10 Strategies for Creating Inclusive & Equitable Online Learning Environments

Last modified on 5/15/20

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1. Communicate with students early to normalize and assuage concerns.

How you can do this:

What you might say to students:

As you know, we are engaged in this class under extraordinary circumstances. Not only are we now conducting the class online, but we are all working with repercussions of the COVID-19 emergency. (I/We on the course teaching team) want to acknowledge the challenges of this, and express our gratitude to you. This new version of our course, and the circumstances it is offered under, are going to require adaptability, understanding, and help from all of us--we thank you in advance for all that you do.

These are trying times. Please do feel free to reach out to me by email or during these virtual office hours: ____________. Also, I want to especially call attention to three support services that Stanford offers: 1) Counseling and Psychological Services 650-723-3785, 2) Academic Skills Coaching, and 3) the Office of Accessible Education (OAE).

2. Administer a survey before the quarter begins to get a sense of your students’ situations.

How you can do this:

What you might say to students:

I know some of these questions are very personal, and we don’t know each other (yet). I am asking you these questions because I care and want to be able to support you in your learning as best as I can. You may choose to skip any questions you do not feel comfortable answering.

3. Ensure course materials are accessible.

How you can do this:

  • Submit course reserve requests to The Stanford Libraries. SUL has dedicated funds to purchase e-books and other e-resources as surrogates for print materials, and library staff are available to work with individual instructors to find e-resource surrogates as needed.

  • OAE if there is an accommodation request. For example, students who used to sit in front of the class to lip read will now need captioning.

  • Use free, open-source, copyright-unrestricted online materials to the extent possible.

  • Post all materials possible on Canvas without violating copyright.

  • Ensure materials are mobile-friendly, and keep file sizes small. Standard file types (e.g. PDFs, “.doc” files, Google Doc links) tend to be more mobile friendly than non-standard file types (e.g. “.pages”).

  • Turn off the default HD video in your Zoom settings to help those who might not have reliable bandwidth.

  • Provide Image descriptions and alt-text for all images and videos.

  • Narrate visual information when you share your screen over Zoom.

  • Provide captions and/or transcripts for all videos.

  • Use PDFs with OCR (Optical Character Recognition), otherwise known as Searchable PDFs, for screen reader access.

  • In addition to PDF files, provide the source files (e.g. docs or pptx). You or your student may use automated tools such as SCRIBE to quickly convert your file into more accessible formats, but always check the converted file to verify the results. Contact OAE to get help with accessible text conversion if you have to convert a complex file.

  • Check for screen reader accessibility with a tool such as Webaim.

  • Be mindful that students are inhabiting distant learning environments with varying levels of restricted access, so try to rely primarily on Canvas and Zoom. For example, students participating from China likely will not have access to Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Box/Dropbox, Slack, Skype, WhatsApp, and the websites of many news outlets. VPN’s are illegal and should not be encouraged to get around restrictions.

What you might say to students:

It’s important to me that all of us be able to access and learn from the materials of the course. I’ve attempted to make all materials accessible through multiple media, but I encourage you to let me know what more I can do to support your learning.


4. Provide students with clear guidance on course mechanics.

How you can do this:

  • Create a “Start Here” module on your Canvas home page, which contains important course documents, important course information, and basic guidelines for navigating the course site.

  • Organize your course online to guide students along the learning path:

      • Organize weekly modules/learning units into folders that contain the materials and assignment information students will need for that week.

      • Keep frequently-referenced items, such as the Syllabus, Class Norms, or Assignment Rubrics, in a separate Administrative module at the top.

  • Clarify for students during what hours of the day they can expect to reach you over email, Canvas, or Zoom.

  • On your Canvas course homepage, centrally provide the link to your Zoom room and the link to getting started with Zoom on Canvas.

  • On your Canvas course homepage, provide guidelines for using Zoom. For example,

      • Instruct students to name themselves with their first and last names, preferred name in parentheses, and their pronouns if they feel comfortable sharing.

      • Make it clear that students should have audio available while participating in a synchronous session.

      • Invite students to use video when they can to foster better social connection, but normalize the many reasons students might prefer to keep their video off, such as unreliable bandwidth, not wanting visual distraction, or not wanting to share their current environment.

      • Make it clear that students should have audio available while participating in a synchronous session; invite students to use video when they can.

      • Encourage students to use “gallery view” and use it yourself. This allows everyone to see everyone else at the same time.

      • Have students introduce themselves (“Hi, this is…”) when they start speaking.

      • Urge students to use Zoom’s live chat and Zoom’s nonverbal feedback feature to demonstrate engagement and convey their reactions without interrupting the flow of the class session, especially if they can’t use video or audio.

      • Encourage students to join the class meeting a few minutes early to casually chat with instructors or other students, and test that their audio and video are working.

      • Clarify that although class meetings will be recorded, the recordings will stay within the course community and breakout rooms for smaller-group discussions will not be recorded.

  • Provide weekly overviews through email, Canvas announcements, short documents, or short videos that recap what has been covered so far and what to expect in the next week (including upcoming deadlines).

What you might say to students:

Online learning environments are new to many of us, and especially if not all of us can join at the same time or have our video on, we won’t be able to see facial expressions, body language, and other cues that we’re used to when interacting. So, here are some guidelines to help all of us create a positive learning environment.

5. Have 1:1 interactions with students within the first week of class and at least once more during the term, if possible.

