaborate, she explained,
“It was kind of like I got lost [in those courses], and then . . . it would be the week before the final exam, and I’m like, “Wait, I missed the past week” because it’s online . . . And I wasn’t meeting with the teacher.”
Conversely, Madison reported that the synchronous component of her online writing course (meeting with her instructor over Zoom to discuss paper drafts), “especially for me, with learning disabilities, really helps so that you can . . . connect and . . . get on the same page with the teacher.”
The varying levels of access these students reported suggests that one person’s virtual access needs may exist in tension with the needs of others. Yet while such conflicts may appear irreconcilable, they also point to the need for a more flexible model for delivering education. Students’ access needs may vary, but addressing the needs of one student need not come at the expense of others. If we design with multiple accesses in mind, we can work to build learning environments flexible enough to address a wide range of access needs at once.
Sternberg says intelligence is really “your ability to adapt to the environment.” Rather than construing the challenges of virtual learning as questions of adaptive intelligence, why not center students and faculty with disabilities by inviting them (and paying them) to help envision and design flexible courses that will survive the pandemics and unforeseen challenges to come? Then we can measure how adaptive and flexible a learning environment is, rather than how “intelligent” students are when they succeed, or fail, to adapt to a new normal as rigid as what it replaced.

Micah Savaglio is an English doctoral candidate at Temple University. His research interests include composition and rhetoric, disability studies, multimodality, and creative writing. He can be reached at [email protected]  This research was supported in part by Temple University’s Disability Resources and Services and First-Year Writing Program. 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Screen time before bed could reduce teens’ ability to learn in the morning

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept many students out of school for extended periods. With social distancing and quarantines, the overall amount of screen time has increased for many children and adolescents. Home schooling has no doubt made parents more aware of the benefits of digital technologies. However, research suggests that digital media can have a … Read more

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Levelling up research on the adolescent brain

During adolescence, the brain undergoes a fundamental reorganisation. It is a time when many mental illnesses can first emerge, but it’s unclear how this happens. Tobias Hauser explains that harnessing the power of citizen science through games could be key to understanding this developmental period. Juanita Bawagan: Decision-making is behind every move we make and … Read more

Looking at the Boston Tea Party through Primary Sources

On December 16, 1773, angry colonists, dressed as American Indians, destroyed 342 chests of tea to protest recent tax hikes imposed by the British Parliament. “High Tea in Boston Harbor” was the headline of the Boston Gazette. Here’s an idea for a related teaching and learning connection: After reading that headline of the Boston Gazette aloud, … Read more