Collegiate Commentary: Five positive steps towards good practice in EDI

Image credit: Clarissa Yung, University of Edinburgh.

In this extra post, we share with you the Collegiate Commentary from the latest Teaching Matters newsletter: Five positive steps towards good practice in EDI. In the Collegiate Commentary feature, we ask colleagues from other universities and institutions to provide a commentary on ‘Five things…’, and share their own learning and teaching reflections, resources or outputs on the same topic. In this newsletter, we welcome a commentary from Dr Peter Lau, Lecturer of the Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, based at the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, the University of Hong Kong.

“Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” (EDI) is widely used as a phrase by universities in many countries to emphasise their committed efforts in dealing with various forms of prejudice, discrimination, or harassment in higher education, and to create/maintain a more diverse academic environment which offers equal opportunities for all members (including the underrepresented groups) to succeed.

EDI had been put on the agenda in higher education for decades. Many universities approach it by taking instrumental and traditional measures, such as adding EDI statements to university’s policies, creating new offices/committees, promoting relevant values in seminars/workshops, or making many other initiatives to recruit staff members and students from a wider range of demographic and racial backgrounds. However, the impacts of these initiatives on improving equality and inclusion for the marginalised groups remain in doubt. For example, the success of a diverse programme should align with the increased retention or completion rate of the marginalised groups, rather than the increased number of students with diverse backgrounds in programme admissions. Furthermore, adopting the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a programme/course design strategy to overcome the digital poverty issue is a good example of EDI practice because it is driven by a moral rationale, dealing with the high level of learner variability during the campus lockdown in the pandemic.

Practicing EDI with an instrumental and moral purpose can lead to dramatically different outcomes for marginalised groups. Now, we need to start a new approach to EDI in higher education to nurture a positive culture and develop a greater sense of belonging for all members. I believe that following the Five Steps below will lead us to the right direction to EDI. Below, I will use some works at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) to illustrate the first four steps, and then share some thoughts for the last one.

Step 1: Contributing to dedicated, centralised resources

Equal Opportunity Unit (EOU) is a centralised unit that, through different educational and administrative measures, assists HKU in creating an inclusive environment that is free of any discrimination and harassment. The EOU website also serves as a centralised place for resources and support, including university policies, education materials, classroom teaching guidelines, tips on the use of inclusive language/technologies, guides to communicating with persons with a disability, procedures for handling harassment, and many more.

To ensure collaborative efforts to the EDI works and resources building, EOU mobilises HKU staff and students to receive training and take roles of (Senior) Equal Opportunity Advisors (EOAs) and Equal Opportunity Student Ambassadors (EOSAs). A wide range of inclusive events had been co-organised with the EOSAs to promote the EDI values on various topics, such as gender parity, social inclusion, anti-discrimination, etc. Feature discussion sessions were also coordinated to allow HKU members to understand the real challenges encountered by specific groups (e.g., people with visual impairment) and how technology assists them to get through their day (e.g., WeVoice+, a mobile app developed by an HKU graduate). These events often lead to open discussions among the stakeholders on the historical and structural inequalities of educational conditions in Hong Kong, and hence drive the university communities to transition from an equality to an equity mindset. As Dr Paula Dressel of the Race Matters Institute commented on equality and equity, “the route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone justly according to their circumstances”.

Step 2: Sharing practical strategies in the classroom

Back to the time of campus lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many global universities started transitioning to online/hybrid teaching from the “emergency remote teaching”, digital poverty had drawn much attention around the world because not every student had equal access to learning via the internet. Some HKU teachers also hesitated to adjust their teaching practices to improve inclusivity. To share practical and effective strategies, Dr Susan Bridge, Director of the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) started organising an interactive professional development series on creative solutions for online and hybrid course designing, i.e., the Sandbox Series.

This series was designed to help course coordinators to work on rethinking course outlines and sharing ideas for ‘pandemic-proofing’ course re-designs and for inclusivity. The Sandbox spirit is to offer space and time for creative thinking, expert feedback, and workshop re-designs. In each session, after a brief sharing (20 minutes) of a range of approaches to course design (for example emphasis on Engagement, Representation and Action & Expression of Universal Design for Learning), participants join discipline-based breakout rooms to workshop their redesign with peers including fellow coordinators, CETL academics, instructional designers and disciplinary experts. A range of resources on online course designing are available on the Designing Online Courses website.

The Women’s Studies Research Centre (WSRC), an HKU virtual centre, is committed to promoting research and dialogue in areas crucial to the development of women’s, gender, sexuality, and diversity studies. It has been a leader in advancing research in gender and sexuality studies at HKU since its establishment in 1994. Since the Faculty of Art established a Gender Studies Programme in 2018 and with the WSRC’s continuous support as the hub of Gender Studies, HKU has taken a big step further to be more inclusive across the curriculum (see details in CETL Newsletter Issue#9). Furthermore, Dr. Elizabeth LaCouture, the founding director of the Gender Studies Programme at HKU, also introduced the Feminist Pedagogy to the various subjects and encouraged faculty to design inclusive courses and create classrooms that align with principles of social justice.

