Maintaining Equity and Inclusion in Virtual Learning Environments

As SDSU strives to keep our students, faculty and staff safe in these unusual times, many faculty are wondering how they can ensure that they continue to serve ALL of their students. This guide provides suggestions and resources to help faculty continue teaching in ways that are equitable and inclusive as they move to teach face-to-face classes remotely. There is a lot of information here, not all of which you should even try to implement immediately; however, having this information in the background as you plan your course will help ensure that what you do implement will follow best practices. The outline on this page has the high-level bullets while the specific sections provide much more explanation and links to additional resources. Feel free to skim through and digest a little at a time.

Also be sure to see Instructional Technology Services' many resources for more immediate training and support!

Be Accessible

There are three aspects of accessibility that are key here – accessibility for students with physical impairments that may create challenges for reading/seeing/hearing digital files and content, accessibility for students with psychological and/or learning differences that require certain accommodations such as extra time to process materials or additional exam time, and accessibility for students with limited access to computers or stable internet service.

  • Ensure all files, images, videos and other posted content are accessible. Here, accessibility primarily means that visual content can be clearly translated by a screen-reader (for those with visual impairments) and that audio content has visual captions. For several years already, San Diego State has been urging faculty to make sure that their syllabi are in accessible formats. As you review and move materials into your course site, now is an excellent time to make sure they are all accessible including:
  • Provide approved accommodations for students who present accommodation letters from the Student Ability Success Center. Keep in mind that you may have students who did not ask for accommodations in your face-to-face class but find they need them in a fully online environment. You may want to re-post the language I'm sure you already have in your syllabus about accommodating students with special requirements and encourage students to contact SASC if they find themselves struggling. 
  • Check whether content is mobile-friendly. Students may be doing a lot on their phones/tablets. Blackboard is not the most mobile-friendly platform (one advantage of moving to Canvas) so if you have large blocks of text, it may be easier for students if you put those into Word or PDF files that can be manipulated outside Blackboard. An easy way to see how any digital content will look on a phone is to check it on your own phone first.
  • Consider variation in students’ access to computers and stable internet service. At this time, SDSU’s campus computer labs remain open and you should make sure your students know that (e.g., through an email message or announcement on Blackboard). There are also at least a few companies (including Comcast, Spectrum and Cox) that are offering discounted and/or free trial internet services right now. But even if they have access to a computer and stable internet, students may be sharing that computer with others (like siblings whose own schools have closed), have limitations on data and bandwidth, or be in a very different time zone than you, so consider taking steps to make things easier for them.
    • Mix synchronous and asynchronous: Requiring all students to attend a synchronous lecture/discussion is likely to create challenges for at least some students. Recorded videos not only give students more flexibility about when and where they watch but they can be downloaded and watched offline. However, going completely asynchronous can mean weakening important interpersonal connections (see Be Relational discussion) so using some mix of the two may provide the best compromise.
    • Ask students what they have and know, as well as what they need (see sample surveys from Andrea Kaston Tange and in this article on Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19). 
    • If you’re doing asynchronous lecture/discussion, consider audio-only (podcast) recordings to go with annotated slides instead of a full video recording
    • See additional suggestions from Pedagogy Playground
    • See Be Flexible section for more guidance

Be Flexible and Open

The uncertainty and extreme nature of the current situation clearly means that faculty need to be somewhat flexible if they truly want to support all of our students. We do not always know what our students are going through, and that may be particularly true once we lose our ability to see them in our physical classroom on a regular basis. And as should be clear from most of the suggestions in this guide, a key aspect of equitable and inclusive teaching, in general, is recognizing and working with the diversity of our students, along multiple dimensions. As you move your course into a different modality, try to stay open to trying a few new things; you may find that one silver lining to this situation is that you discover new ways of teaching that are both better for your students and more enjoyable for you!

  • Flexible policies: Structure is important (see the Be Transparent section) but so is flexibility, particularly right now. Deadlines for assignments in Canvas can be set so that students can still submit/complete once the deadline is passed, though they will be marked as late; similarly, Canvas allows quizzes and exams to be set so students can still complete after a deadline (and you can also make exceptions for individual students). Consider giving students one or two ‘free passes’, particularly when you are first getting started with the virtual tools, and consider how much you want to dock them after that. Now is also a good time review your syllabus and consider what changes might be needed to your grading weights and other course policies in order to accommodate this transition. 
  • Flexible activities: Giving students a variety of ways to participate is an important component of Universal Design for Learning and now may be an ideal time to think about alternative ways that students can engage with your course. In addition to  watching / listening to recorded lectures, you might have them respond to quiz questions, contribute to large and small discussions, write reflections, collaborate with classmates. See the resources listed in the Be Relational section for additional ideas for adapting face-to-face interaction to virtual interaction. 
  • Flexible assignments: This is also a good time to think about alternative ways that students can show you what they have learned. See Cal Poly Pomona’s page on Alternative Final Assessments for ideas about how to replace your final exams with other types of assessments (and check out the links at the bottom of that page for even more ideas)

Be Identity-Conscious

A critical feature of equity-minded teaching is the acknowledgement that our students are NOT all the same, that they come to us with sometimes vastly different experiences, and those experiences are often tied to their social identities (i.e., race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, first-gen status, etc.). In the virtual environment, and at this particular moment, there are several ways that you can incorporate that acknowledgement into your course in meaningful ways.  

