COVID-19 Best Practices for Equitable & Inclusive Student-Centred Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic is exerting an important impact on education. At McGill, classes this Fall will be taught primarily via remote learning platforms but also through some in-person experiences. In times like these, we must ensure that teaching remains student-centered and that we provide adequate support to students. Our learner community is diverse, composed of people with different needs, strengths, and access to resources, and we can all work to ensure access to a quality educational experience. Whether through recognizing variations in access to technology, and adapting accordingly; catering to learning differences; supporting students in precarious financial situations; providing health and wellness support, there are multiple ways we can continue to strive toward inclusion in our work. In sum, even in this moment of crisis, we can and should all continue to uphold values of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

To ensure that our new reality does not affect the quality of education and our commitment to equity, we put together a list of best practices and resources to better support student learning during this crisis. Please do not hesitate to reach out to any of us should you require further information or support.

Further, for general information on remote teaching and learning, you may visit IT Work Remotely & Teaching and Learning Services website. TLS notably points to 5 principles: (1) keep it simple (2) promote community and well-being (3) help students become familiar with online tools (4) provide opportunities for students to engage in learning in a variety of ways and across time zones and (5) respect privacy.

On this page, you will find resources concerning:


1. Focus on the relationships you have with other community members

More than ever, our community members will feel the need to connect with one other. While social distancing affects all of us, its impact might be felt more significantly on particular students and members of the McGill community. Depending on their circumstances, students living alone or away from home, and students who live with mental health challenges may feel isolated. The same can be said for a number of people dealing with this crisis on their own or with little support. In addition, many of our students may be caring for dependants, especially now that schools and daycares are closed. Others may be caring for and/or preoccupied about the health of other loved ones. All of this can quickly become overwhelming.

As such, maintaining relationships between and among faculty members and students through their courses will be central to support student experiences at this time. Showing empathy to connect with others and sharing how we feel and how we are dealing will help create a connection and a bond of trust. Fostering an open, authentic, and present connection with students can help in multiple ways:

  1. It can favour communication;
  2. It may enable greater participation and engagement;
  3. It provides students with a resource and contact point for their academic and other concerns; and
  4. It signals to students that they are not alone and that they are cared for.


Generally, to provide an inclusive class environment, here are a few tips:

  1. As will be elaborated on later, provide consistent communication;
  2. Be patient and kind;
  3. Conduct check-ins at the beginning of class or office hours. In order to maximize accessibility, provide a few options for your students the chat function, video call, audio call, or email;
  4. Provide frequent and meaningful feedback;
  5. Provide assurance to students that you are there to help and to see them succeed;
  6. Be available to students so that they can connect with you and each other through discussion boards, chats, video and audio conferences, email, phone calls, and so on. However, set ‘office hours’ where you commit to responding to students in a certain course, as boundaries remain important to protect your own professional role and your own wellness;
  7. Give multiple options to students for evaluations, learning, and communication;
  8. Be flexible on deadlines and timelines;
  9. Be clear about expectations, evaluation methods, and deadlines; and
  10. Encourage community support and let students know you are there for them. Community support can look like collective notesharing within the class, peer-to-peer check-ins, resource sharing, etc.

In some ways, the quality of the interaction during online classes may be more relevant than the content taught. Because ‘interaction’ looks different online than it does in person. Take some time to establish with your students how you want to negotiate this. If you are requesting live interaction, asynchronous reflection, or establishing turn-taking/answering questions in the digital world, be clear about this and remain consistent in your practice.


2. Prioritize more communication rather than less

In times of uncertainty, communicating with students and collaborators often and consistently can help reduce anxiety and stress. By being transparent and communicating with your students, you can help create some certainty in their education and academic lives.

This can be done by being unambiguous about:

  1. the progression of the course;
  2. how classes will be taught;
  3. virtual office hours times and access;
  4. the availability of the instructors;
  5. the methods of evaluations and the grading criteria; and
  6. the resources available for help and support.

Be as clear as possible. With most of our communications moving online, some people might have difficulty sorting through the text “noise”. Support your students by providing consistent layouts with your messaging, using bullet points, linking to outside resources directly, and placing the information in order of importance. If there is something that a student needs to do, consider using an “ACTIONS” header, with a consolidated list.


3. Implement measures to make your teaching accessible to all students

While shifting to remote learning may be difficult for most of us, this method of learning may create added barriers for particular students. These barriers may be due to a disability, whether learning or otherwise, to financial constraints, to lack of the required technology, or other factors. In order to address this concern, and to effectively remove these barriers, we can work on making our virtual classroom more accessible. Here are a few tips for doing so:

  1. Keep it simple. Not all students are comfortable with online technology or have the ability to engage in complicated pedagogical endeavours due to other concerns;
  2. Provide an inclusive learning environment for students with disabilities by using technology that is accessible. Some students may not have access to the assistive technology at home that they usually use to complete their assignments, exams and/or coursework. This resource prepared by McGill’s Accessibility Advisor, Rachel Desjourdy, provides individuals with information about assistive technology that has been made freely available during COVID-19;
  3. Provide office hours at different times of the day. For example, students with parental responsibilities or caregiving responsibilities may not be able to participate in daytime office hours. Moreover, students who have returned home may be living in different time zones;
  4. Record your lectures. Not all students will have access to the online platform during usual class time for a variety of reasons. Providing slides, questions, exercises, and recorded lectures can help students participate at their own pace;
  5. Uploading your lecture slides in advance, and making them available for review afterwards can go a long way to support accessibility in the classroom; and
  6. Promote accessibility during a live class by assigning students to caption parts of the lecture. The transcript can be shared as a study tool amongst students, and will promote universal design for learning.

The article, Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19, is another great resource for instructors preparing to teach remotely.


4. Provide an environment where students can collaborate

Collaborations through course work may be a good way to help students connect with each other. This can be through:

  1. Small group online discussions. For example, by using the “breakout rooms” feature on Zoom;
  2. Group assignments and evaluations; MyCourses has features for group assignments, and for group discussions;
  3. Group office hours and question forums; and
  4. Notesharing and resource sharing within the class (you can set up a collective OneDrive document for students to input their study resources).

5. Collaborate with other faculty members, staff, and other departments at McGill

Harness the skills and abilities of others in our community to help better support you and students. To do so, connect with others to provide greater resources:

  1. Organize coordinated communication to students to make sure they are in communication with their faculty/department, but are not overwhelmed; and
  2. Provide students with contact people to reach out to and resources to use should they need it. This may include resources from the Teaching and Learning Services, from the Office for Student with Disabilities, from Student Life and Learning, and other resources;

Technology & Course Design

6. Design your course to maximize student learning

Your course design and the technology you will rely on have to take into account the diversity of students who will attend your class. Paying close attention to particular concerns may benefit all students:

  1. Realize that many students will be using mobile devices, such as smartphones, rather than laptops and desktops to attend class. This means that if you are using slides or using presentation mode on Zoom, large writing will be more easily read on a smaller screen. For example, using a minimum of 14pt, sans serif (like arial or verdana) will make your slides easier to read;
  2. Relatedly, students with limited access to internet may have a finite amount of data they can use. While Zoom works well with mobile devices, it uses a significant amount of data. As such, using both online and offline technology will help in reducing the amount of data used; and
  3. Many students will not have access to the required technology to meaningfully participate in class. Reach out to students to see which technology they are using and how you can best support them. Point them to resources available to get the required technology.

Further Resources

McGill University is on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. We acknowledge and thank the diverse Indigenous peoples whose presence marks this territory on which peoples of the world now gather.

For more information about traditional territory and tips on how to make a land acknowledgement, visit our Land Acknowledgement webpage.

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