The Backlash Against Inclusive Teaching

Yet another backlash against student diversity was discussed this past week in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In this case the assault came against pandemic-era inclusive teaching measures designed to mitigate the risk of student disconnection and failure –– methods such as group work, deadline flexibility, enhanced faculty interaction, and Universal Design for Learning. However, critics argue that these measures have led to a lax academic environment and decreased student motivation. What is needed, the critics assert, are stricter and more difficult courses to force students back in line.

In an article, “Why Calls for a Return to Rigor Are Wrong,”  Chronicle columnist Kevin Gannon counters this perspective, contending that a simple increase in workload, tougher grading, and heightened standards do not equate to academic rigor. He argues that these conventional methods often serve as a veneer for practices that raise barriers to student success, rather than tearing them down.

Critics of the pandemic-era teaching efforts often focus on metrics such as the volume of reading per week, the number of writing assignments, or the duration to complete an academic program. According to them, these have fallen far too low. In essence, they attribute “rigor” to logistical challenges in course delivery. However, Gannon emphasizes that higher education needn’t be prohibitive, and introducing practices that stifle student motivation and engagement is counterproductive.

In the midst of this debate, the University of California, Irvine (UCI), has taken a progressive step towards educational inclusivity with the launch of the Inclusive Course Design Institute (ICDI). This post will explore the transformative initiative of ICDI at UCI, which serves as a beacon of inclusivity and equity in the shifting landscapes of higher education.

The ICDI is a research-informed faculty development program designed to promote classroom equity, foster partnerships for inclusive teaching, and embed digital literacy to counter extremism. Based on evidence-based findings, the program has been developed and executed by a team of two dozen faculty and staff members. In its inaugural year, the program this week is wrapping up a highly popular intensive six-week workshop focusing on inclusion, accessibility, and pedagogical wellbeing.

UCI, often recognized as California’s “upward mobility engine,” acknowledges the paradox inherent to higher education. On one hand, it can act as a democratic equalizer, but on the other, it can inadvertently generate winners and losers, thus perpetuating inequality. This issue is particularly acute in the wake of the pandemic, with students grappling with disengagement, despair, and skepticism about the value of higher education.

To rectify this contradiction, the ICDI focuses on inclusivity. It assists students across all academic disciplines, especially those who may be struggling despite their best efforts, and who find themselves failing for owing to reasons they can’t always identify. The ICDI strives to mitigate structural defects in teaching that can leave students blaming themselves, rather than the poorly designed instruction that causes the problem.  The program encourages faculty to transition away from outdated teaching methods that may inadvertently discriminate against certain student groups. Instead, it emphasizes inclusive course content, recognition of students’ diverse backgrounds, and strategic adjustments to design and presentation.

The ICDI’s guiding principle is Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept akin to Universal Design in Architecture. Just as physical design elements, like curb cuts, benefit individuals in wheelchairs, the elderly, delivery workers, and parents with strollers, UDL aims to eliminate barriers in course design and education.

UDL, akin to the Civil Rights legislation, benefits everyone, not just the groups it was initially designed to help. A prime example is closed captioning in online course videos, initially implemented to assist hearing-impaired students but also beneficial to English learners, students with processing differences, or those requiring a quiet environment. Studies show that all students learn more effectively when captions are used, regardless of ability or academic level.

Further UDL strategies include flexibility in deadlines, 24-hour exams for working or caregiving students, making online courses mobile-friendly, recognizing differences in students’ learning styles, providing extra clarity in course materials, and notably, shifting from teacher-centered design to student-centered teaching.

The ICDI aspires to create an asset-based educational environment, focusing on the strengths of UCI’s students and acknowledging their value and potential. Rather than fostering competition, the program poses two questions: who might be left behind with our current practices, and how can we include them?

As we contemplate the future of higher education, initiatives like the ICDI represent a promising step towards democratizing success, making it accessible to all, not just a select few. In a world that is quick to return to “rigor,” it is vital to remember that a truly rigorous education is one that includes and benefits all students.

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