Creating a more Inclusive Online Classroom

K.Park/ September 27, 2020/ 0 comments

ISTE Standard for Coaches

This post is related to the following ISTE Standard for Coaches:

4c: Collaborate with educators to design accessible and active digital learning environments that accommodate learner variability.

7a: Inspire and encourage educators and students to use technology for civic engagement and to address challenges to improve their communities.


One value that is important to me is that education and content be more broadly accessible and available, and that people have a sense of belonging in the communities they want to participate in online. Last year on behalf of the diversity committee I co-chair, I gave a presentation to staff on Redlining in Seattle and how that is related to technology; specifically, the “Digital Divide.” In fact, it’s such a concern in Seattle that since 2016, the city has had a Digital Equity Action Plan (DEAP), that’s aligned with and furthers the City of Seattle’s broadband effortsRace and Social Justice Initiatives, and other education, neighborhood, equitable development, technology, cultural and human service goals.  The DEAP mostly focuses on Devices & Technical Support, Connectivity, and Skills training.  However, once you cover those initial hurdles how do you help individuals become fully part of the digital environment so it’s a space that they want to be in and don’t dread?

Part of my job is to support instructors with the digital realm of a course.  This usually involves choosing a tool and making sure it will work, but it also entails talking through online course design.  We talk about backwards course design, online presence, and course interactions, but we also have conversations about having a holistic view of to supporting all students.  In those conversations we talk about being culturally responsive, having a pedagogy of care, and accessibility and responsive design, but one area that we started emphasizing more, was to talk about what instructors hoped for their students and how the course introduced that to students and made them feel.


So I arrived at question: Am I creating a welcoming space in my online classroom? And How do I know if I am doing that?

Some of the related questions that might help answer that, that I could think of are:  

  1. Can the student participate in all areas of the course with the device of their choosing?
  2. How responsive and accessible is the content and technologies in the course?
  3. How will I find out or know if a student is feeling welcomed in the online space throughout the course?
  4. When looking at an online course (maybe any course), what are the components that may need to be addressed?


I had previously watched a recorded presentation by Dr. Andy Saltarelli, the Sr. Director of Evaluation & Research at Stanford University, for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) Annual Meeting in 2019, titled “Creating Psychologically Welcoming Online Learning Environments,” and quickly became interested in the research he presented and how small changes in a course had impacted persistence and enrollment in STEM courses. 

Dr. Saltarelli discussed a few different situations where interventions were made, such as changing images and text in marketing emails, to studying introductory interventions that reduced social identity threat and increased persistence in MOOCs, to how belongingness & social presence impact students.

Ultimately, the research done showed there are psychological barriers in online spaces, even if there’s minimal social interaction – like distance learning courses, that small theory-based interventions can make big differences, and that a psychologically inclusive design (visual and verbal cues) improves enrollment of stigmatized learners. It also showed that a brief introductory activity that bolstered perceived connection to peers could increase motivation and persistence, but that “belongingness” is also something to track throughout the course. So it’s not like you do the one thing and you’re done.


I’m choosing to focus my answer as it relates to “d) When looking at an online course (maybe any course), what are the components that may need to be addressed?” above. When students are uncertain about their belonging because of their social group (Walton & Cohen, 2007) or if they are concerned about being seen as less capable because of their social group, students’ working memory (Schmader & Johns, 2003), persistence, and learning (Taylor & Walton, 2011) will be impaired. It then becomes imperative for instructors to reflect on their courses and whether or not they’ve created a welcoming space.

According to Saltarelli, Psychologically Inclusive Design includes the visual content, verbal content, visual design, and interaction design of a course. This means that an instructor who wants to create a space where all students feel like they can succeed, needs to pay attention to many areas of their course – not just the content.

Here are five suggestions from the presentation and from my own course design work that I believe can work together to create a welcoming course:

  1. Have an introduction activity that has students connect the course they’re taking and their personal values.
  2. Make sure there are multiple opportunities for student to student interaction, each week.  
    • This not only facilitates deeper learning but creates community and fosters a sense of belonging in a course.
  3. Regularly check in with students on how they’re feeling throughout the course.
  4. Review the images and other multimedia content used in the course – what do they say about your course, consider asking your peers or students for feedback.
    • Are you using warm and inviting images and colors?
    • Are the symbols used in your course interpreted differently in other parts of the country or world?
    • Do they reflect your hopes for your students and the values you want them to have upon completion of the course?
  5. Does the language used in your content have or imply stereotypes or other generalizations that are harmful to students in your class?

I think it’s important for instructors to recognize that that there are various aspects that impact the inclusivity of a course. The five steps above are simple things to help get started on the process of creating a more inclusive course but are not the considered the end. Just like teaching is refined and fine-tuned over time, so is creating an inclusive course. 


Saltarelli, A. (2019, February 19). Creating psychologically welcoming online learning environments.  [Breakout Session]. ELI Annual Meeting 2019, Anaheim, CA, United States.

Schmader, T., & Johns, M. (2003). Converging Evidence That Stereotype Threat Reduces Working Memory Capacity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 85(3), 440-452. https://10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.440

Taylor, V. J., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Stereotype threat undermines academic learning. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 37(8), 1055–1067.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A Question of Belonging: Race, Social Fit, and Achievement. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 92(1), 82-96. https://10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.82

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