You belong here: Building an equitable and inclusive online learning community 

by Angela Xiong

Students must feel like they belong in online learning communities

David Noffs and I recently presented at the 19th ICQI (International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry) Virtual Conference on the topic of Building an Equitable and Inclusive Online Learning Community. As learning designers in the Distance Learning Department at Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies, we are interested in investigating the mechanics of this phenomenon in order to help educators and other learning designers apply it effectively in their practice. 

During our presentation, we shared a document developed at Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies entitled High-Impact Teaching Practices for Online Instruction (2022). This document emphasizes that establishing and increasing instructor presence through communication, discussion facilitation, real-world application, and instructor feedback, is essential for building an online learning community.   

We also discussed post-pandemic pedagogy, which includes an empathy-oriented approach to reconstructing our learning ecology with diversity, equity, and belonging (deb). Advocating for putting Maslow before Bloom” we suggested embracing a more holistic student support system. Some students have experienced varying degrees of emotional stress during the COVID-19 pandemic particularly when it comes to trusting virtual learning environments, giving and receiving peer support, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural issues (Costa, 2022).  

Considering all of the above, building an online learning community and making students feel a sense of belonging is crucial to students’ mental health, motivation, and satisfaction and it makes them feel their studies are full of purpose and meaning.  Our presentation concluded with David analyzing two graphics showing how more community-oriented redesigned activities increased student engagement and a sense of belonging before and after the redesign.  

The following are some examples of three types of deb online interaction that David and I presented: 

Student-Student interaction 

Community Charter – This activity is helpful when instructors are planning to use student group work in the class. 

  • Students are asked to create a community charter for their online course where they get to know each other through a collaborative effort and set expectations for student behavior through the course. Unlike more traditional versions of this activity, David provided no guidelines or instructions, so students had to negotiate and determine what their roles in the community would be. 

I am from” Activity – This is a powerful on-ground icebreaker that had never been done asynchronously in SPS before. 

  • This personal mapping activity and its variations are also known more widely as “I am from…” activities. They have been used countless times as deep icebreakers and primers for critical thinking activities, particularly during face-to-face workshops (Hill, Kim, & Stielstra, 2016). It can also be used in an asynchronous online discussion. 

Student Discussion Leaders This is an excellent way to develop student analytical and leadership skills. 

  • Students are asked to take turns to be the discussion leader. This responsibility helps students develop their analytical skills as well as leadership skills. In addition, it asks students to research, find, and evaluate articles in their field. 

Student-driven current event discussions This is also a great way to provide real-world experiences. 

  • The instructor gives students a list of current events to discuss. Students determine their top two topics of interest from the list. The discussion highlights concepts students learn in the course by placing them in a real-world context related to a current event of their choice.  

Instructor-Student interaction 

Instructors should offer diverse course material types and content to connect with a variety of learners with unique preferences. They can: 

  • purposely select examples in the content that speaks across diverse populations. 
  • invite students to contribute to learning resources to ensure the representation of diverse perspectives.  
  • create alternative prompts, case studies, and reflection essays based on a variety of interests. 
  • create personal connections, and relevance: Storytelling podcasts or guest speakers from a course-relate industry 

Instructors should plan to assess earlier and connect often with each student on a personal level. They can: 

  • survey students about their learning styles, concerns, needs, and preferences, then form groups for team-based learning. 
  • offer brush-up sessions and a variety of learning studios to review prior knowledge.   
  • provide low stake knowledge check quizzes with multiple attempts. 

Instructors should plan to vary teaching strategies to achieve differentiating learning experiences. They can: 

  • chunk the lesson content and capture it for later review.  
  • adopt scaffolded strategies for learning activities. 
  • create different types of discussions, such as debate-style, small groups, or assigning student moderators. 

Instructors should follow Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines to facilitate learning in multiple ways for all students. They can: 

  • create alternative submission methods for assignments.  
  • design content in multiple modalities (text, video, podcast) with accessibility in mind.  
  • provide captions and transcripts for videos. 

Student-Content interaction  

Students are encouraged to:  

  • create e-Portfolios to showcase work in a professional way, which is a great way to track student progress. 
  • write reflection papers/journals to track their changes in thinking. 

Instructors are encouraged to: 

  • use open educational resources (OER) to eliminate barriers to affordability and accessibility. 
  • use graphics, diagrams, or nonlinear approaches to course design to avoid cognitive overload and provide learners the freedom of choice. 

If you are an SPS instructor who would like to brainstorm some ideas for building and sustaining an online learning community in your course, please book a 30 or 60-minute consultation with a Distance Learning Team member. 



Costa, K. R. (2022). Trauma Aware Teaching Checklist. 

Hill, Lott., Kim, Soo La., Stielstra, Megan. (2016, May 19). Faculty Fellows Retreat.  In. Chicago, IL.  

Northwestern University School of Professional Studies. (2022). High-Impact Teaching Practices for Online Instruction. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.