Inclusive Online Teaching

Hands type on a laptop.

July 16, 2020. Photo by Gregory Nathan / University Communication.

Many of the same principles of inclusive teaching apply to both face-to-face and online classes, but there are some unique challenges to teaching inclusively in an online environment. Students who take online classes often choose to take online courses because they have other demands on their time, such as work, caretaking, or health issues. These students may need more structure and support to be successful in their learning. It is also more common in online courses for students to feel less connected with others, be less engaged with class content, and have less motivation (Jaggars et al., 2021). All these factors can increase performance gaps for marginalized students, rendering the principles of inclusive teaching particularly important for online courses. 


Be sure to clearly communicate about norms, expectations, and evaluation criteria. In online classes, you do not have the ability to give clarifications in-person, so you will need a lot more detailed information about things like the structure of the class, how to sign up for and attend office hours, and how to complete assignments. Continue repeating this information at relevant points throughout the semester through announcements, recorded videos, andin Canvas.

Things that can help students understand course expectations include:

  • In Canvas, start each module with an overview page clearly explaining expectations. Create a separate module for each week or topic. Then, create an overview page listing everything students are expected to read, watch, and do for that section of material.
  • Clearly explain the purpose of each assignment, reading, video, etc. This is information you would normally have explained in class, so make sure that you still convey the importance of everything you ask students to do. Anything without a clear purpose is likely to be perceived as unimportant ‘busy work’.
  • Give suggestions for how students should approach readings. Academic reading is challenging, and approaches vary by discipline, so help students understand the structure and purpose of your course materials. Also, be sure to explain how each reading ties into other assignments.
  • Offer guidance for exam and project preparation. Preparing for a timed multiple-choice exam is quite different from preparation for an essay exam. Give your students practice questions and study tips for the type of assessment you are giving.
  • Ask for student feedback. After the first big assignment, set up an informal, anonymous survey that asks students about their experience in the course, how confident they are about their ability to succeed, and what resources would help them perform better in the course.

Academic Belonging 

Cultivating students’ sense of connection to the course, content, and larger campus in online classes is imperative to help students be successful. A sense of academic belonging can impact engagement, mental health, and even persistence at the university (Gopalan & Brady, 2020).

  • Remind your students they can succeed. Maintain high expectations but use phrases like “you belong” “you can do the work” and “you can succeed” to convey that you believe your students are capable of what you ask them to do.
  • Be present in the course. Send frequent announcements to let students know that you are thinking about them. Preferably, send them as videos so your students can see your face and hear your voice. Consider contributing to discussion boards to keep the conversation moving.
  • Let your students talk to one another. Use Canvas discussion boards, group projects, or other collective assignments to help students connect to one another. Consider giving students the option of making their discussion contributions as videos so they can see & hear one another.
  • Make sure you have a detailed ‘Netiquette Policy’. Students may feel more comfortable participating in online discussions if they have detailed guidelines that are welcoming & inclusive. For example, this is an example Netiquette Policy from Arizona State University. When students have a voice in creating these policies, they feel a deeper connection to the course and the other students in it, so consider developing your policy collaboratively with your students early in the semester.


It is important to ensure that all students can access and fully interact with all materials that are posted online. Students from marginalized groups are more likely to have trouble accessing course materials. Not all students will have access to regular internet service, or top-of-the-line software and hardware. Students may have unreliable, unstable, or low levels of access to the internet. Students may rely on mobile data plans which can run low or run out before they have completed coursework. They may also lack access to physical devices such as laptops, tablets, webcams, or other equipment.

  • Avoid required synchronous learning experiences. Students from lower socioeconomic status homes or rural areas are least likely to have access to the internet & technological resources to fully participate in an online environment. Others may have jobs or caretaking responsibilities that interfere with your chosen meeting time. If synchronous meetings are not part of the official course schedule when students are signing up for classes, avoid the requirement for students to be present for synchronous learning experiences and make sure that you record any of those sessions so that students can access them later.
  • Ensure course materials are easily accessible via mobile devices. Many students will be accessing course materials on their phones. Before publishing course materials, try looking at them on a mobile device to ensure that everything necessary is easy to access. If you have specific class activities that will require something other than a mobile device, make that clear at the beginning of the semester.
  • Provide transcripts and captions of audio and video. This benefits not only students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, but those who are participating in classes in noisy locations like a computer lab or dorm, those who do not have headphones, and those who might have English as their second language.  If you record your videos with Yuja, they will automatically be auto-captioned and it is easy to get transcripts after recording.
  • Ensure that all course materials can be accessed by students that are using a screen reader. This guide has more information on ensuring that your course is fully accessible to students with disabilities. For example, if you use PDFs, ensure that they contain searchable text rather than being scanned images.


Students face a variety of life circumstances, some of which might make completing their coursework more challenging. Students may be working, taking care of others, dealing with health issues, or have emergencies with which they are coping. As much as possible, build in flexibility so that these students will still be able to finish the semester.

  • Be flexible about deadlines. While deadlines are important for keeping the majority of students progressing forward, be willing to work with students that cannot meet those deadlines. Your goal should be to help all your students succeed as much as possible.
  • Consider alternatives to tests. Timed exams, especially ones that require proctoring software, can be difficult for some students to manage. If students are sharing computers with family members, do not have access to high-speed internet, or do not have the required webcam for proctoring, they will be at a disadvantage compared to students with those resources.
  • Have large windows of time during which tests & other assessments are completed. While students taking courses in-person often take exams at the exact same time, you cannot necessarily expect all students to virtually access your course during the same 1- or 2-hour period.
  • Focus grading on effort. Use assessment strategies that focus on continuous improvement and progress toward demonstrating proficiency by the end of the course. Personalize feedback as much as possible. Using multiple smaller assignments rather than large assignments worth many points will give students more opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of the material.


Taking an online course takes more self-motivation and organization than taking a face-to-face course. Students may face a variety of physical, emotional, cognitive, and financial challenges that can impact motivation, concentration, learning, and performance. When possible, offer all students additional flexibility to meet deadlines & adjust workloads based on their own changing situations. 

  • Pay attention to student participation. Make sure that all your students are logging in to Canvas and turning in work. Be proactive about contacting students that seem to be struggling in your course. Initiate multiple touchpoints with students who may feel disconnected, lost, vulnerable and uneasy about the current status of their education.
  • Be active in discussion boards and other areas where students interact virtually. Pay attention to what students are saying to one another and be on the lookout for microaggressions or overtly offensive posts. Be sure to address these situations with both the offender and any students that may have been hurt by what was posted.
  • Offer students resources on how to stay motivated and keep up with coursework. The UNL Center for Academic Success and Transition (CAST) has resources on their website to help build academic skills. They are also available for individual coaching sessions.
  • Know campus resources. When you notice students struggling, know where to send them for help. This Student Resource Guide has lots of information to help students through a variety of different situations.
  • Remember to practice self-care. Teaching can be demanding, and you cannot effectively teach and support students if you are not doing alright.



Gopalan, M., & Brady, S. T. (2020). College students’ sense of belonging: A national perspective. Educational Researcher, 49(2), 134-137. DOI: 10.3102/0013189X19897622

Jaggars, S. S., Motz, B. A., Rivera, M. D., Heckler, A., Quick, J. D., Hance, E. A., & Karwischa, C. (2021). The digital divide among college students: Lessons learned from the COVID-19 emergency transition. Midwestern Higher Education Compact Policy Report.

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