Online programs recruit students from all over the globe – a wonderful thing, as the diversity of thought, experience, background, and culture lends itself to enriching classroom discussion. Embracing a diverse student population requires mindful teaching, and an eye toward ensuring that students of all backgrounds, abilities, and experience are set up for success.
Thus, inclusive teaching practices are not only a moral imperative but also a necessity for fostering effective and equitable online learning environments. As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that every learner, regardless of their background, abilities, or preferences, can thrive in the virtual classroom. Below, we’ll explore the importance of inclusive online teaching and provide practical strategies to meet the diverse needs of your students.
Understanding Diversity in Online Learning:
Diversity in the online classroom extends far beyond cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It encompasses a wide range of factors, including Learning styles, physical/cognitive ability, language proficiency, and access to technology.
While neuroscientists have largely debunked the notion of learning styles, it is a truism that students tend to prefer certain modes of acquiring information. And it is true that if we come at students in a variety of ways (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or reading/writing, etc.) that we will light up more lobes of their brain, which allows it to make more and stronger neural connections – increasing memory and recall. So, offering students varied and engaging learning material that they can see, read, watch, hear, and even touch/hold/manipulate is a terrific way to reach everyone.
Some students may have disabilities or unique cognitive and physical needs that require specialized support, such as screen readers, captioning, audio recordings of textbooks or adapted materials. Schools who develop their online courses with an instructional design/subject matter expert team typically bake these accommodations into their course design. But if you are developing your own online course, you’ll want to make sure that every resource you provide is accessible to all. Consultation with your school’s disability resource center can help point you in the right direction.
Students for whom English is not their first language may require additional language support to understand and engage with the course content. Identifying these students and making sure to not unfairly penalize them for grammatical/typographic errors is important, as well as making sure you have resources to provide these students, either through the university or outside of it.
While all online students will need access to a computer and the internet to participate in online courses, not all students have access to specialized technology, including high-speed internet or the latest and greatest (and expensive!) devices. Ensuring your materials are accessible on a variety of devices and internet connections is crucial.
Further, not all students are comfortable using social media; some students avoid it given negative experiences they’ve had with online bullying or stalking. It is best not to require use of social media platforms in your classrooms (i.e., requiring your students to sign up for any social media platform to earn a grade in your class). But if you really want to, you’ll need to provide alternative options for those who have good reason not to participate.
Eight Strategies for Inclusive Online Teaching:
Below, we’ll briefly consider eight strategies you’ll want to consider as you create and/or teach an online course that embraces, accommodates, and is inclusive of learner diversity:
- Accessible Course Materials: Provide accessible documents, videos, and multimedia content. Use alt text for images, closed captions for videos, and ensure text is readable by screen readers. Embrace UDL principles to design courses that are accessible to all learners from the start, reducing the need for individual accommodations.
- Flexible Assessment Options: Offer a variety of assessment methods, allowing students to showcase their knowledge in ways that suit their abilities, talents, and modes of engagement. Consider alternatives to traditional exams, such as audiovisual projects, interactive class discussions, or dynamic portfolios.
- Clear Communication: Use plain language and organize content logically. Offer written and spoken instructions and encourage students to ask questions if anything is unclear.
- Collaborative Learning Opportunities: Create spaces for peer interaction and collaboration, which can help diverse groups of students learn from each other and build a sense of community.
- Support Services: Provide information on support services available to students, such as disability services, language assistance, and technical support.
- Regular Feedback: Offer constructive feedback on assignments and assessments, focusing on improvement and growth rather than solely on grades and things that are “wrong” or “need to be fixed”. Be mindful of your tone – avoid sounding condescending and consider that level of readiness will vary from student to student.
- Cultural Sensitivity: Recognize and respect cultural differences and avoid assumptions about students’ backgrounds or experiences.
- Professional Development: Continually educate yourself on inclusive teaching practices and stay up to date with accessibility standards and technologies.
Inclusive online teaching is an ongoing commitment to creating an equitable learning environment. By embracing diversity and implementing inclusive practices, you can create an online learning environment where all students feel valued, supported, and empowered. Remember that inclusivity is not just a goal; it’s a fundamental aspect of effective teaching in the digital age.