Diversity & inclusion in the online classroom

Student with green highlights working on laptop

Your faculty meeting starts, and one of the key items on the agenda is a focused discussion about cultural diversity and inclusion in online courses. Of course, you must also consider curricular content, pedagogy, accessibility and universal design, and their impacts on education. All of these affect your students’ learning, motivation, and satisfaction in a course. Where do we even begin with this discussion?

Why explore diversity in our courses?

Researchers agree it can promote student growth and reflection. In our increasingly globalized world, it can help students begin to foster a sense of empathy for others and bring about open-mindedness. Supporting tolerance is critical: allowing students to feel unique while still being part of the group helps them prepare for the twenty-first century workplace.

As professors, we are committed to ensuring an inclusive environment for all of our students. This includes people of all abilities, races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, religious traditions, socioeconomic classes, and ages. We could discuss these for a long time; however, most instructors are not afforded the liberty of a lot of time to consider these and design a course. How can we take current research and utilize it to deliver a course that meets these needs?

Communication

A profoundly critical aspect of any online course is communication; research in sociology, psychology, and cognition supports this. Consider also the importance of student viewpoints towards power structures in the classroom (for example, the role of the instructor versus the role of the student), how information is processed, and subject matter content.

One of the most predominant differences between online and traditional courses lies in how students and faculty interact in the classroom. Not only does the online classroom remove the physical, synchronous presence from the learning community, it regularly shifts the bulk of communications to written exchanges.

Often, the instructor is the one who facilitates the emails and discussion forums. Instructors typically provide feedback in writing, using embedded course tools for grading notes and comments. In addition to the Learning Management System (e.g., Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace by D2L, or Moodle), the faculty and students can engage outside of the classroom via social media and other tools. Again, these environments are normally driven by text, with varying emphasis on live or verbal exchanges.

Tools such as Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate can be useful; however, it’s frequently difficult to find times that everyone can meet virtually. More often, the meetings are recorded and shared so all can access the material. Live chats, video conferencing, Wikis, and blogs are all tools that are available to you to engage your students.

Interpretation awareness

Emphasis on the written word, regardless of platform, can create potential issues related to the interpretation of content, particularly for students whose first language is not English. Students, particularly English as a Second Language (ESL) students, may look for hidden messages in feedback and/or decipher feedback differently.

Consider the potential (mis)interpretation of written forums or feedback and the impact on student performance and attitude. Be clear and thorough. We find it helpful to create samples of frequent errors with detailed notes that we can easily share with any student. Making mini lessons with apps like Educreations is useful, too. These are useful for all students.

Keep in mind that students do not necessarily have to be English language learners for their culture to influence their interpretation or understanding of the meaning of written text within a course. Culture can impact the dynamics of the exchanges as well. Cultural norms — the common beliefs, expectations, and practices of a society — may impact how and when students respond to questions.

For example, students from Western cultures may be more apt to view the instructor as a facilitator, rather than non-Western students. In some cultures, the instructor is viewed authoritative in nature. You’ve probably had a student or two who argued that you should just “tell them what to do” instead of asking them to “guess.”

Tips for better communication

Use icebreakers and “getting to know you” activities on your discussion boards. Share the expectations for student comments/behavior before the course even begins. Consider disciplinary content in a global context as you post questions and problems of the week. Think and share about your own identity.

Some faculty create affinity groups and note that their students love knowing their peers are dealing with some of the same issues, life events, challenges, and so forth.

Course design with diversity in mind

First and foremost, consider universal design principles in your course design. It may be as simple as paying attention to color and size of fonts, the volume of material on any given page, the embedding of objectives and directives for the learners, etc. You already know it’s critical to use only captioned videos, images with alt text, etc, but do you know how people tend to scan/read web pages? Are you designing your course with that in mind?

Explore more about accessibility for Pearson products by visiting the product websites. We also have more detailed training resources for many products such as MyLab (Math, Business, etc.), MyLab IT, and Mastering.

The aesthetics of a course are important. How will your course users see and interpret images, art, photography, movies, and so on? What is the reading level of the material chosen? Is the material engaging? Does the media reflect diversity?

Universal design principles help educators consider how to reach every learner by providing flexible instructional materials, techniques, and strategies. It promotes the engagement of each learner by making learning more accessible. A guiding principle of universal design is that we need to provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement for students.

Acknowledging and understanding cultural differences

It’s important to note that it is very difficult to identify and address every critical area in a course. Countless articles, some very extensive ones, cover the concept of inclusion and diversity. This short blog is only intended to get you thinking about key components of designing an online course with diversity in mind.

If we acknowledge that diversity influences learning, then we may be able to create discussions that result in examples that are culturally relevant. Your work as an instructor sets the tone for a safe space in the classroom where students can share their experiences and perspectives.

For those of us who are “accidental” instructional designers or instructional designers for real, we might want to consider learning more about things like wisdom communities that offer a framework for orienting and engaging students.

How do we promote diversity in our classes?

  1. We strive to understand our students.
  2. We utilize different teaching strategies and materials.
  3. We structure the course to provide equal opportunities to all students.
  4. We celebrate diversity. We keep this in mind when designing discussion posts or sharing articles, for example.
  5. We encourage differing perspectives. We ask students to share their views and substantiate why they feel/think that way.
  6. We seek to include diverse learning materials.

Conclusion

Understanding the unique differences in traditional and online learning environments and how culture plays a role, can help shape a positive educational experience for students and their faculty. With increasing emphasis on online learning, we need to have more conversations about understanding and supporting students from diverse cultures. It’s helpful to reflect on your own experiences, because our personal cultural influences or teaching styles might guide our choices in course design.

Listen to a short webinar about making your teaching more inclusive.

Enjoy an article from earlier this year about culturally responsive teaching.

Explore Cornell’s open course about diversity in the classroom.

Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education
This is a text by Sonia Nieto, University of Massachusetts Amherst (Emerita) and Patty Bode, Tufts University in Affiliation with The Amherst Regional Public Schools.
Effective multicultural education must consider not just schooling, but also the larger social, economic, and political factors that affect students’ success or failure in the classroom. Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education helps readers understand these pervasive influences by presenting extensive research and data on the sociopolitical nature of schools and society, information about different sociocultural groups, and a conceptual framework for examining multicultural education. Real-life cases and teaching stories dominate in this book that offers a first-hand look into the lives of students and educators from a variety of backgrounds. Additionally, tips for classroom activities and community actions offer aspiring teachers concrete suggestions to provide high-quality, inclusive education in spite of obstacles they may face.

About the author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane taught in the K12 system and then higher ed since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned her full-time position as a professor and joined the Pearson Customer Success Team, where she develops training curriculum, does training, and helps instructors choose features for their courses. Diane still teaches as an adjunct for University of Maine, and enjoys learning about instructional design as well as neurobiological research and its implications in teaching and learning. You can read some of her articles on the Teaching and Learning Higher Ed blog posts. Currently, Diane manages the Faculty Advisor team; Diane and her team collaborate with their peers across North America.