Four Strategies for Cultivating Inclusion in Online Classrooms
Whether we teach online or in-person there is a need to bridge the gap between student’s lived experiences, their cultural backgrounds and academics. With recent the transition to primarily online teaching and learning, because of Covid-19, this need has become more important. Undoubtedly, the online transition has been a learning experience for both students and instructors alike. Pushing us, among other things, to evaluate our technological abilities, motivation, and perseverance in the face of various challenges. Online learning has a number of advantages, including flexible learning environments and schedules, as well as student-paced learning. In contrast, online learning has its drawbacks, including accessibility challenges, content-heaviness and isolation.
After two years of online teaching, educators still contend with finding ways to make their classrooms more inclusive, especially in this virtual context. Inclusive classrooms, which are defined as environments that are co-constructed by both instructors and students, often embrace and support students’ various academic, social, emotional, and communicative requirements. Mutual respect is the underpinning idea of inclusive classrooms, and activities within inclusive classrooms should both validate and affirm students’ cultural identities. The main benefits of inclusive education is that it expands students’ ability to collaborate, appreciate and respect a diverse range of perspectives and experiences, it promotes critical thinking, and assists students in becoming successful learners.
Finding strategies to enhance inclusiveness in my online Psychology classrooms requires drawing on the notions of culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy. According to Geneva Gay (2010), educators should strive to be both individually and culturally responsive to their students. This entails “using ethnically diverse students’ cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performative techniques to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for them, [since] it teaches to and through their strengths” (p.31). Placing the strengths and competencies of students at the forefront of teaching and learning assumes that all students are capable learners, and that their cultural knowledge, identities, and experiences are assets in learning, which should be capitalized on through instructional practices.
In considering how to make my online psychology classrooms more inclusive, I have found the following strategies and philosophies to be helpful.
1. Set Common Learning Outcomes
Information can flow in a unidirectional fashion in an online class where content is a primary factor. The instructor is positioned as the “provider” or “holder” of information. This restricts the types of interactions possible in the space. Students must be involved in the process of developing a culturally responsive and inclusive environment. Asking students to think about what they want to learn in the course is one strategy that I have found to be effective. In my Psychology courses, students are asked to write a short statement about the following: What do you want to learn from this course? For example: Do you want practical information for parenting purposes? Are there aspects of your own life that you are curious about? What behaviors or actions that you have observed in people around you (of all ages) that you would like to understand better?
This reflective exercise can be tailored to fit the needs of individual courses. It allows students to express their own ideas about the topic, personal interests, and career interests by doing this type of introductory reflective activity. It also provides the instructor with information about student interests, which can be used to create lectures, course material, and assignments. The process then becomes a collaborative one in which the educator can present the gathered ideas to the students and elicit additional suggestions from them regarding any identified topics, and how they can be covered during the semester. It may also lead to further discussions concerning the class structure and outcomes as a whole. Furthermore, using this kind of prompt as an introductory discussion board can bring the entire class into the conversation.
2. Include Multiple Perspectives on Course Materials
Inviting multiple perspectives on subject areas is another technique that engages everyone in the conversation. Topics should not be presented in a way that favors one voice or perspective over another. It is valuable to consider and integrate writings and other artifacts created by people from various backgrounds in order to provide a more holistic perspective. Additionally, having skilled guest speakers from within the community provides students with memorable experiences. Also, instructors should also recognize that they are not required to have “all the answers.” Creating opportunities for students to share their opinions and knowledge creates an open learning space. It is just as vital to set up the environment in which you may learn from your students, as it is to educate them.
3. Create Multiple Opportunities and Modalities for Student Learning
Get to know your students and give them the chance to showcase their expertise and personalities. Students may believe that they can only express themselves in English and in writing. However, I have found that students are willing to express themselves in a variety of ways with activity-specific guidance. As a result, being open to developing activities that do not prioritize text can be beneficial. Students can, among other things, sketch, take pictures, paint, produce a video, create music, and even create an app. Even if you are doing a text-based activity, you can allow students to write in their preferred language while also inviting them to explain what they have said in English through writing or via video. Providing examples helps students to understand how they may go about approaching these kinds of flexible assignments.
In terms of teaching, I find that making short videos presenting my personal opinions on a subject area appeals to students more than just having readings. Furthermore, providing real-world instances through personal narratives and films allows students to engage more actively with a topic.
4. Be Responsive and “Open”!
Instructors must, of course, be responsive to their students. When teaching online classes, this is even more important. Because the online classroom can be isolating and content heavy, I usually try to respond to emails as soon as possible because email is the primary mode of contact for everyone, and it is also vital to follow up on student issues. I spend a lot of time on Blackboard and email, checking up on students who are not “present” as often as they should be. If necessary, I email or phone them. It is also a good idea to get students to work as partners to provide an extra layer of support. Furthermore, apps like WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook are excellent alternative communication tools. Prior to online teaching, I never used WhatsApp to communicate with my students, but I soon learned that they were more versed with this app than Blackboard, and appreciated having it as an option.
Rethinking the purpose of my office hours has been also been a useful strategy for me. I thought about how students utilized them and how they felt about to them. This prompted me to try out using them as “check-ins.” Students are welcome to join the scheduled Zoom sessions at any time, and if they are unable to do so, we can arrange private appointments. We address any questions they have about the course and the materials during the sessions. However, the sessions are more about how the student is doing. We talk about what’s going on in their lives. These conversations allow me to connect with my students, learn more about them, and establish a relationship with them. It is important to ask students what they want to do during office hours and what they believe is the best use of their time. This can also be accomplished by conducting a simple poll at the beginning of the semester.
Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.
Saunders, S.; Kardia, D. (1997). Creating inclusive college classrooms. Center for Research on Learning & Teaching, University of Michigan. https://crlt.umich.edu/gsis/p3_1
Stacey Cooper holds a doctoral degree in Developmental Psychology from the CUNY- Graduate Center and she is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Hostos Community College. Dr. Cooper has been teaching at the college since 2009. Her current projects include the Learning Through Culture Project and the Teaching Meets Wellness Conference. In 2014, she started the Ethnic Minority Immigrant Student Research Project at Hostos. In 2016, she constructed the Shared Faculty Resource utilized by the department’s psychology faculty. Her teaching and research interests include learning identity, ethnic identity, culturally responsive/ relevant pedagogy, immigration, digital pedagogy and higher education