The Covid-19 pandemic presents new challenges for inclusive teaching. This article shares the experience of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy and discusses how to act towards inclusive teaching in e-learning by addressing digital gaps in teaching skills, implementing innovative methodologies and developing a community of practice.
When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in Italy at the very beginning of the second semester of the 2019-2020 academic year, we faced the emergency of teaching under lockdown. The University of Modena and Regio Emilia resorted to a massive diffusion of distance learning with 929 courses out of 973 being moved online. This involved 483 lecturers in e-learning, remote exams and online graduation.
The university’s long-time experience in accommodating students with disabilities and special learning needs through access to e-learning supported us and led to a positive outcome when moving online during the early days of the pandemic. Investment in online tools and teaching methods that promote the inclusion of students with learning disabilities have played a key role in enabling our university to face the challenges that the pandemic has posed to teaching and learning.
In this process, the technical support provided by dedicated staff and well-developed distance learning centres at our university was also essential. Importantly, guidelines on distance teaching were provided at the university and department levels.
In addressing digital poverty, we are aware of the digital divide between the Italian population and the EU average. The 2020 European Institute for Gender Equality report highlights a significant gender gap in the incidence amongst people aged 16 to 74 of above basic digital skills (19% and 25% for women and men in Italy, and 31% and 36% on average in EU countries in 2019) and in the incidence of people with information skills (44% and 49% for women and men in Italy, and 71% for both women and men on average in EU countries in 2019).
To reduce inequalities in the access to e-learning, Unimore decided to use funds from the Italian National Ministry of Education and Research to loan hardware and WIFI connections to students at no cost for their entire academic life at Unimore. Recipients were selected through a needs assessment and 800 computers and 800 modems for web connection were made available through the loan scheme.
Together with research on the roots of the persistent inequalities in digital skills in Italy, which is widely undertaken amongst the different departments and dedicated research centres on discrimination (like the interdepartmental research centre on discrimination and vulnerabilities (CRID)), Unimore offers public engagement activities devoted to different school levels. Amongst these is Digital girls, the first summer camp entirely dedicated to girls in high school. It fosters their understanding of ICT and how it can be applied to different fields while smoothly introducing them to computer science and a “smart” technological world.
In order to understand the difficulties experienced by students in e-learning during the pandemic, a dedicated section was included in the university’s Spring 2020 survey for students. Unimore also takes part in a wider survey on lecturers and personnel promoted by the National Conference of Italian Universities Equal Opportunities bodies that also includes a set of questions on online teaching experiences and needs with the aim to improve digital teaching skills.
To address difficulties in digital teaching, Unimore also provided lecturers with eight focused webinars, which hosted an average of 200 participants each.
Communities of practice composed of teaching staff and students were created to exchange experiences with e-learning. Education Concepts for the Advancement of Multilayered Education (CAM) is an online team-based learning tool used by colleagues at Unimore that enhances student participation and inclusion. For instance, this method has been implemented in online math courses by using multi-layered education methods. For this purpose, different tools are used taking advantage of different sensory dimensions: colours, sounds, images, interactive whiteboard, Excel sheets, PDF files accompanied by both printed and handwritten annotations, callouts, transitions, animations, additional observations, verbal or written questions, encouragement to reason and analysis.
A wide project “Competency based learning and eaching” funded by the Italian Ministry of University, Education and Research to promote soft skills with a special focus on problem solving and team-based learning methodologies has involved lecturers and students alike from different disciplines and academic backgrounds. Special attention was dedicated to how to form groups to enhance diversity. An algorithm divides students into small groups that are balanced in terms of gender, nationality and test scores in other exams to guarantee optimal mixing. We are currently experimenting the same methodology on smaller scale team-based e-learning. The first results of its implementation show an increase in student participation in online classes and we are currently testing its impact on their learning process.
Unimore established a working group on teaching staff development in which research and teaching experience will contribute to developing teaching skills with special attention to inclusive (e-) learning.
To face the pandemic’s effects on learning and teaching processes, Unimore’s experience shows the importance of having already invested in inclusive methods of teaching, such as those dedicated to students with disabilities and special learning needs. It also shows how research can be performed both to detect the students’ learning needs and to evaluate and improve the methodologies applied. Building a community of practice by sharing experiences and innovative inclusive teaching methods contributes to enhancing the learning and teaching environment and allows to better face new challenges.
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