How you can do this:

  • A 1:1 email exchange.

  • A 5-10-minute Zoom video call with each student.

  • Assigned times for each student to drop in to your virtual office hours for 5-10 minutes.

What you might say to students:

Especially since we won’t get to meet in person, I’d love to get to know you a bit better and hear how we might help create a good learning experience for you in the course. We can talk about anything you’d like to: this course, your academic interests, your extracurricular interests, your family, or even your favorite shows to binge watch!

6. Provide a mix of synchronous, and asynchronous, course activities.

How you can do this:

  • Hold synchronous sessions at times your course would’ve met in person.

  • Record all common Zoom sessions and post to Canvas afterwards for students to view.

  • Allow students to submit work outside of designated synchronous class sessions.

  • Give students who lose connectivity during a class session other options for displaying engagement, such as writing you a personal email, submitting a brief reflection over Canvas, or recording and uploading a brief video over Zoom or their smartphones.

  • Be mindful that students are inhabiting distant learning environments with varying levels of surveillance and monitoring. Permit students to keep their video off during synchronous sessions, and be flexible about what they are required to say or submit over Canvas since course communications and submissions might be monitored.

What you might say to students:

I understand that not all of us might be able to participate in class together on the designated days/times. I will be holding a Zoom class session at those times for anyone who can participate, so that we all know a community is available to us at those times. However, I will also record and post to Canvas all of our class meetings and will always give you other options for participating and engaging in class.

7. Collectively set norms for online and offline interactions.

How you can do this:

  • Set aside 15-20 minutes in an initial class session to invite students to brainstorm norms in four “directions”: Student to Student, Student to Professor, Professor to Student, and Student to Self. Discuss these in breakout rooms, have each group propose a norm, and go around until all norms have been proposed and discussed.

Example norms:

            • Distractions abound, but we commit to being engaged and attentive during class.

            • Listen deeply to whomever is speaking in the virtual room.

            • One mic. Try not to interrupt, and if you do, apologize.

            • Make space, take space.

            • Use personal pronouns and gender-conscious language.

            • We start on time and end on time.

  • Create a Canvas page for norms and have students work in pairs or small groups to populate the page. Discuss the norms in a class session, or create a Canvas Discussion to do so outside of class.

  • You may use the guidelines that you devised for course mechanics (#4) as a starting point for revising, adding, or subtracting.

What you might say to students:

It’s always important for members of a class to be accountable to one another, but especially in an online environment, it’s essential that we agree on how we’re going to co-create a warm, welcoming, inclusive, and open learning environment.

8. Be deliberate about ensuring equitable class participation.

How you can do this:

  • Represent individuals of varied race, gender, religion, ability, etc. in your course slides, course site, and other course materials.

  • After you pose questions, give students silent time to think and write individually before opening the floor to discussion.

  • Rather than calling on students who raise their hands over video or allowing students to speak without being called on, request students use the handraising icon over Zoom. Wait for the total number of respondents you would like, before you call on the first one.

  • Rather than always convening as a whole class, break students up into smaller discussion/working groups, each with its own Zoom breakout room, or Canvas Discussion to give all students space to contribute.

  • Assign roles to students in breakout room activities, such as Timekeeper, Recorder, Facilitator, Synthesizer, and Reporter.

  • If you want a student to share a contribution that you overheard in a breakout room or saw in an assignment, ‘warm call’ the student. That is, contact them in advance, or over private messaging in the Zoom live chat function, to ask if they would feel comfortable sharing their contribution with others when you reconvene as a whole class.

  • Create a volunteer ‘buddy system’ that matches synchronous and asynchronous students for brief check-ins, so that students participating at different times and through different avenues can catch each other up.

  • When sharing student contributions from activities and assignments, be sure to represent students participating asynchronously just as much as students participating synchronously.

  • Create opportunities for every student to shape the course, for example, have each student submit a song to a course playlist that is played over Zoom before class or during breaks, or have every student lead a discussion online or offline.

  • Create class rituals that every member of the class can participate in, such as a weekly “gratitude share” where every person contributes an item to a shared Canvas page, or virtual ‘high-fives’ at the end of student presentations, or a minute of shared silence before ending class.

What you might say to students:

To ensure that all of our ideas and contributions are shared, I will be using strategies that I think will help elevate all of our voices. If you ever feel like you do not have enough opportunities to share your ideas or if you have suggestions for how I might create a more equitable space for participation, please let me know!

9. Provide opportunities throughout the course, not just at the beginning, for students to get to know one another in pairs or small groups.

How you can do this:

  • Set up a Canvas Chat, or a Canvas Discussion for students.

  • Set up Zoom times where students can talk without the instructor present.

  • Have at least a few assignments that are completed in pairs or small groups.

  • Integrate short ‘ice-breaker’ activities during live class sessions, and/or as offline assignments that students can complete together outside of class sessions.

What you might say to students:

To strengthen learning in this course, it is important that we build a community and get to know each other, I’ve created a Canvas Discussion thread where you can ask each other questions about anything you would like!

10. Get frequent feedback from students on their experience in the class.

How you can do this:

What you might say to students:

Conducting class entirely online is a new experience for me, and I want to ensure that I’m doing everything I can to support you in your learning. Your candid feedback will help me do that, and I welcome your feedback at any other time too, such as during my virtual office hours, over email, or over Canvas Conversations.

Stanford-Specific Resources

General Resources