The educator’s imperative: creating intentional inclusivity in the digital classroom

Building an inclusive online learning environment requires more than just having the right technology – it’s about welcoming your students into the classroom, says Willie Wilborn

Willie Wilborn's avatar
DeVry University
8 Nov 2021
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Advice on intentionally welcoming diverse students into the digital classroom

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Creating a welcoming and inclusive online learning community
Create a welcoming online learning community

Online teaching is about more than just the right technology. It is about building an inclusive online learning environment through relational and humanistic approaches that welcome diversity of all types. Let me explain why this welcoming approach is so important to me – and how educators can use it to create their own meaningful, humanistic classrooms.

I was born on a small farm in Arkansas, the seventh of 10 siblings. Although my father’s education ended after the third grade and my mother only finished fifth grade, all nine of my siblings and I graduated from high school, and three of us earned a bachelor’s degree. One degree wasn’t enough for me, though.

After earning a bachelor's degree in computer information systems, I moved on to an MBA and then a master’s in HR management, project management, information systems management, and accounting and finance management. Then I earned a doctorate in education and built a 25-year career as a senior professor of business and technology at DeVry University.

It’s been an unexpected journey for a sharecropper’s son, but what might surprise some in academia is this: I earned four of my degrees online.

With this as a backstory, it shouldn’t be surprising that I have many thoughts about how academic institutions can become more equitable and accessible in an increasingly digital world. The most important reason for welcoming diverse student populations is to promote and embody values of equity, justice and fairness. The benefits for students include the development of better cognitive skills, greater ease working in the global marketplace, and more success at jobs requiring complex social intelligence.

Taking action for classroom inclusivity

Diversity, equity and inclusion cannot begin and end as statements of principle – they must be carried out through actions by educators in the classroom. I have worked over the years to develop modes of being in the classroom, some of which may seem casual or fairly minor, that help to convey the great value I place on each student.

1. I refer to my students as “scholars”. This elevates their standing in their own eyes and in the eyes of their peers. Only those who have been treated with disrespect can fully appreciate the pride of being addressed by that one simple word. My scholars feel seen, respected and honoured for the unique perspective they offer.

2. I intentionally invite my scholars into the virtual classroom. Each day, I turn on my video camera and encourage others to voluntarily do the same. I believe in the importance of creating an online learning environment and classroom culture where students feel welcomed to show their face. And each week I’ll see more and more of my scholars feeling comfortable joining with video on.

3. I use humour. Laughter throughout the class session relaxes students and reassures them that they are part of the class community. It is increasingly important in an online environment where forming meaningful relationships can be more difficult. I bring humour into my classroom by beginning live sessions with a humorous story, usually with me as the punchline. This approach puts my students in a more relaxed mood as we begin class.

4. I encourage community. As a follicularly challenged person, I jokingly created a classroom “community” called the Bald Club. The powerful impact of developing groups and activities that aid a sense of belonging, even under seemingly jokey titles, was highlighted when a female student confided to the class that she was undergoing chemotherapy and wanted to be recognised as belonging to the bald club. This gesture brought tears to my eyes and others in the class. But there were smiles and laughter amid those tears.

5. I ensure my online learning environment is accessible to people with disabilities. I take proactive steps to form strong relationships with students with disabilities, contacting them directly and introducing myself to let them know they can reach out with any questions or concerns. When a Deaf scholar attended online classes with a communications facilitator who converted discussions into writing, I made sure to address the facilitator directly so she too would feel welcomed and encouraged to ask questions or request that I speak more clearly.

These may all seem to be small gestures, but when undertaken with authenticity, they support an online learning environment that enables everyone to feel invited in and recognised. Students want meaningful connections with their teachers and their peers. So, when opportunities to form such connections are  provided, students are far more likely to remain engaged in the class.

As I embark on my 25th year of teaching, I know the best learning happens when everyone feels seen, heard and recognised for the unique contribution they bring to the classroom. If we dare to put the needs and desires of our scholars first, our universities will always have robust and inclusive student populations.  

Willie Wilborn is a senior professor at DeVry University.


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