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Equity in Education: Removing Barriers to Online Learning

An update on the research project conducted by Andrea Sator and Heather Williams, ABLE Research Consultants, funded by a BCcampus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) grant. 

Post by BCcampus’ editorial team

“As online courses continue to rise for a variety of reasons, it is imperative to examine and interrogate the ways in which inequities in education are experienced in online environments. Equity in education examines issues of fairness and access to opportunities. Online course delivery has the potential to break down some barriers that exist with face-to-face classrooms,” begins the report from Heather Williams and Andrea Sator of ABLE Research Consultants.

When Heather and Andrea started their research into understanding barriers to online learning by identifying evidence-based strategies used in teaching and learning, they had no idea how much the world would change by the time they finished the study, or that their research would become exponentially more valuable for learners and teachers around the world.

Equity Mindedness 

“As people who design and deliver online learning,” shared Heather, “we need to critically reflect on our privilege and power and create additional opportunities for more people who are different from ourselves, and our norms, to build more access and inclusion into education. If we don’t account for how we design content and pull things together, we’ll be stuck with blinders on. It will take more time, but it’s time well spent, as we need to invest in our ability to be culturally affirming for students. For example, at the beginning of the course, investigate who your students are and then consciously bring in content and context that will help diverse learners see themselves in positive ways. Also, try to include assessment pieces that are adaptable to diverse learners, even if these elements might be outside your comfort zone. As instructors and designers, we need to have an attitude of a learner: asking for help when we don’t know something. Most institutions have great learning and teaching centres — we spoke to many of them — and it’d be great if more people asked for support to design inclusive online learning resources.”

“We set out to look at digital literacy, access to materials, quality in instruction and resources, and pedagogy,” explained Andrea. “When we conducted the data and research, it was in a pre–COVID-19 context. However, as more dialogue and activity surfaces around remote learning and remote experiences — and how to support students in an online learning environment — we feel the elements from our report are very applicable to the current global situation and support the intentional, evidence-based, and theoretically grounded design of online learning experiences.”

“Too often, equity issues are left at the level of ‘Let’s raise awareness!’” said Heather, “but then we stay locked within the systems that perpetuate inequities. If people can take one inclusive aspect about the design and delivery of their online courses, we can make incremental improvements for all learners.”

“We structured the report,” shared Andrea, “to build utility for people, with practical pieces that people can take away from the report. The executive summary offers a good overview of our findings, and the infographics are designed to help create awareness and action.”

Increased Stress, Decreased Focus

“In stressful situations, such as this global pandemic,” said Heather, “there’s a tendency to drop equity as a priority issue, with some people thinking it’s a nice-to-have and not a need-to-have. But in these situations, the impact is magnified for people who experience marginalization, and it’s even more important to focus on ensuring everyone has access to the resources they need, and equally important to ensure cultural safety is addressed.”

“We’re all adjusting to the new normal,” said Andrea, “and that includes dropped calls, poor audio, and bandwidth limitations. For equity-seeking groups, the new technology issues magnify the existing barriers to online learning. Our research aims to influence institutional policies, professional development, decision making, and strategies for working with educators, instructors, support staff, and students in the area of online learning.”

The Findings 

The researchers have presented the content for accessible readership, with an executive summary and high-level overview providing perspective. Their methodology, key takeaways, literature review, survey results, and future research requirements are also included for those who choose to go deeper into the data.

“‘Who are we leaving out?’ is the question I always ask,” said Mary Burgess, executive director, BCcampus. “We made a conscious decision to apply for DEI funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation because we knew this was an area where we can facilitate research and initiate dialogue. We invited local researchers to focus on disadvantaged communities, and the information Andrea and Heather have assembled will help educators identify and resolve barriers to online learning. This research was important before the pandemic, and even more so since.”

The complete report is available on the BCcampus reports, reviews, and resources page, along with other information designed for sharing with educators and institutions throughout the province.

Print and Share

Heather and Andrea have created a series of infographics for institutions, learning and teaching centres, and educators to print and share, providing smart visuals that highlight the barriers to learning along with evidence-based strategies to overcome them. The issues include:

Please download and share these infographics with your institution to help eliminate the barriers to online learning, one by one.

Notable Quote

“Equity mindedness entails recognizing the ways in which systemic inequities disadvantage people who experience marginalization, critically reflecting on one’s role and responsibilities in addressing inequities and reframing negative outcomes as an indicator of institutional underperformance.” 


—Dr. Frank Harris III and Dr. J. Luke Wood, Equity-Minded and Culturally-Affirming Teaching and Learning Practices in Virtual Learning Communities.

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