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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Thoughts on Creating an Inclusive Environment in Online Classes

In preparing for the fall term, most colleges and universities are responding to the renewed public consciousness about equality, inclusiveness and fairness for all students.

As we reflect on American history and, in particular, the history of our institutions of higher education, we see that in so many conscious and unconscious ways we have failed in our responsibility to promote the core values we express as a society, most notably inclusion and equity. The country has been reminded that Black lives matter — not that all lives don’t matter — but, that despite the Civil War, despite Emancipation, despite the civil rights legislation over the years, we still are not equally united across racial, cultural and gender lines. This is abundantly clear in widely reported horrifying acts of racial violence against minorities, but is also evident in the disparity of salaries for the same work, disparity of diversity in positions of prominence and disparity in preparedness and success of youth entering higher education. Polls show that most Americans agree that we must do better. And the time to renew our commitment is today.

Change to address shortcomings of this scale must take place at all levels and in all fields of our society. As global diversity expert Gwen Houston reminds us, senior executives must lead our inclusion efforts.

The opportunities to begin to make a difference are endless through the online platform, where that platform is equitably available. Not limited to students recruited to the campus, not limited to students who can relocate and come to campus, online programs reach across cultures and locations to serve students where they are. And yet, minority and low-income students do not thrive at the same rates as others in the current system. So where can we begin in developing more successful diverse and inclusive online programs?

Begin with a deep review of your entrance requirements and promotional materials. Do they encourage diversity? Are your requirements such that you provide an on-ramp for those who have not had the prerequisite experiences and skills for successful learning in your program prior to entering? Do you offer a bridge to build those skills that goes beyond sending prospective students away to other places to build their skills? More fundamentally, are you supporting efforts to assure ubiquitous, affordable access to high-speed broadband for families and particularly children throughout the country — in both rural and urban environments so that they can access rich resources throughout their lifetimes?

Review the technologies you use. Are they excluding students through inherent bias? Nicol Turner Lee, Brookings senior fellow and director of the Center for Technology Innovation, moderates a podcast conversation on bias in technology with Brookings scholars Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein fellow, and Tom Wheeler, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Can you use technology to promote better understanding? Some exciting work is being done with virtual reality (VR) to break down differences.

Develop a comfortable and inviting — not divisive or demeaning — atmosphere where all students are valued and their views are included. Flower Darby in The Chronicle of Higher Education outlines six quick ways to be more inclusive in a virtual classroom. She describes the essential issue:

The ethos of an equitable and inclusive classroom is simple: “Everybody gets to learn. No one has to out themselves. All are welcome. All are supported by the very design of this class.” The hard part: How do you create online or hybrid courses with that ethos embedded throughout? Two frameworks in your teaching toolkit — Universal Design for Learning and culturally responsive pedagogy — create a powerful way forward.

There is much more that can be done and should be done to create a more inclusive learning environment. A good beginning could be a careful reading of the syllabus with a discerning eye in reviewing class materials and assignments will likely turn up places where assumptions and attitudes that are not nurturing and could be improved. Assignments can often be reconstructed, while retaining learning outcomes, to better serve the cause of inclusiveness and promoting learning. Columbia University’s Center for Teaching and Learning has assembled some suggestions and resources. The University of Toronto also has a list of insightful suggestions.

In many institutions the leadership in promoting diversity is spread across the university. While it is important that all parts of the institution commit to diversity and inclusion, a unified campuswide approach may be the strongest option. Who is leading diversity and inclusion at your university? What role can you take in supporting or leading this important transformation at your institution? Remember that while change may be led from the top, it must be realized in our day-to-day interactions in the classroom and in the success of our graduates.


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog. 

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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