Steps 3, 4: Engaging students to advance EDI initiatives, Harnessing human connection 

HKU’s Common Core (CC) curriculum also offers a range of opportunities for students to engage in project studies and research initiatives through the collaboration with faculty mentors (including community members and international partners). Selected examples are:

The voice of an Equal Future is an inter-institutional podcasting project for gender equality with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Students identify the voices on gender equality from the university communities, draft a spoken text, craft a podcast episode and publicise the podcast. This process helps students to empathise with the disadvantaged groups on campus and speak for them.

Policymaking for social impact is a co-curricular programme in collaboration with the University of Birmingham (UoB). UoB students took a short course and conducted a research process to formulate policy for a social issue in their own interests, for example, income inequality and socioeconomic status. Then, HKU students provided critical feedback for the UoB student projects and included additional perspectives from Hong Kong and Asia. Throughout the discussion and presentation, both HKU and UoB students learned the social impacts of a specific inequality issue from a wider angle and explored possible ways to improve the existing policy. Though the discussion was mainly in the UK context, HKU students also felt connected with the society when they studied some Hong Kong cases.

HER One Day in HK during the Pandemic is an experiential learning programme that offers participants the opportunity to better understand gender inequality in Hong Kong, and reflect on the impacts of COVID-19 on gender identities. Students reported the findings of their gender-sensitive research in the community and shared the stories they collected in the field study. With the hands-on interview experience, students built a personal connection with the community (the interviewees) and hence increased gender sensitivity in conducting research. Such experience raised their awareness of the everyday practices of gender equality.

These examples demonstrate that, with appropriate support from the university, students were willing to leave their comfort zone to act as “listeners”, “spokespersons”, and “policymakers” for EDI. Students can do more than just “observers”.

Step 5: Appropriate use of available data to support students

I keep the practice to send a welcome message to my students, a week or two before the start of my course, to remind them of the preparation work and course expectations. I also invite them to answer a few questions, including their reasons for taking the course, and any concerns about studying the subject. This practice is crucial as I feel confident to teach if I know who the students are.

It surprised me when I received a reply from a student with special educational needs (SEN) who honestly reported his hearing impairment condition and requested a special learning arrangement. With the routine practice, I knew this information a week before the semester began, so I could meet the student, the teaching team, and the SEN support officer to formulate a list of solutions (such as special assessment arrangement, peer support in collaborative tasks, class recording, etc.) that everyone felt reasonable and comfortable. In the meeting, the student also showed concern about his classmates’ perspectives. To help him build confidence, I seized the chance to prepare him for a self-introduction to the class. He explained the need to talk with “eye contact” so that he can do lip reading for effective communication. Interestingly, I observed that everyone maintained excellent eye contact with the audience (not only for the SEN student) when doing their micro-teaching practices. Somehow, my students had developed a culture of “maintaining eye contact with each other” in the classroom. The student performed well and eventually made some friends who shared the same career goals. They were also willing to support each other as learning buddies in their PG studies. Years later, when I saw the student again, he was walking along with another group of students on the campus.

Without such information and pre-class communication, I could imagine how panicked an SEN student and a teacher would feel if they first met in the classroom. Other students in the class might also feel hesitant or uncomfortable about working with that student if they observe that the teacher does not seem prepared for that. If teachers could get the available data (for example types of impairment or challenges) in advance, they could make use of the data in their course/programme design. However, in Hong Kong institutions, SEN data are often considered personal data protected by the university’s policies of personal data privacy, and hence could not be shared with subject teachers in any form. If they belong to the same faculty, teachers probably could get connected with the SEN students easier, through the faculty SEN officers. However, as a compromise, SEN students at HKU are responsible to register at the Centre of Development and Resources for Students (CEDARS) and provide assessment reports to justify their learning needs. The case managers assigned would issue letters of recommendation on reasonable accommodations/adjustment (LoRA) to the faculty and examination office for approval and implementation. Some students hesitate because the processing time takes at least 8 weeks.

In my opinion, universities in Hong Kong need to review their central systems for course registration. In an ideal case, it should 1) allow SEN students to declare special learning needs, 2) grant SEN support managers rights to verify, and 3) offer teachers advance access to anonymous SEN data (at least a big picture of student profile) to develop solutions for SEN support.

SEN data will help improve student learning only if teachers can access them in advance. In any case, it depends on how we balance the educational moral and privacy rationale.

photograph of the authorPeter Lau

Dr Peter Lau is a Lecturer of the Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and a Fellow of Advance Higher Education. He is based at the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, the University of Hong Kong. Peter supports faculty professional development by providing pedagogical advice and developing guides/resources for best practice. His research interests include students as partners, academic integrity, and graduate teaching assistant training.

photograph of the authorClarissa Yung

Clarissa is a BSc Psychology student with a passion for creative art and storytelling. She is inspired by natural landscapes, human nature and daily life encounters. Her work captures the extraordinary beauty in ordinary life.

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