8 Creating Inclusive Online Learning Environments

In a post-2020 world, online learning is an increasingly important sphere in postsecondary education.  Like face-to-face instruction, online learning environments are shaped by a distinct set of culturally-informed learning norms, which may be unfamiliar to learners. Additionally, access to full participation in online learning may require technology access and a set of digital literacies that are not equally accessible to all learners.  How can we harness of the potential benefits of online learning, while ensuring that our spaces remain open and equitable?  In this chapter, you will explore six strategies for creating inclusive online learning environments, informed by Gunawardena et al. (2018).

Survey Students About Technology Access and Experience

While we frequently hear discussions about our students being digital natives, in reality, digital natives do not exist, and the reality of our students’ interactions with and access to technology can differ widely (Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017).  While some students may be accustomed to using a variety of technology and digital literacy strategies to support their learning, for others, technology may have played a minor role in their previous learning environments.  Additionally, online learning, particularly in situations where it is required and not chosen, can reinforce inequities between students, with some students lacking the infrastructure or devices needed to participate fully in the online learning environment.  For example, students may be hindered by limited internet connection speeds, or may be working on older or shared devices (Day et al., 2021). With these realities in mind, a helpful first step in an online course is to survey students about their access to and experience with learning technologies.

A technology access and experience survey can be included as an introductory activity in the learning management system.  Possible questions can include:

  1. Do you have access to a computer, laptop, or smartphone?  For how many hours daily?
  2. Do you have the capability to participate in audio or video conferences (e.g. via Zoom)?
  3. Do you have access to the internet or a data connection sufficient for downloading course materials (e.g. videos and larger file downloads)?
  4. Have you previously taken an online course for credit?
  5. Do you have experience using Word/ Excel/ PowerPoint?
  6. Do you know how to create an online portfolio or blog page?

Knowing this information early in the course can help you make adaptations to course materials and delivery.  For example, while it is always a good practice to include a written transcript with video files, transcripts become more necessary when students are unable to consistently watch videos.  Students who do not have adequate devices can be pointed to campus resources, such as laptop loans. If you become aware that students are unfamiliar with the software and processes that will be used in the course, options include linking to relevant tutorials, or connecting students with campus learning centre resources that can provide additional support. Alerting students to the technology requirements in the course also allows them the opportunity to practice needed skills before the course or early in the semester, before the pressure of assignments and exams increases.

Provide an Orientation Module for Your Course

Online courses often reflect the cultural context in which they are developed; icons, symbols, and strategies for organizing and distributing information are not universal, and can create an additional layer of unfamiliarity for some learners (Hannon & D’Netto, 2007).  In addition, online learning practices involve additional academic norms that may be unfamiliar to new online learners.  The “script” that governs an online course is often unspoken and implicit, and when these unspoken “scripts” differ from the understandings that learners bring into the course, misunderstandings can result.

An orientation module is one strategy for introducing students to the micro-culture that will shape how learning and interaction will take place during the course.  An introductory module can provide space to introduce students to your philosophy of teaching and expectations, to create course communication guidelines, and to explore how assessments and assignments will work in the course.  Content for an orientation module might include:

  • A video orientation/ tour of the course page.
  • A brief personal introduction to help students connect with you.
  • Suggestions for how to organize learning in the course each week.
  • “Netiquette” and other course communication guidelines.

Offer Support in Negotiating Identity and Building Social Presence Online

While online courses can increase accessibility for some learners, other learners experience challenges knowing how to effectively engage in intercultural communication in online spaces (Hannon & D’Netto, 2007).  Additionally, multilingual learners may feel intimidated by high requirements for written communication in English, experiencing anxiety over correctness in forum posts and email communication (Day et al., 2021).  In addition, some learners may wish to be selective in the aspects of their identity they reveal in online spaces, while others prefer a greater level of openness. For these reasons, it can be helpful to offer students specific support and guidance in building their social presence in the online classroom.

Strategies to support negotiating identity and building social presence online include allowing students choices in how they present their identity online (e.g. a choice between using a photo and an avatar in their course profile), and providing additional support with early online communications in the course.  For example, it may be helpful to provide an example of a forum post, or to suggest students attend an early office hour in the course for feedback on their first forum post.  A rubric or checklist for forum posts and replies may also be helpful for students.

