While most institutions value diversity, they often struggle to institutionalize practices that support inclusion and equity in online environments. When we, the Peralta Community College District’s Distance Education team, could not find a rubric to support online course equity, we created the Peralta Equity Rubric. This rubric is designed to foster an expanded understanding and appreciation for student populations, particularly for disproportionately impacted students, and their experiences in online courses.
The rubric was developed through exhaustive research about the aspects of online courses that most negatively affect online student persistence and/or success. The rubric’s criteria include: addressing students’ access to technology and different types of support (both academic and non-academic); increasing the visibility of the instructor’s commitment to inclusion; addressing common forms of bias (e.g., image and representation bias, interaction bias); helping students make connections (e.g., between course topics and their lives; with the other students); and following universal design for learning principles. As the rubric was developed the team modified it to support technology support staff and student services staff as well.
See the current version of the full Peralta Equity Rubric at http://web.peralta.edu/de/equity.
At Peralta Community College District (“Peralta” or “PCCD”), the increased demand for online classes reflects national and statewide trends, doubling from 9.1% to 18.2% of total district FTEs in just five years. While students want the flexibility of online classes, they often underestimate the work required to succeed. As a consequence, online students have lower retention and pass rates. This disparity is worse when we drill down to examine the success of disproportionately impacted populations, including but not limited to students who identify as African-American or Latino/a, first-generation students, and veterans. The district has taken a proactive approach to addressing these achievement gaps--i.e., before the colleges launch many more online courses, the district wants to ensure that those courses have been reviewed for quality, accessibility, and equity.
The Online Equity Rubric was designed to address this disparity through research-based course design or redesign. The rubric guides faculty through the design of their online activities to decrease the barriers to success for all students. It encourages faculty to consider how they will help students from a wide variety of backgrounds connect to the content. Faculty are also prompted to encourage dialog with and between diverse groups of students.
Among its definitions, Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines equity as "freedom from bias or favoritism." In the context of distance education, equity refers to ensuring success for all students by removing elements of bias that affect students differently. Every online teacher has to be proactive in addressing challenges and barriers that affect the success of all student groups. Those challenges and barriers can be as fundamental as access—making sure all students have access to online courses and the technology required to complete them. Conversely, they can be as complex as helping students combat stereotype threat or increasing their feelings of social belonging in an online course environment. Returning to the definition of equity, online teachers must combat multiple forms of bias, including a) image and representation bias, b) interaction bias, c) cultural bias, and d) each teacher’s own potential unconscious biases, such as assuming that online students know when (and how) to ask for help.
The rubric represents a clear acknowledgement of the challenges of successful online learning for many students. Empowering faculty with tools and guidance to meet the needs of all students will help overcome these hurdles. By aligning their course modules and activities with the Peralta Equity Rubric, instructors make the course experience more equitable for all students. It's easy to fall into the "one size fits all" trap when we build online courses and online course activities. However, different student populations bring different needs to the online environment and/or may require different approaches to distance education. For example, while almost all online students underestimate the work required to pass Distance Education courses, disproportionately impacted students may face additional issues like limited technology access or culturally biased content. The criteria from the Equity Rubric--e.g., adopting Universal Design for Learning principles--provide faculty with strategies to tackle those issues.
1) External review: Peralta made small revisions to the initial draft of the rubric based on feedback from an equity and inclusion expert from Stanford University, but the reviewer shared that the rubric overall is comprehensive and practical for teachers unfamiliar with the concepts.
2) Peralta CCD is now completing an Online Equity Program pilot, through which online instructors use the Equity Rubric and the Online Course Design Rubric created by the California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative (OEI) to redesign applicable course activities or modules. Participating faculty members have made substantial changes and/or additions to their courses, and shared gratitude for being made aware of effective practices for increasing inclusion. In September, we will survey participating faculty and their students about the redesigned online course experience.
