Inclusive Pedagogies during the Pandemic: Can Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy Keep Up?

Adam Budd, University of Edinburgh


ALL ACADEMICS who are committed teachers understand the importance of reflecting, openly and critically, on our own practice. But during the first months of the pandemic, we were so focussed on making the quick shift to digital teaching that it was impossible to find the “safe space” to reflect on what we were doing. While we worried about our students’ unequal access to technology and the lack of evidence to ensure our online assessments were fair, we also witnessed the extent of unequal suffering during lockdown. The Albert Kennedy Trust had advised our LGBT+ students to “press pause on coming out” because escalating cases of domestic violence toward young queer people showed that lockdown at home “was at best a difficulty and at worst actively dangerous.”[1] The novel coronavirus frightened us all but it imperilled an unequal proportion of colleagues and students from Black and South Asian backgrounds, irrespective of socioeconomic context.[2] How could our sprint to support our students, and each other, create the scope for reflective practice on teaching during that awful time?

In May 2020, History UK launched its research-based Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, “to provide emergency assistance to historians, … as they transition to online teaching in response to Covid-19 restrictions.” Its website tallied 4500 hits within 12 weeks, suggesting its popularity beyond historians.[3] By “emergency,” the authors meant “pedagogical emergency”—but we were facing a cluster of crises throughout that spring and summer. When governments announced the cancellation of final-year exams, and that universities would offer places to school leavers on their “calculated” or “predicted” outcomes, historians anticipated a reopening of the racial disadvantage gap that marked our discipline. For many years “predicted grades” had been lower than “achieved grades” among even the highest-achieving pupils from South Asian and Black ethnic groups.[4] So in line with the commitments we made in our Report on Race, Ethnicity, and Equality in UK History (2018), the Royal Historical Society hosted a virtual workshop in June, to understand the impact of the Covid crisis on minority-ethnic admissions to higher education.

Peter D’Sena, RHS Vice President, observed at the time that “we are not facing a crisis, but rather crises born of racial injustice compounded by a health crisis.” Epidemiologists had explained for years that social and economic inequalities, created and sustained by racism, led to health inequality among minoritised-ethnic communities across Britain.[5] Indeed, by midsummer, patterns of pandemic-related illness highlighted these racial disparities, even when researchers accounted for geographical and socioeconomic factors.[6] In one East London hospital, Black patients were 80% and Asian patients 54% more likely to require invasive mechanical ventilation than white patients.[7] To think about pandemic pedagogy separately from this humanitarian catastrophe in 2020 was as difficult as teaching in a surgical mask in 2021 while trying not to worry about the seats left empty by the variable number of self-isolating students.

When the tough academic year 2020/21 ended, History UK undertook a study of inclusive pedagogy among History departments across the four nations. Led by Dr Sarah Holland, Education Officer of HUK and Dr Adam Budd, University of Edinburgh, History UK are undertaking a series of meetings with focus groups comprising directors of EDI and directors of teaching from 21 HEIs. Having read the RHS report on race, and considered the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook, in addition to a series of questions, we held our initial meetings with representatives of five institutions associated with the East Midlands Centre for History Teaching and Learning. These provided an opportunity for historians to reflect openly on our practice as educators, in the company of similarly exhausted yet eagerly communicative colleagues who were committed to fairness in higher education.

These consultations consider the key priorities and challenges for History as a subject for inclusive teaching. What work had historians undertaken before the pandemic? Have efforts to mitigate the damage of Covid-19 shifted strategies to extend equality, diversity, and inclusion across historical curricula? Although our departments range in size, demographics, recruitment strategies, and areas of emphasis, colleagues suggest that before the pandemic hit, action on inclusiveness tended to originate among students and staff. But with so many new guidelines coming down from senior administration during the pandemic, the directional flow towards ensuring equality has changed. From 1999/2000, HEFCE (now the Office for Students or OFS) has funded Widening Participation (WP) programmes to help universities recruit and retain students from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas or backgrounds; it also supports access for students with visible or invisible disabilities. Consequently, senior university administrators have pointed to their quantifiable success in WP to illustrate that their campuses are inclusive places for historically disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the shift to digital teaching during the pandemic may have enabled universities to raise their ambitions on access. We have noticed that the phrase “reducing attainment gaps” (which implies a deficit in student performance) has become “eliminating awarding gaps” (implying problems with teaching and assessment). This bolder ambition reflects the apparent ability of all students to engage with digital learning regardless of where or who they are. Similarly, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of disability, which has led universities to showcase online teaching that will reach disabled students without discriminating among or against them.