Consider opportunities for students to forge social connections before moving into the learning tasks of the course. Informal ice-breaker activities or less structured class social hours can allow students to develop initial relationships in a low-stakes environment.  This can create additional comfort and safety later on in the course when students engage in group learning activities or projects.

Plan Your Communication Strategy

Online learning requires significant motivation and self-discipline; however, students report that online learning can reduce their feelings of motivation to persist with course work (Aristovnik et al., 2020; Day, 2021).  A strategy for frequent and varied communication can enhance students’ feeling of connection with you as the instructor, and with the course as a learning community.  Consider adding frequent and proactive communication with students to the regular routine of the course.  Varying the mode of communication — for example, using written, visual, and video communication strategically, can also ensure that your communication connects across learner preferences and communication styles.

Allow Flexible Paths to Learning and Demonstrating Knowledge

While Universal Design for Learning (UDL) supports learning in both online and face to face environments, flexibility can be even more important in the online learning space, particularly in recognition of barriers to equity students face in technology access and use.  Where possible, consider allowing students choice in how they access course content. For example, multilingual learners may benefit from accessing a transcript and a video recording at the same time, enhancing their ability to accurately understand the material presented. Allowing students a choice of how they demonstrate knowledge of a course learning outcome can reduce inequities, while at the same time enhancing students’ ability to create authentic materials that can be showcased in ePortfolios and that can support future employment applications.

For additional information and strategies for incorporating UDL principles into an online course, visit the Implementing Universal Design for Learning chapter in this resource.

Connect Students with a Network of Support

Online learning can leave students feeling disconnected from the network of campus supports that enhance opportunities for connectedness and learning success.  Consider the web of other campus supports that can assist students in their academic and personal development:  these include the library, learning centres, accessibility services, counselling, wellness, and peer mentoring services.  When away from the on-campus learning environment, students may lack awareness of the opportunities for support and connection that are available to them.  Consider embedding direct links to campus resources in the course syllabus and course site.  Additionally, it is helpful to emphasize the positive role that help-seeking can play in learning.

Consider opportunities to provide students with a more direct connection to campus resources.  For example, students may feel less intimated about seeking out peer tutoring or peer mentoring if they are introduced to a specific tutor via video or in a synchronous class session.  Direct referrals to campus services may be helpful to students who are more hesitant to reach out independently.  When students feel a direct connection to a broader supportive community on campus, the connectedness that supports persistence in learning can develop.

An additional strategy for creating connections and supporting student skill development is building structures for peer mentoring into learning groups within a course. Gunawardena et al., (2018) suggest that learning in online environments can be designed around group based inquiry tasks, where students take opportunity to mentor one another in areas of strength.  This can include a structured facilitated activity where students move through the process of group formation, specifically identifying their areas of strength and potential contribution to the group’s learning.  From this starting point, group members can take different leadership roles throughout the project, sharing their knowledge and expertise to build the skills sets of their peers.

Creating a Supportive Class Micro-Culture

An online course brings together students with varied life experiences and cultural identities into a new environment that has its own distinct micro-culture.  The micro-culture shapes the ways of relating within the online learning community, and the ways in which knowledge is shared and communicated.  Creating an inclusive online learning culture involves creating space for students to share their cultural identities and knowledges, as well as facilitating processes that create a common and shared understanding of how to learn in a connected and supported way.


Aristovnik, A., Keržič, D., Ravšelj, D., Tomaževič, N., & Umek, L. (2020). Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on life of higher education students: A global perspective. Sustainability, 12(20), 8438. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12208438

Day, T., Chang, I.-C. C., Chung, C. K. L., Doolittle, W. E., Housel, J., & McDaniel, P. N. (2021). The immediate impact of COVID-19 on postsecondary teaching and learning. The Professional Geographer, 73(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/00330124.2020.1823864

Gunawardena, C. N., Frechette, C., & Layne, L. (2018). Culturally inclusive instructional design: A framework and guide. Routledge.

Hannon, J., & D’Netto, B. (2007). Cultural diversity online: student engagement with learning technologies. International Journal of Educational Management, 21(5), 418–432. https://doi.org/10.1108/09513540710760192

Kirschner, P. A., & De Bruyckere, P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67, 135–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.06.001


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Inclusive Pedagogies Copyright © 2021 by Christina Page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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