Whether offline or online, inclusive education starts with an inclusive learning climate. It is important that every participant (teachers and students alike) feels respected and safe to actively participate. At the same time, learning processes require room for disagreement and discomfort. The creation of an inclusive learning climate is especially hard in online contexts, as establishing ‘social presence’ is a challenge. At the same time, digital tools create extra opportunities to jointly create ground rules or to monitor the learning climate, which are ways to create and nurture and inclusive learning climate.
Why is an inclusive learning climate important? To learn, students need to feel known and appreciated, and to play an active role in the learning process and the classroom dynamics. It is important that every student feels accepted as a full-fletched participant and has good contact with fellow students and teachers. They need to be free from microaggressions, stigmatization and stereotyping. This gives them the confidence they need to successfully participate in and finish the course. On top of that, feelings of belonging also contribute to students’ wellbeing.
In an inclusive course, diverse perspectives, talents and characteristics are invited and valued, as part of the learning experience and of the classroom dynamics. This can only happen when everybody feels safe to contribute. The engagement with diverse perspectives is likely to increase the occurrence of moments of friction, which can form threats to an inclusive environment but can also be turned into moments of learning. (Read more about turning such ‘hot moments’ into moments of learning in Micromodule Turning moments of friction into moments of learning.)
Challenges in online contexts. In online contexts, creating an inclusive learning climate is even harder than in offline contexts. Because participants get fewer social cues in online classes than in on-campus classes, and have less informal contact moments, it is harder to get to know one another. In other words: to establish ‘social presence’. When participants feel anonymous to each other and to the teacher, they find it hard to anticipate how others will react to their contributions. This is particularly the case when students cannot see eachother because they have their cameras switched off. Sometimes, anonymity enhances feelings of safety, as students act from their home environment and can hide certain traits. Most often, however, this anonymity makes it harder to build social and emotional connections and trust, and makes students refrain from active participation during sessions.3 Paradoxically, this anonymity is combined with hypervisibility of students that do actively participate, as in most online conference apps, their profile/camera image is highlighted and placed central in the participants’ screens.
Approaches to creating an inclusive online learning climate. Clearly, setting up online education requires extra attention to establishing social presence and creating an inclusive online learning climate. Three ways how to do this are: introductory activities, establishing ground rules and monitoring of the learning climate, applied to the digital learning environment.
To establish an inclusive learning climate, is important to design online activities that are specifically aimed to get to know one another and establish social presence (also see Module B). The use of online tools and platforms makes it easy to have students introduce themselves using various media (a picture, audio or video) and to inventorize skills, needs, and ambitions in various anonymous and unanonymous ways, synchronous and asynchronous. In larger groups, it is advisable to do introductory activities in smaller sub-groups (‘breakout groups’). It is important to stimulate and facilitate students’communication and interaction from the very start. Make sure that in hybrid settings, in which students attend in online and offline ways, the online participants feel feel acknowledged and engaged. The university of Virginia presents a matrix with many practical examples of less and more complex synchronous and asynchronous classroom activities to connect students.
Ground rules contribute to an inclusive learning climate. Ground rules help students participate with more confidence, as it is clear what is expected of them in the online course and based on the ground rules, they can expect others to behave in inclusive and respectful ways. In online settings, these ground rules could include agreements on camera use, and on privacy (as online settings offer increased opportunities for recording and spreading images of classroom participants). When ground rules are formulated in interaction with the students, this allows participants to mention, discuss, and include different perspectives on desirable behaviour. Digital tools, like polling apps or collaboration tools, can support this exercise, and offer ways to collect students input in anonymous and named, and synchronous and asynchronous ways. The teacher can remind the students – or students can remind others – of the ground rules during the course, especially in the case of tensions. When the ground rules are violated, the teacher – or others – should address this, either one-on-one or in the group. See for methods to establish ground rules the Do section below. See for an example of ground rules for online sessions the ‘netiquette’ of the Open University of Helsinki.
Monitoring the learning climate is important to be able to keep the climate inclusive. After all, not all tensions are visible, and different students experience the classroom climate in the different ways. Particularly in online settings, and particularly when participation is low, it might be hard for the teacher to assess the experiences of students. The teacher can ask students’ feedback in various ways. This can be done by a class discussion, although it is unlikely that students who feel unsafe to express themselves in the group will share their views in this setting. Digital tools, such as quiz or polling tools, offer ways to collect anonymous feedback. Many of the digital tools suggested by Kathy Dwyer on the NWEA website can be used for this. In addition, teachers should pay ceaseless attention whether some groups take up more or less space (and are supported, endorsed, challenged or interrupted more) than other groups.
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam