March 11, 2021

Navigating the Pandemic Through Inclusive Online Teaching and Learning

Written by Liz Cardenas a PFF Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in the School of Community and Global Health

As many of us begin the semester meeting virtually amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, we may find ourselves still struggling to navigate the uncertainty and lack of face-to-face interaction. While the outlook of returning safely to face-to-face interactions is looking brighter, it continues to be ever so important for teachers to use inclusive online teaching practices that offer accessibility and support for all students.

Over and above the challenges for both teachers and students in adapting to these unprecedented times, some students face additional challenges, including lack of access to proper technology or even space and time to keep up with their classes. COVID-19 reveals deep inequities in education. This article by the OECD shows how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted and hindered the inclusion of vulnerable students in education systems. This is a reminder that the “one-size-fits-all” approach is not inclusive to all learners who may be experiencing a myriad of constraints and challenges. It does not work in the best of times; it certainly does not in a pandemic!

Inclusive online teaching is necessary to foster talent in all students, embracing those who come from traditionally underrepresented groups, including the complex intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, histories, socioeconomic background, lived experiences, and ideology.

Here are six reflective questions and some ideas to navigate the pandemic through inclusive online teaching and learning.

1. What creative ways can I use to build and maintain community in online settings?

Building community in online settings can be challenging compared to the physical classroom, where students can interact and bond with one another during in-class activities. Creating safe spaces that emulate the physical classroom can foster an online community – including by offering options such as chat, polls, and forums, which allow students to interact with one another and ask questions.

Click here for more ways to build community in online settings.

2. How can I provide flexible assessments outside of higher stake exams?

Instead of online exams that disproportionately hurt some students, consider smaller activities or lower stake quizzes to evaluate your students’ learning as a formative process, more easily identify strengths and gains as well as areas of confusion, and provide feedback.

Click here for more ways to assess student learning proactively.

3. How can I offer students manageable content that helps them stay on top of the material?

Students may have additional personal responsibilities such as taking care of siblings and other family members during this time. Manageable content can help students with limited connectivity, facing technical difficulties, or who are unavailable during class time. Consider recording your lectures in small bite-sized videos of 10-20 minutes each that students can access asynchronously outside of class. This helps students who might have missed class, those who want to review a topic, as well students in different time zones.

Click here to learn how to use Universal Design Learning (UDL) for course design.

4. How can I encourage the use of Gender Pronouns?

Include a policy statement in your syllabus and explain to students why the use of pronouns is important. One can model inclusion by including your pronouns as part of your signature line and Canvas profile, adding pronouns to your name on Zoom, and encouraging students to do the same.

Click here for more information about Pronouns.

5. How can I make my online course content easily accessible?

You can make your course content accessible by providing alt text for images, using high contrast colors, and adding captions to course material. Alternative text describes an image that can be read to a student using a screen reader. Using high contrast colors is particularly useful for students who are color blind. While these tools are beneficial for students with vision impairments, they can be helpful for every student.

Click here for more information on each type of media.

6. What material should I use that reflects the diversity in our society and world?

Design your course site and curriculum to reflect diverse people, voices, and viewpoints. Seek articles outside of your discipline and in open-access databases, as well as non-academic socially embedded resources. The material can include images, videos, required readings, and illustrative examples that are culturally relevant and meaningful to your students.

Click here to visit a site that freely usable images.

By implementing inclusive teaching practices, we can create online learning communities where all students can learn and excel in online learning environments. Some efforts may take time to implement, and others may be simpler. Remember that small acts of inclusion can go a long way to support our commitment to fostering diversity and equity in teaching practice – especially during a time when it’s needed most.

Additional Resources

Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online.  Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning

Teaching Remotely. Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University

Teaching Remotely. University of Washington

Equity and inclusion in the Online Learning Environment. Iowa State University Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Teaching Effectively During Times of Disruption. Stanford University

When Coronavirus Closes Colleges, Some Students Lose Hot Meals, Health Care, and a Place to Sleep. The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 2020.

College Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are. New York Times. April 2020.