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Accessible Interactions: Tips for Synchronous Online Learning

by Seth Graves and Zahra Khalid

The pandemic-induced emergency migration to remote teaching—in which many instructors with no aspirations to teach online suddenly needed the skills to do so—reinvigorated conversations about inclusion, access, and equity in online classroom contexts. During the pandemic, many factors hamper accessibility and impede graduate learning:

  • trauma and illness;
  • loss of physical learning spaces; 
  • limited access to libraries; 
  • cramped living spaces and shared devices; 
  • differential access to physical and mental health resources; 
  • discrimination in care and jobs; and 
  • prevalence of technologies and platforms that require attention from instructors to render accessible to all students. 

These challenges necessitate a broad and flexible approach to fostering a classroom that works for all students.

Here we offer some practical ideas on how to make synchronous online classrooms more accessible, inclusive, and equitable. It is our desire that in doing this, we foreground a view of students’ pandemic realities, and think about how the structure of our interactions could help foster an active and flexible environment with clear options for involvement. We focus on broadly conceived practical strategies for inclusion: ones that are designed for all students, with varying degrees of constraints (that they may not feel comfortable to share), not only those focused on meeting accommodation standards. Below are some strategies for inclusive and accessible engagement in synchronous spaces.

Using closed captioning (“CC”)

Many online meeting platforms, such as Zoom and Google Meet*, offer live subtitles or captions, or a viewable live transcript. Using this function is a simple but important step we can take to enhance accessibility in the online classroom. It aids participants who may otherwise experience some hindrance in in-the-moment attention that’s hard to catch up to when distractions occur, and offers an additional means to view or review what’s happening.

Captions give us all some space to confront what’s going on in real life, like tech or connection issues, or background noises at either end. And it helps participants for whom English is an additional language, or who are communicating across disparate dialects. At the beginning of the session, when students are joining in, it can be a helpful reminder to have a slide up with information about the structure of the meeting so that participants will know how or when they are expected to engage, and what accessibility options are available to participants—including whether the class is being recorded, whether audio will be live-captioned (and where to find the button that turns it on), and/or a link to the slide-deck or resources to access in preparation.

On Zoom, the live transcription feature can be turned on by the meeting host(s). Go to “Live Transcript” (this is one of the buttons on the dashboard at the bottom of the Zoom interface). Select “Enable “Auto-Transcription.” Users will now be able to see the live transcript, which is auto-generated by Zoom, with an option to “hide” it, if they prefer.

On Google Meet, users click on the three dots menu in the lower right corner and choose “Turn on Captions” next to the CC symbol. Note that captions are enabled or disabled by each user, and cannot be activated for other participants.

Note: Blackboard says of its Collaborate Ultra conferencing platform: “Blackboard Collaborate doesn’t currently include automated live captioning but there are currently plans to add this functionality in the future.”

icon of hand pointing down
Captions* are ON 
Live transcript* is ON 
Recording is OFF 
Participation is welcome by voice/video OR chat 

* view captions or transcription in your Closed Captioning settings on Zoom

We included the above text in a slide, which explains the structure and accessibility options of the meeting, at the beginning of our synchronous workshop on accessibility. Image source: noun project

Facilitating rounds

A “round” is a structure for moderating synchronous conversations sometimes used among  organizing groups, as it offers a way to decenter the moderator/instructor and create space for participants to steer the discussion. It includes a set of one to four prompts that are passed between participants. The first round may include the following: (1) some kind of greeting or introduction; (2) a response to a singular, open-ended prompt that each participant responds to, introduced at the start by the moderator/instructor (for example: reflection on an assignment or reading, or a discussion topic pertaining to course material); and (3) a pass—to another participant/peer in the session who is not the moderator.

Round
Structure

Following a planning period of 4 minutes...
1. Introduce yourself, say hi
2. Respond to the active prompt
3. Pass to another person

Above, a template structure for a round, in which students have some time to prepare thoughts before the round begins.

In subsequent rounds, the follow-up prompt may become the responsibility of the group (or breakout groups) to generate. With a new group-generated prompt, another round can begin. This subsequent round reflects participants’ preferences (rather than the moderator’s) for where the conversation should be headed. In addition to giving participants greater substantive control of the discussion, this conversation structure can also provide flexibility in modes of engagement, and makes gestures towards interpersonal interaction.

Round Benefits

1. Topics originate at the moderator, then move through the participants
2. Conversation has clear goals: response, reflection, and idea generation
3. Structure avoids gravitational pull of instructor/moderator after each person speaks
4. Modes of participation are clear and encouraged equitably

We included the slide above in our workshop to discuss and make transparent our goals for the round form.

Passing the mic

The metaphor “pass the mic” is useful for thinking about ways to move a conversation along and keep focus on a topic. To encourage dialogue to move among students, consider stating explicitly that a student may continue a conversation by “passing” to another student—that they are empowered to “pass the mic.” In an open discussion, that student may have signaled that they would like to speak. In a facilitated round, students would pass among all students under the agreed conditions that anyone may be passed to or “called on”—but that anyone may also state that they are unable to participate. Conversations on Zoom can have more energy and equitable modes of engagement when moderators articulate that participants may pass to anyoneincluding those “off-camera,”  who may wish to either unmute or use text chat.

