28 Establishing a Respectful and Inclusive Learning Environment

Feeling a sense of belonging to a valued social group is a basic human need, and a sense of fit and acceptance by others is essential to maintain motivation. These basic human needs must be attended to in online environments because of the increased tendency to feel isolated during an online course. For these reasons, it is suggested to review these guidelines and suggestions for creating an inclusive environment in your online classroom.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) defines inclusion as “the active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity—in the curriculum, in the co-curriculum, and in communities (intellectual, social, cultural, geographical) with which individuals might connect—in ways that increase awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication, and empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions” (n.d.).

An inclusive online classroom works to establish pedagogical practices, policies, and language use which create learning environments that recognize and support the agencies of all students. This list includes students who identify as one of the more commonly recognized marginalized groups (by race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation), and also those with multiple marginalized identities or who do not fit into the mold of the traditional university student. While not exhaustive, other identities or circumstances might include:

  • Commuter students
  • International students
  • Students with children
  • Students serving as caretakers for family members
  • Veterans
  • Athletes
  • Students with unique family structures
  • English language learners
  • Immigrants
  • Students with disabilities, including those related to mental and physical health
  • Students with challenging or unique job demands
  • Previously or currently incarcerated students
  • Students from low socioeconomic status families
  • Geographically isolated students
  • First-generation higher education students
  • People of size

To create a more inclusive online classroom environment, consider these best practices in course design and pedagogy, course policies and processes, and learning materials.

Inclusive Course Design & Pedagogy

  • Develop courses with a content team rather than a single author to ensure that multiple perspectives are included and the content is reviewed through multiple inclusive lenses.
  • Make inclusive design choices in course content (i.e. use a style sheet for documents, include alt texts for images, caption video, provide transcripts for audio-visual material, etc.)
  • Provide clear rubrics to reduce students’ worries that their evaluation may be biased due to stereotypes and prejudice. Provide specific examples of exemplary and unsatisfactory work. Remember to get permission from students before using their material as examples.
  • On surveys and evaluations, ask questions regarding race, ethnicity, gender, religion, country of origin, etc. only if a clearly defined need exists for this information. Let individuals self-identify in surveys and evaluation questions regarding race, ethnicity, gender, religion, country of origin, etc, when possible, or providing “Other” as an option, if a defined list needs to be included.
  • Seek feedback from your students specifically asking questions about inclusiveness and make changes accordingly.
  • Add the pronouns you use in multiple places, such as your email signature, Instructor information section of syllabus, and Instructor information section of your course website
  • Encourage students to add the pronouns they use to their student record in MyU
  • Model inclusive behavior and language as you moderate student discussions.

Inclusive Course Policies & Processes

  • Schedule student hours (aka office hours) options during a variety of times, including during the evenings, so students with varied schedules (due to work, family obligations, etc.) also have an opportunity to attend.
  • Provide syllabus links to a variety of campus and community student support resources which shows evidence that you recognize the agencies and potential challenges of students.
  • Complete bias assessments to better understand personal biases, such as Harvard University’s Implicit Project, and regularly consult your course website’s learning analytics to ensure that you are providing equal amounts of feedback to all students and not unwittingly favoring members of a select group.
  • Avoiding assumptive language practices, such as “A woman should talk to her boyfriend about STI testing,” which assumes the woman is heterosexual and has only one sexual partner.

Inclusive Learning Materials

  • Work with University librarians to explore affordable content options for your course content.
  • Select images of photos and video for learning materials that represent diverse people and experiences.
  • Use non-binary and person/student-centered language in all learning materials
  • Avoid the use of unnecessary colloquialisms in course content to aid English language learners (e.g., “We’re going to ramp up our efforts here…”)
  • Use culturally diverse names within course content and lectures, such as subjects in examples and case scenarios.
  • Provide examples of diverse experiences in examples and case scenarios
  • Choose and cite research that represents a diverse range of researchers and journals, particularly when multiple articles come to the same conclusions.

Note: significant sections of this guideline were taken from the report: Inclusivity: Universal Design Strategies for the Online Classroom by Sarah Keene and Amy LimBybliw, Rothenberger Institute, University of Minnesota. See Rothenberger Institute’s Inclusive Language Syllabi Statement for an explanation on the reasoning behind these efforts.

Additional Resources


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Guidelines for Online Teaching and Design Copyright © by TeachingSupport@UMN.edu and Faculty Development for Online Teaching task group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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