Creating an Inclusive Online Learning Environment: Webinar Recap

“How do we continue to rupture practices that are grounded in convention to teach with equitable outcomes?” Dr. Michael Benitez, Jr., vice president for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Metropolitan State University, Denver, asked in Creating an Inclusive Online Learning Environment, the first in ACUE’s series of Inclusive Online Teaching Webinars

This webinar was presented in collaboration with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU), The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), Every Learner Everywhere (ELE), the National Association of System Heads (NASH), and Strong Start to Finish (SSTF).

The webinar also featured insights from Dr. Viji Sathy, professor of the practice, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dr. Kelly Hogan, STEM teaching professor and associate dean of instructional innovation, College of Arts & Sciences, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Darvelle Hutchins, lecturer, Department of Communications Studies, California Polytechnic State University and diversity strategist, TDS Telecommunications, Inc. Dr. Charity Peak, regional director for academic programs at ACUE, moderated the discussion.

Key Insights from the Conversation

Student feedback is important for assessing inclusive teaching.

“This is not about us,” Benitez said. “This is about the students that we serve.”

In order to ensure that instructors’ practices are meeting students’ needs, Sathy advised gathering feedback. She suggested inviting students to fill out a form, with the option of offering suggestions anonymously. She also noted how important it is to respond to that feedback to demonstrate that you’re listening to what your students are saying. 

Midsemester, Sathy said, is an ideal time to collect this feedback, such as via a prompt on the midterm. 

Hogan and Hutchins also stressed the importance of soliciting student feedback. Hutchins asks students to submit a reflection essay that earns them points. In it, they address a series of questions about challenges and aspects of the course they’re enjoying. “When you attach points to it, students really think about it and give in-depth feedback,” he said.

“It shows that you care,” Hogan said. “That matters the most to them.”

Faculty must be willing to adapt their courses and content.

“Focus on learning and your role in helping students with the learning,” Sathy said. That might include changing the way a course is taught. Part of that, Sathy added, could be based on that student feedback. She advised faculty to not only read that input but share it back to students in some form — and then implement at least one change because of it. “Show you’re willing to meet them where they are, and you’re willing to change things to reflect that community of learners,” she explained. “They’ll really take that to be a sign of good faith.”

Sometimes, Hogan noted, courses don’t always go according to plan. For example, what if certain students aren’t engaging with one another in a breakout room? Hogan presented her approach: Investigate, summarize the problem, and plan a possible solution. In the breakout room scenario, she proposed setting up a Google Slide for each group and then scanning the document to see if any groups haven’t added to theirs. That, she said, will allow instructors to focus their attention on those groups.

“It’s about adapting and adopting,” Benitez agreed. “It’s more important than ever to try different ways and modes of teaching.”

Learning is a partnership.

The speakers also discussed how students have agency in their learning. One way Hutchins makes the teaching and learning process collaborative is by establishing community norms upfront: “Things we commit to as participants.”

Hutchins’ norms are:

  1. Demonstrate a respect for difference
  2. Assume good intentions
  3. Respect confidentiality
  4. Be generous
  5. Be patient
  6. Respect deadlines

After he establishes them, he asks students to offer feedback and add to them — making it a collaboration between the instructor and students. 

“It’s a good time to remind them what can they be doing to improve their learning,” Sathy added. “It’s a partnership.”

Benitez commented that institutions must also work with faculty. “If we better support our faculty, we better support our students,” he said. “Collaborate…and enlist support from one another.”

He also noted that the learning goes both ways, with instructors learning from their students, too. 

In order to ensure that learning is collaborative, Hogan asks students to prepare before class in one of her courses, so class time can be a time to work together and problem solve.

The presenters also discussed optimizing peer interactions. Benitez suggested forming groups with different dynamics. He also leaves some of his syllabus empty for students to fill in.

“Students worry that there’s a scarcity of resources,” Sathy said. “It’s important to remind students that your goal is for all students to learn the material and that they should help each other succeed in this course — it’s not a competition. Encourage students to see the strengths of their peers; it will help them be better thinkers.”

Hogan has students peer-review one another’s work, assigning the pairs so everyone is exposed to different perspectives. She found the majority of her students said they were learning the most from their peers.

For more resources on creating an inclusive online learning environment, including a full recording and transcript of the webinar, visit our Inclusive Online Teaching Webinars page. Join us for our next webinar in the series, Preparing an Inclusive Online Course, on October 9, 2020, at 12:00 pm EDT.

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