3) Public feedback and interest: The Peralta team gave a presentation to about ~100 faculty, instructional designers and administrators at the California Community Colleges’ Online Teaching Conference in Summer 2018 and another ~50 participants at the OLC Accelerate conference in November 2018. The high attendance generated a great deal of interest in and feedback about the rubric. Initial feedback was very positive regarding its clarity on specific practices that foster inclusion in online courses.
4) System interest in adoption: Within the CCC system, Peralta is working with the system-wide Online Education Initiative leadership team and together we plan to evaluate the Equity Rubric and implement it at scale.
5) Pending research: Last, Peralta is applying for research grants to study formally the rubric’s impact on student success and decreasing achievement gaps for disproportionately impacted student groups.
6) Student testimonial: The following statement was made by Corey Hollis, a PCCD student and former Student Representative on the PCCD Board of Trustees:
“As a student, I find the Online Equity Rubric useful to enhance student learning because it’s designed to reverse the usual methods of delivering course information. In my career as a student, I find that in most online classes the student has to understand what the teacher’s style and delivery of approach to the course materials are to have a passing or exemplary grade. This need to learn that the teacher makes it difficult for all students to succeed if they cannot adapt to the many different styles teachers use to relay information. I have seen many students go out of their way to find teachers that suit their preferred method of learning, and this can be burdensome on the student, not because they can’t learn the material, but because the content is not taught in a way that suits the needs of the student by the majority of teachers. It is the student that pays to be taught by the teacher, not the other way around, so why does the student have to adapt to the direction of the teacher?
With the Online Equity Rubric, it requires the teacher to understand the way the student learns by ensuring that information can be appreciated regardless of a student’s handicap and appeal to and hone the student’s preferred mode of digesting information in a class. Not to mention the rubric highlights the need for students to self-reflect on class material and participate with other students, making attributes such as these necessities in all class curricula. I believe that any school that adopts the Online Equity Rubric as a base for all courses will have a higher success rate of passing students and students that leave classes more engaged, confident and self-aware.”
Simple online descriptions of the OLC Learning Effectiveness Pillar state that “online students’ learning should at least be equivalent to that of traditional students” (https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/about/quality-framework-five-pillars/). In the OLC’s document describing the pillars in more detail, it is important that “the quality of learning online is comparable to the quality of its traditional programs” (Moore, 2005, p. 5). Peralta CCD wants to take this principle a step further; namely, online learning also should be an equitable experience for all online students, regardless of their background and other learner characteristics.
To address issues of quality and accessibility in online courses, Peralta CCD has adopted the Course Design Rubric--analogous to the Quality Matters rubric for Higher Education or the California State University system’s Quality Learning and Teaching rubric--created by the California Community College (CCC) system-wide Online Education Initiative (OEI). However, Peralta CCD recognizes that quality and accessibility are not the only factors affecting persistence rates (completing online courses) and success rates (passing online courses) in such a way to create larger achievement gaps for specific groups of disproportionately impacted students. The district created the Peralta Equity Rubric to further decrease these achievement gaps.
As a next step, the district Distance Education team created an online professional development experience for faculty to redesign their online courses to increase their quality, accessibility, and equity. Faculty earn a certificate only after demonstrating that they a) have redesigned the course environment to align with the OEI Course Design Rubric and Peralta Equity Rubric, and b) have planned to adopt more equitable facilitation strategies.
The Peralta CCD team believes that the online learning experience goes beyond the online course environment and includes technology support (e.g., Canvas help desk), academic student services (e.g., library, tutoring), and non-academic student services (e.g., financial aid). As such, it has modified the rubric so campus staff--those other than the online instructors--can use the rubric to make online learners’ entire experience more equitable.
No special equipment is required to implement the Peralta Equity Rubric, other than those same technologies necessary to redesign and facilitate an online course, or to support an online learner with technology issues or student services requests
There are no extra costs associated with this practice--i.e., they are the typical costs associated with a) creating and facilitating professional development for online faculty; b) supporting online faculty by reviewing their online courses and then providing instructional design feedback and support; and c) supporting online learners.