A chemistry student analyzes data on a computer screen August 1, 2016 in Owens Science Hall.

Equity, Inclusion Remains Focus During Online Learning

With such a massive amount of work to move St. Thomas’ curriculum online in the past several weeks, some priorities for faculty could have gotten lost in the shuffle. Faculty engagement and recent seminars from Faculty Development Center (FDC) and St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) are signs that equity and inclusion in online learning will not be one of those things.

“We knew right away we needed to make sure that focus didn’t get lost,” said Ann Johnson, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement. “Diversity, equity and inclusion is integral to everything we do in terms of teaching; we're not going lose touch with that. Diversity is one of our convictions and we will maintain it through this [shift to online learning].”

Dozens of faculty members joined Neuroscience Program Director Sarah Hankerson and STELAR instructional designer Karin Brown April 16 for a seminar on creating effective and inclusive online communities. As program manager Hugh Smeltekop wrote on OneStThomas, the seminar shared tips and “gave concrete examples for creating and maintaining a sense of community in online classes.” Tips included being transparent about building your community, using multiple channels to communicate, proactively reaching out, and increasing flexibility with universal design for learning.

That focusing on creating an inclusive classroom is a good place to start, said Bryana French, associate professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, and a DEI Fellow for FDC. French has also helped lead recent seminars on equity and inclusion in online learning, and is helping develop even more in-depth training for this summer.

“There is real intentionality with the faculty development center and STELAR to have an eye toward equity,” said French, who pointed toward the loaning of technology to students and the option of pass-fail grading as good signals of equitable thinking. “We’re on the right track and doing good things.”

French said the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a lot of inequities students face that many St. Thomas community members didn’t see.

“There’s an assumption everyone has ample resources. This has shown how false that is,” French said. “I see a lot of faculty wanting to be helpful, supportive and reach everyone in a way that feels right and humane. Now, maybe more than before even, they’re motivated about thinking how to be equitable because they don’t want people to fall through the cracks. That’s encouraging. … People are thinking critically about this on their own, which is encouraging.”