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Learner Empowerment Through Inclusive and Accessible Practices

Linda D. Bloomberg

Faculty & Staff Development

June 30, 2021

5 min read

The following is an opinion piece published by Dr Linda Bloomberg, Associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Linda is a member of Future Talent Council and the Faculty and Staff Development Think Tank. School closures caused by the global pandemic triggered significant challenges for education systems to respond to the needs vulnerable student groups whose learning and well-being tend to be the most impacted. An understanding of the term “vulnerable students” and the groups they encompass varies across contexts and includes terms such as “disadvantaged students”, ‘’at-risk students’’, “marginalized students”, “minoritized students” or “diverse student groups at risk of increased vulnerability”. These terms are used to address the systemic barriers that increase the risk of vulnerability for some learners, including those from low-income families; immigrant, refugee, ethnic minority and indigenous backgrounds; those with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations; and those with disabilities and special education needs.

Linda D. Bloomberg

Linda is founder of Bloomberg Associates, ILIAD (Institute for Learning Innovations and Adult Development) and Advanced Learning Solutions, and a co-f...

Recent data indicates that a significant percentage of vulnerable students have been “lost” in the process of school closures over the past year, and that learning losses might be severe. Specifically, educational gaps between vulnerable groups and others have been exacerbated, generating higher dropouts and absenteeism, as well as long-term social and emotional impacts (OECD, 2020; Wohlstetter & Parham, 2021). In a time when addressing inequities is essential to helping learners through and beyond the pandemic, we need to ensure that levels of support vary depending on individual needs. To begin, there are immediate logistical challenges of ensuring that all students have suitable physical learning spaces, educational materials, and the basic technology they need to learn remotely. Next, there is the need for ongoing support to engage in online learning activities, and receive the necessary attention and motivation to persist toward course completion. Vulnerable students typically have less access to suitable learning spaces and educational tools, and require additional attention and appropriate support. A prominent focus throughout my new book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners is ensuring equity, access, and inclusion; and promoting learner empowerment.

Equity, Access, and Inclusion

With the rapid increase in online education offerings, student populations have become increasingly diverse. However, access to education does not always necessarily ensure or engender inclusion. Diversity includes the many characteristics and attributes that make individuals different, where inclusion includes the social standards and behaviors that help people feel accepted. The implication of inclusive pedagogy is that curriculum and pedagogy will provide a sense of belongingness through course materials that represent a variety of perspectives, and that can be meaningfully applied in a diverse set of real-world scenarios.

The transformational shift in educational delivery has offered instructors the ability to develop and deliver innovative methods of teaching and student support.  Some of these positive aspects are promising and if strategically applied, these have a huge potential to meet the needs of learners. However, the pandemic and resulting digitalization of education has also redefined the discussion around accessibility and inclusion, highlighting—and indeed exacerbating-- the “digital divide” and the challenges confronting educational institutions in their efforts to provide equal teaching conditions to meet the specific needs of underrepresented communities. Online learning opens up access to education, but it does not necessarily provide equitable access. In order to offer equitable instruction, it is therefore important to consider accessibility because of the unique needs of every learner. Each individual has preferred modes of receiving and processing information or demonstrating knowledge and abilities. It is therefore important to provide for flexibility in the ways that information is presented, in the ways that learners can become engaged, and respond or demonstrate their knowledge and skills. It is critical, therefore, to minimize the barriers in instruction by providing appropriate accommodations, and maintaining high achievement expectations for all learners.

Facilitate Learner Empowerment

My book takes the concept of engagement one step further to focus on the key concept of learner empowerment, and the competencies needed by instructors as facilitators of learning, especially as they work with students from vulnerable, disenfranchised, or marginalized groups. This book is grounded in the idea that the learning experience is a shared space, but the primary owners are our learners. We empower learners to claim their rightful space by relinquishing some of our own power, building authentic working relationships, and offering opportunities to interact and engage in open discourse and collaborative learning. The role of individual agency is critical in promoting motivation to participate in both formal or informal learning. Adopt an asset-based approach to teaching by focusing on learners’ strengths and achievements; not just on their limitations. Giving learners opportunities to share their knowledge, skills, and understanding with peers increases motivation and builds inclusivity and social connection. Developing self-advocacy skills to be able to communicate learning needs supports greater persistence. Intentionally incorporating voice and choice into the learning experience is critical for making learning meaningful and relevant, and for promoting a growth academic mindset for all learners, especially those from vulnerable groups. Remember, the goal of education is to meet the needs of all learners, offering them the ownership and autonomy to actively engage in the learning experience, so that they are empowered to implement changes in their own personal and professional lives, and ultimately in the lives of others in their communities.How could Earth’s changing climate impact socioeconomic systems across the world in the next three decades? A yearlong, cross-disciplinary research effort at McKinsey & Company provides some answers.


References

This was an opinion piece published by Future Talent Council Member Dr. Linda Dale Bloomberg. Connect with Linda

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