  • Address microaggressions in discussion boards, chats and other places where students interact. Just as it is important for instructors to disrupt and address microaggressions in the physical classroom, it is equally important in virtual spaces. The additional sense of anonymity created by online environments can make microaggressions even more likely (although this may be mitigated by the fact that students will already know each other from the earlier face-to-face part of the semester). 
  • Consider integrating culturally-relevant materials. This is a fundamental inclusive teaching practice: ensuring students ‘see themselves’ in course materials, including readings, class examples, assessments, etc. Now is not the time to worry about changing your reading list or textbook but if you are creating new materials anyway (such as re-writing assignments or creating new quiz and exam questions), it is an excellent time to ask whether your examples and content reflect the diversity of our students. 
    • These do not have to be huge changes – try simply using a variety of names and socio-cultural contexts in test questions, assignments or case studies; review your examples to ensure they are relevant and relatable to students from a range of backgrounds and cultures; review images (since you may need to add alt-tags to make them accessible anyway) to ensure they reflect the diversity of our students in ways that do not promote stereotypes
    • You may also have opportunities to re-design assignments that allow students to share more of their own identities and interests; for example, if you plan to replace a final exam with a paper, consider how you can allow students to choose aspects of their topic, or to focus on something related to their own experience (see discussion under Be Flexible).
    • Ensure that your discussion prompts encourage multiple perspectives (with appropriate supporting evidence and argument) rather than consensus
    • See the CIE’s page on Inclusive Pedagogy for links to additional resources
  • Be aware of variation in students’ capacity to manage remote learning. It is likely that there will be large differences not only in your students’ access to technology (see discussion in Be Accessible section), but as our students scatter to other parts of the state, country or globe, they may be returning to cultural environments that present different challenges. For example, first-gen students may have to negotiate around families who are not familiar with the requirements of college (let alone remote learning), while students who are parents themselves may be trying to complete their studies while now looking after children whose own schools have been closed. All of this points to the need to Be Accessible and to Be Flexible; please see those sections for specific suggestions.
  • Be aware of how the current situation is impacting different communities. Unfortunately, there is an additional layer of anxiety for some members of our community because of the racist and xenophobic undertones in much of the discussion around the coronavirus. Anti-Asian discrimination and harassment has spiked, and the fear and uncertainty now seems to be turning to those speaking any foreign language. So simply be aware that your Asian and international students and colleagues - the vast majority of whom are no more likely than anyone else to have contracted the virus - are likely experiencing higher levels of anxiety. You may want to consider checking in specifically with students from those communities, and be vigilant for comments from other students that perpetuate biases.

Be Proactive and Intrusive

Although “conventional wisdom” is that students prefer virtual learning (as evidenced, for example, by the fact that online sections of courses will generally fill faster and well before face-to-face sections of the same courses), there are still plenty of our students who are self-aware enough to know that they do not perform as well in a virtual environment. One reason for this is that they know they may not have the self-motivation to keep up with the work without the accountability of a class to show up for. A well-designed virtual course will attempt to counteract this by building in a great deal of structure and accountability, which you should strive to do as well. In addition, designing for equity and inclusion means being particularly proactive about supporting students who may need some extra attention. 

  • Pay attention to early warning signs that students may be struggling and reach out proactively. Hopefully, you have already been doing this but as you move away from seeing students on a regular basis, it will be important to be even more intentional about looking for signs that students are not keeping up. Have they missed more than one assignment without any indication to you about why? Are they logging into the course site regularly? Are they watching assigned videos, accessing assigned files? Both Blackboard and Canvas can provide a ton of information about what students are, or aren’t, doing.
  • Use more formative assessment and make completion mandatory. Intervening early may require making changes that allow you to see those warning signs in the first place. If you typically have only a few big high-stakes assessments (e.g., a couple mid-terms and a final), please consider breaking those up into smaller, more frequent quizzes (bonus: making each quiz lower stakes also reduces the likelihood of cheating). Replace in-class clicker questions or discussions with weekly quizzes or reflective ‘minute papers’. Depending on the purpose of these activities, you may not even need to grade these assessments for content or correctness (e.g., if the point of the clicker/quiz questions is to make sure students did the reading, then you could let them take the quiz multiple times until they get a perfect score); however, you should still attach some credit to completing the task. As most of us are aware, students generally don’t do optional and that is likely to be even truer given the situation we are in.
  • Know what resources are available for students. When you start seeing those early warning signs, your first step should be to reach out directly to the student and ask what’s going on. You may find that the student needs accommodations but has not asked for them; others may be struggling with the content itself; still others may be struggling because of the virtual environment. Your Blackboard/Canvas course should have a section with links to technical, academic and other support services and resources available on campus (see the student resources section of the CTL Faculty Resource Guide for ideas). Make sure to add additional resources that students may need right now, especially the University’s COVID-19 page and Virtual Support and Resources for Students, which have the most up-to-date information on relevant student services. In particular, do not assume that students have the skills or disposition to learn effectively in a virtual environment...
  • Prepare your students for all-digital learning. Do not assume that just because students are “digital natives” that they know how to use a learning management system, or any digital learning tools, effectively.
    • Provide clear and detailed instructions for how students can access all course components (such as syllabus, course calendar, assignments, etc.)
    • Establish clear expectations for course communications (e.g., how I will typically communicate with you (BB or email?), how and when I will respond to email, netiquette guidelines, etc.)
    • Send lots of reminders. Many instructors find it helpful to send a weekly message (that can also be posted as an announcement in the LMS), summarizing the past week and giving an overview of the upcoming week, including deadlines
    • Provide information about being a successful online learner/student, such as this Online Students’ Manual for Success from Learn How To Become, or Northeastern’s 8 Strategies for Getting the Most Out of an Online Class. University of Michigan has a particularly useful handout on Adjusting your study habits during COVID.