We see two problems here. The first is that the criteria that the Office for Students and universities have used to define WP originate in the Dearing and Kennedy reports of 1997. By retaining these criteria, universities pre-empt an intersectional understanding of disadvantage that students and their tutors now see more clearly. As we noted earlier, members of minoritised ethnic communities experience life-threatening disadvantage even when we factor for economic and geographical context. But WP funding to retain disadvantaged students has been allocated according to a definition of “at-risk” that refers only to students’ age and entry qualifications.[8] Colleagues we met are calling for an intersectional analysis of recruitment data and strategies, to reflect the broader thinking on vulnerability, equality, and access.

Second, students who can access the internet may not be able to engage with digital content on an equal footing. Universities have funded digital versions of more if not all the content that students need for their courses, and this is an excellent step forward. But even if all students can access the required technology, not all will have a quiet space in which to read, think, and write, free of caring responsibilities. Some students report that their homes become unsafe when they access course content on topics that address sexuality, race, and religion. Attempts to decolonise the historical curriculum take on new meaning when teaching and learning moves online. Whilst some colleagues are painfully aware of the challenges students might face engaging with such material at home, the move online assumed an exclusive learning environment. When students find such matters ignored by celebrations of digital teaching strategies, they may assume that their university will not offer flexibility or support, or that their university cannot recognise why supportive community matters. Whatever the reality, these perceptions are incredibly important and can have a profound impact on the lives of students. Colleagues are pleased by the eagerness of universities to narrow or eradicate disadvantage gaps and to recognise those disabilities that have prevented students to attend classes in person. But this enthusiasm may side-line those students whose experience was never anticipated by major inclusion strategies at institutional level.

Meleisa Ono-George’s critique of the RHS Report on Race, Ethnicity, and Equality in UK History argued that attending to achievement disparities must extend to “a decolonised, anti-racist and engaged classroom” in which students will be “encouraged to be active participants in the classroom community.”[9] Now, as the pandemic continues, students tell us that “classroom community” means something different than it did before we switched to masks, monitors, and deepening experiences of financial precarity. The thoughtful conversations we had about creating “safer spaces” and “fostering community” for our students and for each other, before March 2020, have changed. We now must account for the intellectual, emotional, and economic consequences of infection, associated disability, chronic illnesses, and death among our Black, South Asian, and less affluent students and their families. The Sutton Trust has found that during the past year, 30% of students were less able to afford their studies, and 34% had lost a job, worked reduced hours, or not been paid by their employer.[10] For the first time in a decade, the awarding gap has stopped closing.[11] Many of these students lack the “wider pastoral preparedness” that would build emotional and intellectual resilience.[12] How can universities generate a sense of belonging for these students in the context of such far-reaching yet ultimately personal shifts? These are individual as well as broader crises, and to address them in ways that meet these clear but shifting conditions, senior administrators and teaching staff must work together to understand our students intersectionally. The pandemic offers opportunities to learn, and this will entail thinking about the pedagogical implications of equality, diversity, and inclusion strategies that were created at a different time, to meet different challenges.

 

References

[1] How Coronavirus Has Affected the LGBT+ Community, Bardardo’s, 2020.

[2] Public Health England, Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19, 2020.

[3] A. Merrydew, “The History UK Pandemic Initiative,” CUCD Bulletin, 49 (2020).

[4] G. Wyness, The Rules of the Game, (London: Sutton Trust, 2017). R. Murphy and G. Wyuness, “Minority Report: The Impact of Predicted Grades on University Admissions of Disadvantaged Groups, (London: UCL, 2020).

[5] J. Nazroo, “The Structuring of Ethnic Inequalities in Health: Economic Position, Racial Discrimination, and Racism,” American Journal of Public Health, 93 (February 2003): 277-84.

[6] Public Health England, Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes of COVID-19, 2020.

[7] Y. Wan and V. Apea, “‘49% More Likely to Die’ – Racial Inequalities of COVID-19 Laid Bare in Study of East London Hospitals,” The Conversation, (27 January 2021).

[8] L. Bowes, et al. The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation, Edge Hill University, 2013.

[9] M. Ono-George, “Beyond Diversity: Anti-Racist Pedagogy in British History Departments,” Women’s History Review, 28 (2019): 500-7.

[10] R. Montacute and E. Holt-White, Covid-19 and Social Mobility Impact Brief, no. 2, Sutton Trust, May 2020.

[11] J. Hutchinson et al, Education in England: Annual Report 2020, (Educational Policy Institute); for Scotland, see P. Scott, The Impact of Covid-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education, (Commissioner for Fair Access, Scottish Government, 2020).

[12] See D. Woolley and A. Shukla, “A Call to Action on Widening Participation in the Era of Covid-19,” Higher Eduation Policy Institution, 8 June 2020. For the foundational scholarship on resilience, see C. Dweck et al, Academic Tenacity, (Seattle: Gates Foundation, 2014).

History UK fellowship – history skills passport mapping exercise

History UK is launching a new initiative to develop a history ‘skills passport’. This project will provide a framework for translating the skills that students develop on history courses into the skills language recognised by employers. The aim is to provide history academics and students with a series of resources that will support the embedding of employability within curricula in discipline-specific language. During the first phase of the project we will conduct a mapping exercise, which will involve surveying existing resources on History skills and on employability in History in the UK and abroad, cross-referencing with other disciplines, and identifying gaps.

History UK is seeking a postgraduate student for a short-term fellowship to support the first phase of this initiative. The History UK fellow will conduct desk-based searches of websites, blog posts, and social media for relevant case studies, reports, and other practical guides. They will write clear and concise summaries of their findings to help inform the resources that History UK will produce and curate. They will write at least one blog post for the History UK website on a topic of their choosing (relevant to the initiative), and may also be asked to assist in planning for the next phase of the skills passport project.

The fellow will be expected to do 30 hours work on the project in July, working flexibly at times that suit them. The renumeration for the fellowship is fixed at £500.

Person specification:

  • A postgraduate student (MA or PhD) in History, or a related discipline, based at a higher education institution in the UK;
  • Strong research skills;
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills;
  • Ability to work independently and with minimal supervision;
  • Excellent organisation and project management skills;
  • Attention to detail;
  • Experience of writing reports (preferable);
  • Interest in employability (preferable).

To apply: Send a two-page CV and a one-page cover letter to historyuk2020@gmail.com. In the cover letter you should explain why you are interested in the role, how you meet the person specification, and what you will bring to the initiative.

The deadline for applications is Weds 23rd June at 4pm.

Pandemic Pedagogy: a student perspective 2

By Sophie Moennich (University of Roehampton)


Now over a year since the first lockdown, many history students have adapted to the challenges of online learning. But levels of engagement with online learning has seen wide variation, especially as time has gone on. Some lecturers have used new approaches to help history students stay engaged, something increasingly helpful as time has gone past. Jamboard, breakout rooms and other approaches have helped for history students to share their ideas and stay engaged.

When I asked other history students about their experiences, a common reply was that pre-recorded lectures have been really useful. One student commented that they ‘engaged even better than in person as there was no distraction and I could re-watch and make proper notes’. Pre-recorded lectures have allowed students a sense of control over their time, and responsibility to ensure that they have watched them before the seminar. They are even more important for international students who may be in a different time zone. Because lectures are more accessible, students are more able to engage throughout the seminar, and have a stronger understanding of the topic. Another student confirmed that ‘lecturers make sure everything is electronically available, so I have access to more than last year, especially e-books.’ This implies that for many history students, learning resources have been largely unaffected by online leaning.

Screenshot showing a Jamboard discussion on shellshock, with post-it notes highlighting key themes linked to the topic and to images of 'shell shocked' patients
Screenshot of a Jamboard discussion on shell shock

Breakout rooms and websites such as Jamboard have stood out to me as one of the most important developments. Breakout rooms have allowed students to share their ideas, and establish a sense of involvement for students who may prefer to share their ideas with a smaller group of people. This has helped students with different confidence levels, and also ensured that they stay engaged with their course. Additionally, Jamboard has allowed students to share their ideas on a virtual post-it note seen by everyone else in the seminar. This has been especially useful as it has allowed students to share their ideas anonymously and more extensively with other students’ ideas. This suggests that the transition to online learning has helped students who are less confident in sharing their ideas to feel more secure in doing so, even if anonymously.

On a personal and social level, one student I spoke to additionally revealed how online groupwork was also useful in offering a space to discuss how they were adapting to online learning, and to share ideas. With group presentations still occurring within my own course, students have been able to stay in contact and discuss module work together.

It is the sense of control over learning that I would like to emphasise going forward. It is so important to empower students when they watch lectures, and give them the space to share their ideas in an environment they feel comfortable with. This independence in relation to time management and preparation for seminars is especially important when so many may feel their motivation dwindling as a result of lockdown.


We’d like to thank Sophie for sharing the results of her research into how the pandemic has affected History students and would love to hear more from academics and their students, either on this blog or via Twitter @history_uk – get in touch if you’d like to have your say.

We’re currently collecting feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook and would encourage you to fill in the survey here.

In addition, we’ll soon be announcing a follow-up project on pedagogy after the pandemic. So watch this space!

Pandemic Pedagogy: A student perspective 1

By Conor Penna-FitzGerald (University of Roehampton)


My name is Conor Penna-FitzGerald and I am a postgraduate history student at the University of Roehampton. My project analysed how students experienced online learning during the pandemic in comparison to the ‘normal’ classroom experience.

Starting my research for this post, I had thought there would be an abundance of views and opinions on online learning to be found online. In reality, I was amazed at how little there was. On ‘The Student Room’, I found only two forums, both of which emphasised limited access to primary sources, as well as other learning resources, such as course readings. Instead, I conducted my own research and spoke to nine UK-based History students (all postgraduates) on their experiences of online seminars, the predominant teaching method adopted by universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These offered mixed views on the value of online seminars over the usual classroom experience.

The most consistent positive response was that of praise for the history faculty at their university. Not only have they have provided high levels of support and adapted quickly to the changing circumstances, but they have helped to establish a sense of normality. By keeping to a clear schedule, lecturers have helped to mitigate feelings of discontent amongst students. They have also taken on extra responsibilities in terms of providing psychological aid, providing reassurance about student’s abilities. Furthermore, their willingness to use new technology is commendable. Ultimately, history lecturers have clearly maintained a high level of professionalism, which has positively shaped student experiences.

One of the most important positives of this situation, is that commuting is no longer an issue. Many of the students I spoke to were commuting students, and their strenuous, long, exhausting journeys have now been diminished. Not only has online learning made it easier to attend seminars, but much cheaper. One international student shared this sentiment: it is easier for them to stay in their home country and study, much cheaper, and more familiar. Another UK-based postgraduate student emphasised that not needing to commute made her feel much safer. She is reliant on public transport as she does not own a car, and with seminars often taking place in the evening, ‘Zoom’ seminars have worked well. This suggests that when pandemic restrictions do ease, universities should consider continuing their offering of online learning, as it ensures access to higher education for people with physical and mental health problems (e.g. anxiety). It allows students to bypass social insecurities that come from physical presence, enabling them to reach their full potential in a safer and more comfortable environment.

To my surprise, only one person I spoke to mentions the benefits of pre-recorded lectures. The reason why I was shocked by this is because they can now be watched at any time. This allows flexibility for students and allows them to study at their own pace. If students do not understand any content, they can pause the video and re-watch it until they understand it.

