We recently caught up with Andrea Sator and Heather Williams to learn more about a research project they’re conducting — funded by a BCcampus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) grant — to explore evidence-based strategies to remove barriers to online learning.
Post by BCcampus’ editorial team
Last spring, we published a research call for proposals to develop a thought-leadership resource, seeking evidence-based strategies for designing and delivering professional development and open educational resources (OER) for educators in online learning. The goal of the research is to improve learning conditions for a diverse spectrum of students. Andrea Sator and Heather Williams created a comprehensive response, outlining the project they felt was needed for educators and learners in B.C.
What prompted you to apply for a BCcampus DEI grant?
Heather: This opportunity was brought to my attention through my relationship with one of the people at BCcampus. She learned about some of the work I’d been doing in equity, inclusion, and interculturalism. I reached out to Andrea, because she has expertise in online learning and doing work provincially, and we saw that the call for proposals aligned well with our combined areas of expertise.
Andrea: We were interested in how the work would inform the larger field because it’s an area that is increasingly becoming important and is on everyone’s mind — it was such a unique opportunity to get in the field to conduct our own investigations about the specific inquiries that are informed by the scholarship and interested us. We felt we had a lot to offer in the way of shaping this research: asking the questions in an open-ended way to get at what we thought is important for practitioners and scholars to know.
How do you see students and/or faculty benefiting from this project?
Andrea: The unique contribution that this piece makes is that it achieves a triangulation of what’s happening in the scholarship; exploring what’s taking place in the public post-secondary institutions (11 institutions have agreed to participate in the study); and what today’s students are saying. A cross-comparison of three different areas provides a unique perspective that we think can shape this field in an original way.
Typically, researchers start with a literature review but don’t often make the comparison between how that resonates with what practitioners say about the daily work and their current challenges, concerns, approaches, and experiences, and what students are saying about those very same questions.
Heather: We hope the benefits are many. One is that educators are aware of diverse learners and their needs; they are aware of the limitations in online course design and/or delivery when it comes to the ability to engage all learners. However, what we heard was a wish — through a project such as this — for there to be more potential collaboration between institutions, which could enable more people to employ best practices in building and delivering online courses and programs. In turn, this kind of collaboration will potentially benefit students who struggle with online platforms as a means of education, as the courses will be built with diverse students in mind.
What is one of the notable benefits you’ve found through this project?
Andrea: We were amazed by the way people accepted and participated in the research, specifically the faculty and staff in the post-secondary institutions. They were consistently welcoming and inviting in every instance, whether we met them on campus or online. It was completely volunteer, and they could withdraw their participation at any time, but never did. They wanted to know the results, make the connections, and have their voices heard, as well as know what they could do to support the work going forward.
It was also notable to hear how much they appreciate BCcampus, and how important BCcampus is as a resource for this province.
Heather: For many of the people we interviewed, being asked to participate and being listened to as experts was a form of validation for the hard work that goes into building thoughtfully designed and instructed online courses. There was a high level of excitement about the opportunity to share their practices and the ways in which they face their challenges.
The other piece — when we brought different stakeholders from the same institution together, they saw the opportunity to break down the silos within their own institution and work better together.
Andrea: The cross-collaboration generated within the institutions was a notable impact of this work. Also, for us as researchers, having the bird’s-eye view — the environmental scan of what’s happening in different institutions — enabled us to see the good practices being implemented. Comparing this to what’s happening in the literature, it was really nice to take a step back and help make connections to say, “Yes, people are doing these types of things.”
It was nice to see that some groups were focused on specific areas rather than other topics, and that differed from what the literature was saying, so having the environmental scan/bird’s-eye view was valuable. More about this will come out in the research.
There were four main phases: the literature review; interviewing the post-secondary institutions and transcribing, coding, and understanding the data; meeting the ethical requirements of having students respond to a survey; and pulling it all together in a thought-leadership piece.
We needed parts one through three completed to inform the fourth, but here’s the sticky part with the ethics: we’re working as independent research consultants; we’re not affiliated with any institutions and don’t actually fit into any of the tri-council receiving areas, so we didn’t need ethical approval from our own institutions because we weren’t doing this work on their behalf. Our thoughts were that our milling groups would share these surveys so we could collect the student data, but what we’ve found is we do need ethical approval from each institution. Working with each of the 11 institutions, we’ve discovered that each has a different level of ethical approval — some are quick, some are simple, some are very detailed.
We think this is an enormous learning opportunity for BCcampus, for other research consultants, and for ourselves on how to engage with this process. I think that’s going to be a big bonus, with substantial scholarly impact on how to approach ethics.
We even sought out the possibility of getting a private ethical review, but most institutions don’t accept private reviews. There seems to be some discord in the field around how to approach ethics, and each institution has different parameters. It’s quite exciting to document this.
What were you surprised to learn?
Andrea: There’s an opportunity to seek clarity in advance — these ethical officers are so busy — and they have the spirit and enthusiasm to engage with external contractors. It’s just so amazing and positive that they’re willing to have that conversation because we’re completely outside of their institutions.
Heather: When we talk about removing barriers for equity-seeking groups, it’s important to keep in mind that all of the institutions we’ve spoken with are doing their best with the often-limited resources and tools that are out there. We heard how people are grappling with the need to change, and how that is challenging within the system of education, but by and large, educators are putting diverse students in the centre. Participants are aware that different learners need different strategies, and this informs their approaches to teaching and designing online learning.
What is next for you on this project?
Andrea: Getting the student survey out — it’s such a big and exciting piece to hear from the students —and ensuring we have diversity in different areas. The ethics piece is holding us up a bit — it’s hard to complete the leadership piece without the three comparators – the first three phases – available to us.
Heather: Andrea is already brainstorming different ways for us to be as proactive as we can to ensure we get as many respondents as possible.
Andrea: There’s a possibility of support to reach students in remote and rural communities, but we initially want to honour the students in the post-secondary institutions where we were privileged to interview the faculty and staff.
At BCcampus, we’re looking forward to sharing the research results once Andrea and Heather have completed this project.
“B.C. is very progressive and very aware, and there’s a lot of amazing work out there. We feel very privileged to be invited into these institutions. We’re also fortunate that there is a BCcampus, and that there is this type of work. As well, the community appreciates the resources and opportunities that BCcampus has to share. There’s a lot of gratitude on our end, as well as from the folks in the field for everything that BCcampus provides.”Andrea Sator