Virtual classrooms have become more prevalent over the past several months due to the impacts of the coronavirus. There have been some key lessons learned during that time—some successes and some challenges. In addition to the virus impacts, educators and students have also been impacted by social justice issues, a divisive political environment and ongoing health concerns.
In this environment, how are educators promoting inclusion and well-being for all students?
A Framework for Inclusion
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Sedlovskaya, assistant director at the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard Business School, offers a framework for inclusive virtual classroom discussions based on “the Four Cs model.”
- Curiosity. Sedlovskaya says that creating an inclusive environment begins even before the first day of class. She reaches out to students via email. She discovers and reflects on the diversity of the students in the class, emphasizing to them that “our diversity will enrich our learning.”
- Candor. “For us to learn from the richness of perspectives in our class, we need to talk about issues candidly,” says Sedlovskaya. She encourages that candor by “explicitly (yet supportively) asking students to offer their diverse perspectives.” For instance, she might ask: “Who sees it differently?”
- Courtesy. Sedlovskaya stresses to her students the importance of not holding back their opinions and thoughts for fear of offending others, but how to do so in a courteous and respectful way. “We must assume that our classmates have the best intentions at heart when they’re raising different opinions, and we must pursue our intellectual curiosity with kindness and courtesy,” she says.
- Courage. Sedlovskaya stresses to students that it is not only courageous to express different views but also to “listen and understand the perspectives that are different from ours, especially when they contradict our views.”
Establishing this kind of open environment, and setting the stage as a model of desired behaviors is an important way to prioritize promoting inclusion and wellbeing in the classroom. As Sedlovskaya notes, doing that needs to start early—even before classes convene.
Inclusion requires interactions. Students need to feel comfortable sharing their opinions and feelings, as well as supported in completing assignments in ways that support their learning needs and preferences. There are some specific ways that educators can accommodate these learning differences following principles of Universal Design for Learning, according to instructional designers.
Quick Ways to Promote an Inclusive Virtual Classroom
In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, instructional designer Flower Darby, offer some “quick ways” to build inclusiveness into the classroom, based on principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) which is all about offering choices. For instance, she suggests:
- “Provide the same course content in two different formats.” For instance, making a reading assignment and also making the material available as an audio file.
- “Allow two options for how students can complete an assignment.” Some students may prefer recording their responses while others may prefer to write them down.
- “Offer students a choice in completing a final project.” For example through a video presentation or a research paper.
Adding just one additional option rather than several helps to control the potential for an added burden for teachers while offering variety and flexibility for students with different learning needs and preferences.
Student wellbeing has been significantly impacted during the pandemic. Those impacts are being seen as more prevalent based on age, race, ethnicity, family income, according to Healio News which points to research from JAMA.
There are some specific steps educators can take to recognize and address wellbeing among students who may be struggling during the pandemic.
Do’s and Don’ts for Promoting Inclusion and Wellbeing
Dr. Karla Kasher is a 20-year education administrator and Chief Industry Advisor for Education at Qualtrics. “As school districts take on the difficult task of balancing the health and safety of students against the quality of education they provide, listening will be critical,” says Fisher. “Every student is going to learn at a different pace and educators who provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate knowledge and mastery of material will set students up for success and increase their desire for learning.” She offers some do’s—and one don’t—for promoting inclusion and wellbeing in a virtual environment:
- Provide equal access to technology. Schools that focus on equal access to technology empower every student with what they need to succeed, says Fisher.
- Promote peer-to-peer engagement. Fisher recommends finding ways for students to interact and help each other learn. “While we can’t replicate the in-class experience through an internet connection, we can create learning opportunities that help students make a human connection,” she says.
- Communicate clearly. “School districts, teachers, and all educators can curb anxiety that comes from uncertainty by communicating clearly and often,” Fisher says.
- Listen carefully. “As much as people need communication from school leaders, they need to be heard,” Fisher says. “Successful school districts will listen individually and systematically to their stakeholders, and use that input to shape proactive responses as this challenging time continues to unfold.”
- Take a one-size-fits-all approach. Every school district and student has different learning needs. Fisher stresses the importance of taking time to listen and then adapting to meet the unique needs of students in your community.
“Moving forward, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to success,” says Fisher. But, she adds: “The key to creating an environment of wellbeing in schools is to listen to and understand the needs of parents and students, and then use that feedback to create a system that works for your community.”