What College Students Wish Professors Knew About Inclusive Online Teaching

It’s not surprising that most higher education articles published since March 2020 begin by calling to mind that year’s unprecedented move to remote instruction and online learning—and with good reason. The world changed rapidly, and students and instructors adopted new tools and methods to pivot to online instruction virtually, and sometimes literally, overnight. As teaching communities settled into a “new normal,” instructors were tasked with the challenging job of navigating new teaching modalities while maintaining their standards of excellence—and commitments to inclusion.

Inclusive teaching is a foundational element for us at the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning, and as we worked with thousands of instructors to prepare for online or hybrid courses over the last year, we centered inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging in all of our programs and resources. We would like to highlight how these “Teaching Online” open resources—like “Inclusive Teaching Online”—can help instructors translate inclusive teaching practices to online settings.

In this work, we partnered with our Students as Pedagogical Partners cohort, a group of undergraduates who work with us and the Columbia teaching community as student consultants, to create resources that not only draw on educational development research but also the student experiences of online learning. In May 2020, we interviewed a cohort of student consultants in our “Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning” podcast and asked them about their experiences in the move to online learning.

While the conversation was not explicitly about inclusive teaching, their reflections kept returning to inclusive pedagogy themes. We have included some of these student responses below to help illuminate three enduring practices we hope instructors and students will carry forward into the future of teaching and learning: helping students address digital inequities; building an inclusive community among learners; and designing course elements for accessibility.

Helping Students Address Digital Inequities

Student access to on-campus resources such as computer labs and the internet will likely continue to be limited for the foreseeable future, so many learners will rely on personal devices and at-home internet access. As instructors gear up for a continuation of online and hybrid or socially distanced teaching, some questions to consider might include: Do students have personal computers to use? Are those devices capable of running the necessary educational technology tools and platforms needed in your classes? And, finally, do students have access to a reliable internet connection to join lectures remotely or complete work online? While there are certainly institutional interventions to address digital inequity among students, we also recommend interventions at the course level.

Communicate with students early and often.

As soon as you’re able to survey students enrolled in your class, check in with your learners about their concerns, needs, and preferences for online learning. Their responses can inform your approach going forward, and having information from them will help you to be mindful of students’ personal situations and barriers to their learning.

One of our student consultants, Mae Butler, shared how important and meaningful it is when instructors are “proactive about identifying barriers that students face in online learning.”

“This includes being conscious of both socio-cultural barriers (such as those related to race, gender, ability, lived experience, identity) and material barriers (such as those related to internet access, access to quiet space, access to a device, etc.),” Butler said. “By practicing awareness of these barriers, professors can take action to reduce them and/or accommodate the needs of students who are disadvantaged by certain aspects of online classes.”

Incorporate educational technology meaningfully.

Since students will be mostly reliant on personal devices, carefully consider the addition of new platforms and tools. In addition to carrying a technological load, every new tool also carries a cognitive load.

When it comes to the use of technology in remote teaching, student consultants Haya Ghandour and Jennifer Lee pointed out the most critical determinant in the successful use of technology is the instructor’s ability to use it intentionally.

“If something is not done intentionally, I think it really carries through to the students that this is not the best method of delivery,” Ghandour said.

Lee added that the LMS software packages commonly used in higher education seem to be sold based on the features they offer rather than “what students in classes actually need.”

Building an Inclusive Course Community

Building community among learners is a foundational inclusive teaching practice, because it helps to establish and support a class climate that fosters belonging for all students. Intentionally building community with your learners can be particularly important in online or hybrid courses because these practices can help reduce feelings of isolation students may experience due to the physically distant nature of online learning. Building an inclusive community meaningfully brings students together, fosters respect, and celebrates the diversity of the learners in the room.

We recently released a resource dedicated to “Community Building in Online or Hybrid (HyFlex) Courses,” a collection of community-building strategies that align with the course modality. In general, though, offering opportunities for students to engage with each other, co-constructing community guidelines for online engagement, and soliciting feedback from students about the online environment can help create a climate that supports all learners.

