Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Strategies for Equity and Inclusion in Virtual Instruction: Build Community and Promote Inclusion

Instructional Continuity

Any one of an array of events can disrupt faculty’s ability to teach courses via on-campus, in-class sessions. Cal Poly’s commitment to students includes making sure that we provide students an opportunity to complete courses despite disruptions, whenever possible. The steady advancement of communication and instructional technologies has greatly enhanced faculty’s opportunities to provide quality virtual learning experiences in these situations. With  planning, training on selected user-friendly technologies, and available mentoring on effective instruction, faculty can be better prepared to continue instruction through many forms of instructional disruptions.

Build Community and Promote Inclusion

As students and faculty engage in virtual teaching and learning during this difficult time, it is important to retain best practices for promoting inclusion in your classroom and to devote additional efforts for building community among the students. It is also invaluable to take additional time to learn about your students and the challenges they are facing. You may be concerned about teaching all of your courses virtually and your students likely have similar concerns. The suggestions on this page offer ways that you can connect with your students, connect students to each other, and assure them that you are there to support their learning and success.

Connect with and learn about your students and their experiences in the course.

It is always recommended that educators offer structured opportunities for students to share information about themselves and the challenges they may be confronting. This becomes even more important when many of us are interacting in a virtual learning environment for the first time. Cal Poly is proactively working to make sure that our students are supported and have the resources they need, but it is important to be aware that students’ circumstances may vary. Take the time to learn about your students early on and to identify any challenges they may be encountering.

  • Write a welcome letter to help your students get to know and connect with you. This letter not only serves the purpose of introducing the students to the course and giving them information that they need up front, but it also gives you an opportunity to introduce yourself and share anything you may want to share with the students prior to the start of the course. Learn more about how to write a welcome letter and view sample welcome letters in the CTLT’s Launching a Course Online with Canvas self-paced course. 
  • Connect with students throughout the quarter. This can mean reaching out to students to have one-on-one conversations in online office hours, sending regular announcements to all students, and participating actively in discussion boards or other forms of course conversations. Think about the value of the micro-interactions you have with students in face-to-face courses and consider how you can continue to incorporate these opportunities for contact in a virtual environment. Reach out to students who have indicated concerns about completing the course or to those who seem to be struggling to find out if there are things you can do to support their success in the course. To learn more about the importance of active participation by faculty in online courses watch Catherine Hillman’s presentation on Online Engagement: Discussions and Peer Review.
  • Conduct a survey of all of your students at the beginning of the course. Many instructors do this already in both online and face-to-face courses. If you already have a survey, think about the ways that you can best augment your survey to learn more about student concerns during this particular situation, as well as any challenges they foresee in your course. In a recent webinar on Employing Equity-Minded and Culturally-Affirming Teaching Practices in Virtual Learning Communities, Dr. J Luke Wood and Dr. Frank Harris III suggest conducting a survey of students’ previous experiences with virtual learning in order to gain knowledge about your students and their experiences and concerns. Questions they suggest include: “1) Is this your first time taking an online course? 2) How are you accessing the course (private computer, public computer, tablet, mobile phone)? 3) What concerns do you have about taking this course? 4) How can I best facilitate your learning in this course? 5) Any other concerns or information you would like to share?” Also consider adding a question or two that will help you to know something about your students’ interests, goals, or values beyond this course. 
  • Create opportunities for students to provide feedback. It can be difficult for an instructor to know how a course is going if they don’t give students opportunities to provide feedback during the term. Consider administering one or two short surveys—they can be as simple as asking your students what is going well for them in the course and what they are struggling with. These opportunities will also give students the chance to share with you any challenges they are encountering. As part of this feedback, you can specifically ask students about their experiences of course climate during the quarter. After administering the feedback instrument, let students know how you will use the feedback to adjust the course or your teaching. 

Learn student names and pronouns. 

Using students’ preferred names, accurately pronouncing and spelling them, and using students’ pronouns is a basic way that you can show respect for students’ identities and provide an inclusive environment. Students names will often be visually connected with their work in a virtual classroom environment, but it is still very important to accurately pronounce names and to know and use students’ pronouns. 

  • Learn more about the negative impact of mispronouncing names and key strategies for remembering them. Read Teachers’ Strategies for Pronouncing and Remembering Students’ Names Correctly. Be aware that accurately pronouncing students’ names is not only a sign of respect, but mispronunciation marginalizes and excludes students from underrepresented groups.  
  • Ask students to identify their lived or preferred names in the survey youadminister at the beginning of the quarter. Since March 2019, students, staff, and faculty have had the option to be listed in the Cal Poly directory under their preferred name, so for some students this information will transfer to the virtual environment. It is still important to survey students for this information and to use their lived names, particularly in synchronous class meetings.
  • Ask your students to indicate their pronouns in the survey you administer at the beginning of the course. You can also ask students to indicate their personal pronouns in Canvas; we recommend you also indicate your own. If you do this, though, note that not all pronoun sets are available and that if students do not see the pronoun set they use or if they use multiple sets, they should let you know. To learn more about indicating pronouns in Canvas visit What's New in Canvas
  • Consistently use students’ personal pronouns and be aware of the harmful impacts of misgendering. Using the pronouns a student has indicated is an important part of respecting your students’ gender identities and is also imperative from a policy perspective. Learn about the importance of preferred names and pronouns by visiting the Pride Center’s Pronouns Matter page, and the CTLT’s Pronouns and Preferred Names and Pronouns and Preferred Names FAQ.

Give students the opportunity to learn about each other and to form community.  

Structured opportunities for students to learn about one another and to make connections are important in any course, but are particularly important when students are less connected to the campus community, to their friends, and may feel more alone because of the current situation. 

  • Create an icebreaker. You have likely done icebreakers in your face-to-face courses as an important way of getting students to know one another. In a virtual environment, it is equally important to give students the chance to connect early on. To learn more about icebreakers online, visit the CTLT’s Launching a Course Online with Canvas self-paced course. 
  • Offer opportunities for students to communicate with one another. Be aware of how important it is for students to have opportunities to communicate with each other for their sense of community and the likelihood that they will succeed in the course. Based on this, design discussion and peer review opportunities that will create community and support interaction between students. To learn more about best practices for online discussions and how to use Canvas to support communication and interaction, watch Catherine Hillman’s presentation on Online Engagement: Discussions and Peer Review.


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