Students might also use this moment of mic-passing to have small moments of greeting, recognition, and low-stakes conversation with each other, or to speak back to or praise each other’s contributions.

Common Concerns: Synchronous Teaching

icon of hand holding a microphone
"After a student responds, a void of silence opens up until the conversation returns to me..."

Image source: noun project

Pass the Mic

Try asking students to call on each other during discussions. Explicitly empower them to pass to their peers and hail each other to speak next. Try using short rounds to warm up (such as one-sentence check-ins).

Faculty agreed that the “void of silence” is a commonly felt moment after one student speaks and no one continues the conversation—prompting it to return to the instructor.

Managing time spent on rounds

Sometimes even one round towards the start of class takes quite a while, and may not leave enough time for a second one. In case of large groups, not everybody has to go; rounds can be limited to a number of passes, for example. Suggested time limits and nudges can help move conversation along. But however the conversations are structured, check in on how students are moving through the course while also getting a little context—perhaps, at their discretion—about how they are moving through life. 

Adding a planning period

Synchronous conversations place participants in a so-called “just-in-time” space, in which their time to process and prepare engagement is extremely limited. So prep time is important. Giving folks maybe five minutes before launching into a discussion to collect thoughts, jot down notes, or enter a mindful headspace can go a long way (in-person and online). Note: Compared to being completely unresponsive, saying or typing: “I’m not able to participate right now” is a mode of active participation. 

Using the text chat

Think of the text chat as offering equal access to participation in the synchronous classroom. In other words, as equal to engagement via voice/video. As we outlined, there are many reasons why a student could be unable to engage by microphone and video camera, including the constraints of shared or non-private spaces and/or unequal access to technology. Practically, this means building some class structure around, and reserving class time for, text chat participation. In our own instruction (Zahra and Seth), we have noticed that individuals who explicitly would like to use the chat to engage in discussion may get passed by among those using microphones—sometimes while waiting for someone to complete typing a contribution. While using a “round” structure can help assure equitable participation among those students, utilizing other cues such as music (see below) can draw the whole class’s focus towards the text chat space.

Playing music

As we just mentioned, sometimes the audio/video conversations happening won’t wait for participants who are typing in the chat. Before a round, try queueing up music by sharing your audio (perhaps from a class-curated playlist!) for whenever someone opts to use the text chat instead of speaking to respond. The audio pushes attention towards the active chatter—signaling that it’s their time to enter into the conversation and receive attention—and, simply put, makes waiting less awkward for the group. And it’s hard to talk over.

To do this in a Zoom meeting, use the “share audio” functionality. On Zoom, only one user can share their screen and audio (has to be the same user), so plan for who the DJ will be in advance, to coordinate on screen-sharing, if needed.

Co-working sessions

Co-working sessions, like group office hours or synchronous co-writing time, could include, for example, a DJ amongst students who plays shared music while others use the time to post responses, comment on each other’s writing, or work on a class blog.

Tone-setting

In our recent workshop on this subject, we provided time to read, reflect on, and discuss a tone-setting text, meant to recognize who was in the room and how we would like participants to treat each other and their perspectives. Sharing a tone-setting text (example below), with time built-in to confront, adapt, or edit what is put forth, can help bridge divides between student perspectives, and draw in those who may be worried that their preferred modes of engagement are not welcome.

icon of hands around a human figure
source: noun project
We request that you remain attentive to—and supportive of—the range of voices present today. This workshop includes participants at various levels of scholarly and teaching experience: graduate students alongside faculty from their own or other programs, teaching at their own or other colleges. This range is deliberate; and in the spirit of the inclusivity we aspire to demonstrate. It is in line with our belief that each of us brings a valuable perspective, and it is our strongest desire to create an environment in which all voices feel welcome.

In our workshop, we offered this tone-setting message for reflection before we began a round. We think this could be adapted to a course seminar.

The strategies above offer ways to acknowledge the ongoing constraints to learning, and attempt to make participation low-stress, low-stakes, and accessible. With such organizational nudges, we can try to signal that everyone is encouraged to participate, and that there is flexibility in doing so.


About the authors

Seth Graves is a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center who specializes in the study of writing itself, rhetoric, and digital culture with accessibility and student empowerment in mind. He additionally works as program manager of Writing & Great Works at Baruch College CUNY, and as a digital pedagogy specialist with the Baruch Center for Teaching and Learning. He teaches composition and rhetoric at Baruch and creative writing at The New School.

Zahra Khalid is a doctoral candidate in Earth and Environmental Sciences (Geography) at the CUNY Graduate Center. She teaches courses in Urban Studies at Queens College, and is committed to a socially-conscious pedagogy. With student well-being at heart, she aims to apply the broad principles of open pedagogy; specifically, privileging open source materials, utilizing students’ life experiences towards learning, honing their research skills, and sparking critical thinking towards our shared contemporary moment and everyday lives.

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