Despite these positives, online seminars have been much more divisive in terms of student experience. Many of the issues with them have been clear since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the factors which can ‘make or break’ the student experience is their internet connection, and most of the students I spoke to confirmed this. Buffering, pixilation, ‘robotic’ sounding voices, and eventual disconnection from seminars have all posed challenges. These disrupt focus, cause a loss of motivation, and ultimately dampen the online learning experience. I suffer from bad internet and have needed to turn off the webcam to increase the bandwidth, or dial into the seminar by phone. I often chose the latter option, leading to a virtually non-existent social experience due to not being able to see the other students.

To further illustrate this, the image to the right is a screenshot of what ‘dialling in’ to a ‘Zoom’ meeting looks like. As can be seen, it is like that of a normal phone call.  This has contriImage of Zoom 'dial-in'buted to an atmosphere which has been totally ‘unlike’ university, and for those who do have to dial in, it unfortunately permits the emergence of solitary emotions due to the lack of community. Even students who have been able to engage with a webcam have felt the same.

As social interaction has been minimal, communication between students has suffered. One student commented that online learning has been disappointing because of the inability to freely communicate with their peers about what they really thought about the readings, as well as how assignments and dissertations were progressing. This has added feelings of what I call ‘assignment isolation’ (undertaking stressful and demanding work completely on your own), which was seldom there when students were physically present together in class.

In addition to this, online learning has made it easier for students to fall behind. It has been much harder for students to ask questions about lectures that have been pre-recorded and uploaded online. If a student needs clarification, they must take the time to email their lecturer and wait for their response. Students who dial into seminars to ask questions are also unable to use any ‘raise hand’ functions. Again, students would then have to email their lecturer after class and once again wait for their response. The online teaching format additionally (although inadvertently) allows for procrastination, due to recordings being available to watch anytime. It therefore requires the student to exercise more discipline over their time, which before the pandemic would have been structured in a clear university timetable.

Many of the problems described here reflect wider issues associated with the lockdowns and remote working, and so ways of combatting them are unclear. Nevertheless, even small steps could improve the student experience of university. If the student uses wireless internet, for example, the purchase of an ethernet cable would result in a much more stable internet connection. These cables vary in expense but are typically rather cheap! Moreover, for students who feel that university is now ‘no longer like university’, a group chat could go a long way in helping maintain contact with their peers. This would not only aid social interaction, but also allow students to discuss and assist each other in their assignments, reading, and dissertations. In this way, even if online learning is not seen as effective as campus-based learning, it does serve a purpose.


We’d like to thank Conor for sharing the results of his research into how the pandemic has affected History students and would love to hear more from academics and their students, either on this blog or via Twitter @history_uk – get in touch if you’d like to have your say.

We’re currently collecting feedback on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook and would encourage you to fill in the survey here.

In addition, we’ll soon be announcing a follow-up project on pedagogy after the pandemic. So watch this space!

Pandemic Pedagogy 2.0: A summary

As we bring our series of blog posts following up on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative to a close, we thought it would be useful to summarise the interesting contributions that we’ve received. Looking back through them, we thought that they fell into three broad categories. First, there were several posts that addressed the issue of accessibility and building a sense of community among the student (and staff) body:

Second, several contributors reflected in a broader sense on the staff and student experience of teaching and learning during the pandemic:

Finally, we had three posts that explored innovative approaches to teaching and learning, from fieldtrips to assessment via the role of paper (remember that?) in the digital classroom:

To these we can add the posts that were published last year as part of the original Pandemic Pedagogy initiative, which you can find by looking back through the blog.

We hope that you have found these posts to be useful in thinking about your own teaching and learning experiences during the pandemic.

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to this series of blog posts. We hope that you have found them useful. If you would like to contribute another short blog post or podcast/video that addresses how the pandemic has changed or affected history teaching and learning in higher education then please email Dr Sarah Holland (sarah.holland@nottingham.ac.uk), History UK’s Education Officer. We’d also love to hear your views on the Pandemic Pedagogy initiative and on these blog posts via our Twitter account.