Be Relational

While establishing supportive interpersonal relationships with students is one of the most fundamental tenets of effective teaching, it can be particularly important for students from traditionally under-represented backgrounds. If you are moving from a face-to-face class, you have the advantage of already having had the opportunity to establish a personal connection with students; the challenge as you move into a virtual environment will be to maintain that connection.

  • Continue to have opportunities for live, synchronous engagement. Whether to go synchronous or asynchronous is one of the biggest debates in distance learning in general but even more so right now, since instructors are converting classes that obviously have been synchronous up to this point. There are good reasons to make much more of your class asynchronous (see discussion under Be Accessible), but one critical reason to continue to give students opportunities to interact with you directly is to maintain your personal connection with them. Two good options:
    • Hold virtual office hours. You may want to offer a few different times that will work for students in different time zones.
    • Conduct a synchronous virtual lecture at the normal class time and record it. There will almost certainly be some students who will be willing and able to attend so they can interact with you there; everyone else can access the recording asynchronously. You could also consider splitting up class sessions so, for example, your Tuesday class is offered synchronously but the Thursday ‘class’ is asynchronous.
  • Talk to your students about what is happening. It is important to acknowledge the anxiety and fear that our students are experiencing. Whether you do this synchronously (e.g., via a conversation in Zoom) or asynchronously (e.g., an email to the class), let your students know that you are aware of how difficult this all is for everyone, and let them know that you want to support them. Consider if there are ways to incorporate this experience into the class itself (admittedly easier for classes in HHS than Engineering), or if you can give students opportunities (such as through a reflective writing exercise) to express their concerns. The handout Teaching in a Time of Crisis from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has additional suggestions for addressing the situation productively.
  • Build / maintain community among students. If you use interaction in your face-to-face class, use it in your virtual class! Students can use google docs or Blackboard tools to collaborate; discussion boards or Zoom breakout rooms can replace in-class discussion. There are many, many resources now available that provide advice about how to build interactivity into your course but here are two particularly good ones:
  • Provide students with support and resources. See the resources mentioned in the Be Proactive section.

Be Transparent

Faculty, who generally have advanced degrees and often have a high level of self-direction, can sometimes forget that our students are not us. Being inclusive means being mindful that not all of our students are well-versed in the hidden curriculum that faculty may take for granted. When we throw in the additional challenges of distance learning, we must work even harder to ensure that we are not making any unnecessary assumptions about what our students know and are able to do.

  • Structure, structure, structure (but also see Be Flexible section). For students who are not used to virtual classes, and who suddenly find themselves taking several of them, keeping track of due dates and deadlines is going to be a huge challenge. You can make it easier for them by infusing as much structure into your schedule as possible. Decide what time assignments will be due and make ALL assignments due at that time. Note that 11:59am or 11:59pm is less likely to cause problems than saying noon or midnight, and you may want to clarify the time zone. Similarly, if you have weekly or biweekly quizzes or discussion posts, make them due on the same day or days (and times) every week. [Advanced tip: When you set due dates for assignments in Canvas, those show up on a central calendar, making it easier for them to track due dates across multiple classes]
  • Create transparent assignments. UNLV’s Transparency Project template for assignments has three features that have been proven to reduce achievement gaps: motivating assignments with a clear PURPOSE through connection to learning outcomes; providing detailed steps of what TASKS students are supposed to do to complete the assignment; and providing explicit information about CRITERIA FOR SUCCESS. This is an opportunity to review your assignments to ensure they have these three features for transparency (see the Transparency Project site for the template and lots of examples).
  • Also see the suggestions in the Be Proactive section about preparing students for digital learning.


Additional resources: