Empowering Students Through Universal Design and Instructional Transparency

by Angela Xiong

Building an inclusive online learning community (OLC) can acknowledge the learners’ diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. The newly updated version of the Northwestern SPS High-Impact Teaching Practices for Online Instruction offers many strategies and techniques to build, maintain, and sustain an OLC. According to the Community of Inquiry Framework, learning in this environment occurs at the intersection of social, cognitive, and teaching presence. What follows are some course design considerations with an emphasis on designing an OLC with diversity and inclusion in mind.

woman working at a laptop

Use Front-loaded Context to Deepen Learning

When beginning a new module each week in a course, students always look for ways to balance time spent on content and assignments. Thus, adding some context to module overviews, learning resources, and assignment instructions can help students with their time management and help them focus and prioritize their attention on readings and activities. The context includes but is not limited to providing brief background information to the project, giving brief descriptions of the learning resources, explaining the purpose of the assignment, stating an underlying rationale for the activity, or using a content warning to prepare for potentially distressing topics in the course. Learning in context helps increase student engagement from the beginning, transfer the knowledge to long-term memory, proactively build meaning through the course, and motivates students to get involved in community-building activities.

Diversify Learning Resources and Authors to Represent Varying Perspectives

The learning resources should be purposely curated to represent a variety of perspectives and voices in different delivery formats (e.g., text, audio, or video), which is guided by the UDL principles. It is highly recommended that instructors consider curating resources showing diverse authorship of readings and media and offer multiple perspectives and voices by professionals from a range of identities and backgrounds. Here are some examples of building community assignments:

  • To encourage students to contribute to the resource collection, instructors can ask students to search for the relevant resources of their interest and add them to the resource collection.
  • Invite students to be the student discussion leader during one week of the course. The discussion leader may identify an external article for the class to read, write a summary, and create a prompt for discussion.
  • Padlet is a digital bulletin board that supports community building. Students can post their comments, questions, and resources in a variety of formats. Using Padlet makes online collaboration easier by allowing students to view, comments, and edit both in synchronous and asynchronous learning environment.

These strategies can help create an OLC culture that shows diversity is welcomed and valued and creates a sense of belonging for students.

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Implement Student Choice Within an Assignment to Foster Inclusivity

  • Provide options for discussion prompts so students can choose a topic of interest based on their own interest or professional goals.
  • Offer students a choice wherever possible, which can include choosing a role in a simulation activity, choosing group members to work within a team project, or choosing a deliverable format for the assignment.

This strategy can enhance student engagement and motivation, encourage their curiosity in the process of exploration and discovery, and support development of their lifelong learning skills. Most importantly, it promotes inclusion in an OLC for students where there is a wide range of career or personal interests.

When mindfully planning and preparing for this type of activity, instructors should think carefully about the learning objectives and how to help students achieve them. This requires clearly explaining the assignment instructions, reminding students of their availability to help when they feel overwhelmed, and provide check-ins and feedback regularly and thoughtfully.

Provide a Scaffolded Way to Promote Instructor and Social Presence

Instructors can use scaffolding strategies in various ways to increase instructor and social presence. 

  • Breaking Up the Large Assignments into Small/Simple Tasks: To help students successfully complete the complex final project, instructors can break up the project into small subtasks, such as brainstorming discussions, creating a project timeline, writing a proposal or outline, etc. This increases the likelihood for students to meet the learning objective and helps provide a welcoming and caring learning community.
  • Molding the Kind of Participation You Expect: For the first two modules, act as a participant to respond and provide comments with an open-ended question to most individuals’ posts to push students’ thinking deeper and more critically. Starting from module 3, assume the role of a facilitator in the discussions.
  • Steering the Discussions: To help students engage in meaningful discussions, instructors use the techniques of prompting, questioning, redirecting, connecting, and clarifying to ensure that students have a shared understanding of the content and concepts and move toward achieving the shared purpose of the discussion activity.
  • Use Scaffolding Tools: Instructors can use a variety of advance organizers to help students learn to concepts. For example: use the Venn diagrams to compare and contrast information, flowcharts to show the process, organizational charts to illustrate hierarchy, or concept maps to show relations. In addition, instructors can use Anki cards or create a glossary to help students understand and memorize the concepts.

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Instructors play a critical role in helping foster comfortable social interaction in an OLC. Using effective scaffolding strategies helps students bridge the cognitive gap in their learning and helps them become independent learners.

If you are interested in any of the community-building assignments and would like to discuss it, please don’t hesitate to schedule a Consultation.