Provide opportunities for students to interact with each other.

That social bond and the community-based experience of learning is such a motivator.

—Mae Butler

Building in time for students to discuss in small groups using the LMS discussion spaces or in Zoom breakout rooms can help students feel more connected to each other and build a sense of community. Encourage dialogue about online learning experiences and share learning strategies that are working for students. In online discussions, whether synchronous or asynchronous, use student names and pronouns.

To help scaffold these formal and informal student-to-student interactions, consider creating community agreements or guidelines for online interactions. This can be done in a shared Google Doc where students articulate online etiquette, norms and expectations, and take on the shared responsibility to establish and maintain an inclusive and supportive online classroom environment.

Butler highlighted the importance of community in the learning process.

“Something that I’ve really faced this semester is having to renegotiate what community looks like,” Butler said “Because for me, that social bond and the community-based experience of learning is such a motivator. And I’ve found in this case, technology, and especially remote learning technology, has really compromised that.”

Ask for feedback from students about the online climate.

Instructors can ask for feedback anonymously using a Google form or live in Zoom using the poll feature (for closed-ended questions). If you decide to collect feedback from students, be sure to review and report back to students. Sharing back student feedback is a wonderful opportunity for transparency with learners, and the process makes students feel heard—because it’s clear you have listened and carefully considered their input about the course climate.

Ghandour highlighted the importance of doing this work collaboratively and respectfully.

“[Inclusive teaching is] ensuring that the different identities that are brought into the shared space—be it physical or virtual—are respected, addressed, incorporated, and celebrated,” Ghandour said. “It focuses on facilitating the space needed for learning to be multi-dimensional, intentional, and critical. Inclusive teaching makes students feel seen and heard and allows them to think more critically about their interactions with each other and with faculty.”

Designing for Accessibility

All students, not just those who have a specific accommodation request, benefit from accessible content and opportunities to engage with course materials that set them up for success.

It is important to offer flexibility or alternatives for students to access materials online, for instance sharing PDFs instead of videos that require more bandwidth. We offer a resource, “Accessibility in Teaching and Learning,” which readers can explore for a more detailed discussion of accessible practices. The following recommendations offer an overview of inclusive practices that foster accessibility in online or hybrid learning environments.

Offer synchronous and asynchronous elements.

To ensure that all students, regardless of time zone, have opportunities to engage with course materials, with their peers, and with the instructor, be sure to diversify your modes of engagement. Record lectures and Zoom meetings that can be viewed any time. Be sure to include transcripts and captions. For instance, YouTube provides auto-captioning, or turn on auto-captioning in Panopto. The captions can be edited for accuracy and made available to learners. See our resource “Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones” for more suggestions.

Lee spoke directly to access and accessibility when asked about inclusive teaching, saying, “When we’re all working from different time zones and with different resources and expectations in our day-to-day life, having options (at what time during the day we’ll be viewing lecture or recordings, what assignments we can complete and having variety in those to demonstrate our learning, etc.) is inclusive and allows us ways to continue learning and succeeding throughout the semester. Inclusive teaching is important because it allows all of us to succeed this semester with the varying resources and concerns we have and gives us multiple opportunities to demonstrate our learning.”

‘Trust Your Students’

The discussion here is by no means exhaustive, and we recognize that instructors and students likely have their own practices that promote inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging. We encourage readers to share their own experiences and good practices in a community of instructors at their own institutions.

We would like to leave you with a final reflection.

“Trust your students, and trust yourselves as instructors as well, and be critical of everything you do,” Ghandour said. “It’s a partnership at the end of the day, and I think we are all here wanting to learn, otherwise we would not be in these spaces, and I think if that’s more recognized, we’d all be better off as a society.”

Knowing who our students are, recognizing what they bring into virtual or physical classrooms, intentionally centering equity and accessibility, and building trust are all tenets of inclusive pedagogy. It is clear from the reflections from our student partners that these steps are the way forward for teaching and learning in higher education.

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