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How to build an inclusive online learning environment

With the end of online learning nowhere in sight, teachers must adapt and work to create inclusive online learning environments for students.

4 min read


How to build an inclusive online learning environment

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A 2019 survey by Schoology indicated that 15% of students in the United States are without access to broadband internet. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has created a virtual schooling environment which resulted in an unavoidable learning and achievement gap.

Many internet providers stepped in to offer free Wi-Fi access to ensure that students could continue learning, but broadband internet is unfortunately not the only barrier to student success in online environments.

As online learning remains the new normal, it is critical for educators to employ best practice strategies to make this experience inclusive and welcoming for all. Giving careful consideration to students’ various learning styles and needs will help create positive experiences, even when teaching and learning from a distance.



Articulate Expectations

First, setclear expectations. It is easy to let unintentional ambiguity influence the online learning experience. As some learners will inevitably struggle in an online learning environment, consider how to build specific expectations into course requirements.

For example, if students are required to post in a discussion group via a learning management system, they should be given a specific deadline to post and the number of times that they must respond to their classmates. Requirements and deadlines should be clear, but also flexible to accommodate students in difficult home situations.


Use a Student Success model

An online course is more likely to be successful if it is accessible to learners with varied abilities. Adapted from a Universal Design approach, here are some questions to consider:

  1. Is the course pace flexible and accommodating to students with diverse needs?
  2. Is the syllabus prominently displayed and easy to understand?
  3. Is there a commitment to provide immediate feedback after an assignment or online discussion is completed?
  4. Does the course include varied methods of content delivery (video, photos, readings, and discussion)?
  5. Are resources in your online learning platform easily accessible?
  6. Do video clips include closed captioning?
  7. Is there a commitment to early intervention if a student is falling behind?



Diversify Content and Language

An inclusive online course welcomes content that is diversified and speaks to all students in the online classroom. Course content should be free of implicit and explicit bias and filtered through a multicultural lens. A successful online class will always promote diversity and inclusion, and invite students to participate meaningfully in their learning community.

A recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education states: “Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset.”

Educators should support students and encourage them to contribute to the course through readings, participating in discussion posts, and presenting to the class. Educators should set ground rules for inclusive language and respectful dialogue.


Be Virtually Available and Responsive

Creating connections with students is paramount to an inclusive and welcoming online learning environment. Students notice when a teacher is responsive to questions and posted assignments.

Educators should consider offering a regularly scheduled virtual drop-in session to provide a face-to-face Q&A time for students. Inclusive teaching online means being available to accommodate the needs of online students, even outside of normal hours.



Be Nimble

Send weekly check-in surveys to students to determine if a change in course is necessary. An anonymous online survey could look like this:

  1. I learned something new this week in this course (Y, N).
  2. The content was clear and easy to understand (Y, N).
  3. One suggestion I have for next week is (fill in the blank).

Educators should be ready to use the information gathered from students to make changes. A flexible and responsive teacher is more likely to achieve success in the virtual environment.

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