An inclusive learning environment is one in which every learner feels welcome, able to access and engage with course materials, and safe to express personal viewpoints. Because eLearning creates the possibility of a global classroom, with students representing many different cultures and backgrounds within a single course, inclusivity becomes both a necessity and an interesting challenge for online instructors. How can you facilitate a learning environment in which all voices are both able to be expressed and heard? How can the teaching materials accommodate everyone?
One comprehensive paper, “An Inclusive Approach to Online Learning Environments,” outlined several key instructional design models for culturally inclusive learning, including:
- The Multidimensional Model of Collis, Vingerhoets and Moonen, which goes beyond course content and considers the multiple variables within a learning environment that express culturally specific values (such as the selection of the LMS, the language(s) used in the course, and the social organization of the course),
- Seufert's Cubic Model, which proposes a three-dimensional model of considerations, including the flexibility and variety of technology, the simplicity in the choice of tools, and an awareness of multicultural context and cultural differences, and
- Henderson's Multiple Cultures Model, which recognizes the influence of academic culture, the dominant culture, and the minority culture of the teaching and learning environment.
The key takeaway here is that cultural inclusivity is much more expansive than most people think. It’s not simply a matter of incorporating stories with diverse viewpoints in a learning module and considering it done (although that’s a first step!) Creating an inclusive learning environment happens at many levels. Here are three:
Ensuring that diverse viewpoints are expressed in a course, in language that is familiar, is a key step toward creating an inclusive learning environment. Learners who recognize aspects of themselves in course content will feel more engaged. Look over your assignments, stories, images, avatars, and scenarios: what viewpoints or perspectives are dominant? Do they represent one cultural identity over others? In what ways can you allow the course content to offer a broader spectrum of cultural stories to make all learners feel included?
Some parts of American culture encourage open discussion, disagreements, and the sharing of personal views. In other cultures, free expression may be discouraged; as a result, some learners may struggle with group projects that require cross-cultural collaboration and discussion—and they may even be viewed by the instructor as lazy or non-participative. This is one example of a design choice that unconsciously privileges one culture over another.
Having multiple cultural expressions in your course isn’t a problem but an interesting design question. As a designer, you have to consider the various aspects from the Multidimensional Model described above: What tools are being used to deliver course content? How are values, even subtle ones, around competition, hierarchy, and communication conveyed in the course design? Are there ways to create safe spaces that allow for all voices to be heard?
Be transparent: let learners know from the start that you’re interested in hearing all voices in the class, and that you’re hoping to make the course as inclusive as possible. Share your experience of your own cultural identity so that learners know where you’re coming from and you’re more practiced at identifying where there are gaps in your own knowledge. And get to know your students well: learn their names, ask them questions, and create an environment where they feel safe approaching you with their own questions and concerns.
The bottom line: creating a culturally inclusive learning environment is a complicated process, and as an instructor or designer you’re bound to make mistakes. Don’t let failures along the way stop you—instead, view them as opportunities for growth.
For more tips on designing learning environments, check out these blog posts: