Thinking about York University’s religious accommodation case from the perspective of course design and delivery

New this semester, alumni of UNIV*6800, University Teaching, Theory and Practice are reconvening to form a community of practice (CoP). It is exciting to see former students again while also having the opportunity to discuss issues related to teaching and learning in higher education.

Yesterday, in fact, was our first meeting. While the goal of a CoP is to have the impetus of what to do come from the group itself, given that this was our first time together I decided that it would make most sense if I brought a topic to the table. In an interesting conjunction, news broke last week of a case at York University where a male student in a distance learning course asked the instructor for the accommodation of not having to do face-to-face group work with his group. At issue (based on my understanding of the case as reported) was that this male student’s group consisted of women and meeting these women, as required by the design of the course and accompanying assignment, was against his religious beliefs. The ensuing brouhaha has largely focused on competing interests when it comes to granting accommodations — and I’d say that the popular opinion is that religious accommodations shouldn’t “trump” gender rights at a public institution.

But the task of evaluating the merit of these competing interests wasn’t in our purview yesterday. Rather, I asked CoP members (after reading the G&M article linked above) to think about this case as an issue in course design & delivery: could (admittedly based on the scant information provided in the article and supported by others’ understanding of the case) this request for accommodation have been avoided through designing the course differently?

To begin answering this question, we first worked to figure out who were the key actors in this case and then generated what questions we would need to consider in order to think about course design & delivery. In turn the group generated ideas captured below:

Some of the questions we generated:

Was it possible to use technology accommodate the interest of the student and the interest of the group?

Given that this was a distance course, some of the community offered the possibility that through the use of technology, like collaborating via Skype, group members could be offered the opportunity to work together while still respecting competing values.

Why was there a face-to-face component of this on-line course?

In the media follow-up by the course instructor, he outlined how this face-to-face (F2F) component was well described in the course syllabus and re-emphasized in the first module of the course. Again, without critiquing the decisions that were made in this case, we talked about the assumptions that students might have made about the nature of interaction in an on-line course. One interesting suggestion was the inclusion on all distance education syllabuses of the percentage of interaction that would take place at a distance and the percentage of interaction that would take place face to face.

It’s not a trivial discussion to have as on-line and hybrid courses are proliferating, offered as solutions to institutional space crunches and pathways for flexible learning, yet these terms are often mis-understood. You see, in my mind, with the expectations for students to participate in a F2F component, the course in this particular case was a hybrid course. Perhaps this kind of specificity around the nature of the course would have helped all those involved with understanding what was going to be required of them.

We also wondered what, if any, regulations are in place at York University that might govern the nature of assignments and meetings when it comes to on-line courses  (Is it acceptable to have a F2F component in an on-line course? Does an assignment necessitating a F2F engagement in an on-line course require an alternative and fair assignment that doesn’t require meeting on-campus?) and how a new instructor might go about finding these “rules” out. I shared that speaking with a departmental chair when these unexpected questions come up in a course is one approach to take, but it does bring up the level of support that sessional instructors (not in this case particularly, but applicable to the graduate students in the CoP) receive when they instruct a course: how does the department help them understand their institutional obligations?

How early should a syllabus be offered?

Related to the suggestion above, if an instructor clearly delineates the expectations of participation for an on-line course in a syllabus, it might only be helpful if student are able to access them as they’re choosing what courses to add and drop.

While our conversation didn’t come up with clear solutions, nor was it intended to weigh and judge the underlying values at play, having the opportunity to think through this particular case provided us with the opportunity to safely weigh options and plan possible courses of action.

Since issues like these in teaching and learning are often emergent and never present a black and white outcome for the instructor, discussing this complicated and intricate case helps me (and hopefully others) consider how I might address a situation like this in my own classroom. It also provided me with further insight into how I might design or deliver a course to avoid this situation. In closing, let me offer my learning from this case and a future course of action:

  • I would find out what language is used at my institution to describe the mode of course delivery and use it (in an attempt to increase clarity about the nature of the course).
  • I would  outline (perhaps graphically) the degree or percentage of on-line versus face-to-face (or asynchronous vs. synchronous) engagement required by the course.
  • If an assignment in an on-line course required some face-to-face collaboration between students:
    • I would also suggest that this face-to-face component could be met through technological means allowing synchronous collaboration at a distance.
    • I would also increase the learner-centredness of the course by offering another assignment that aligns with the same learning outcomes as the face-to-face assignment and is assessed for the same percentage, but does not require a synchronous collaboration.
  • I would ask for students to submit requests for accommodations by the end of the second week so that I wasn’t dealing with requests on an on-going basis.

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