By Talia Kolodny, Teaching and Learning Specialist, Coursera
We envision a world where anyone, anywhere can transform their life by accessing the world’s best learning experience. But what does access really mean? How can we make sure that great education is actually accessible to everyone? That every learner feels included, valued and heard?
In order to spark a conversation about diversity, inclusion, and understanding, we created a video to share several of our main strategies for creating an inclusive course climate. We are proud to feature Coursera employees, learners, and Mentors in the video, representing our diverse and international perspectives.
We hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch, and to share what you learn with your peers and colleagues. We’ve also provided a few key takeaways from the video in written form below.
Benefits of an Inclusive Course Climate
There are two major, well-documented benefits to creating an inclusive course climate:
- The social, emotional, and intellectual course climate affects learners’ development and performance (Ambrose, 2010).
- Learners will feel more comfortable taking risks and making mistakes in an inclusive, supportive environment – and risk-taking and failure are crucial components of a meaningful learning experience.
“When we don’t feel safe, complex information is often blocked from passage to higher cortical functioning and memory storage, which slows learning and increases our frustration, aggression, or withdrawal” (Wlodkowoski, 2008).
Strategies to create an inclusive course climate
Establish and reinforce ground rules for community and forum engagement
By establishing clear community rules and guidelines for your course, you’ll contribute to the creation of a culture in which learners are inclusive and respectful to one another. Guidelines create a supportive space for learners to share their opinions – especially if their views differ from those of their peers. Coursera’s Code of Conduct outlines basic guidelines for forum behavior. We also welcome instructors teaching on Coursera to create and add their own guidelines.
For example, you could pose specific rules for conduct in the course discussion forums. Leiden’s Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism course team uses these guidelines to highlight the importance of respectful behavior:
“Be Respectful. The forum is not the appropriate place to argue about who is right and who is wrong. It is a place for academic and informed debate, where you can share your perspective and more importantly learn from those of others. We expect civil discourse and we will not tolerate any racist, stereotyping, discriminatory or inflammatory remarks.”
If you encounter violations, arguments, or emotional responses in discussion forums, try to turn these situations into a learning opportunity for everyone. Addressing tension and channeling it into a constructive discourse contributes to an inclusive environment. As an example, if you encounter a racist comment referring to immigrants, try to shift the conversation into an investigation of root causes of xenophobia and why certain groups and individuals may feel threatened or at risk.
To ensure rules and guidelines are followed, communicate them in a prominent place such as a reading, an introductory video, or a pinned post in the main discussion forum (McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S., 2004).
Consider your assumptions about learners
It’s common for instructors to assume that online learners are similar to their on-campus students. But online course communities are usually much more demographically, socioeconomically, and educationally diverse. We recommend questioning and uncovering such assumptions to prevent unintentional alienation of learners.
To educate yourself and learners about the diversity of your community, create dedicated spaces for different backgrounds and perspectives to shine. Use guided discussion prompts, polls, in-video questions, reflective assessments, and sub-forums to allow learners to share prior experiences and personal motivations for taking the course.
Design inclusive content and model inclusive language, behavior, and attitudes
When instructors model inclusive behavior through inclusive content, they foster a welcoming environment for learners. Even minor instances of exclusivity can alienate learners and negatively affect course climate. Examples of unintentional exclusion may include:
- Mentioning the length of a camera lens in inches, rather than centimeters (or vice versa)
- Using a sports metaphor or mentioning a pop culture icon that only specific audiences can understand
- Referring to a gender-specific audience (e.g. assuming that a powerful figure is male)
Tips for modeling an inclusive and welcoming course climate:
- Reflect on your lessons to ensure they represent diverse perspectives (e.g. slide images and project examples should showcase diverse genders, ages, ethnicities, etc.)
- Try not to use idioms. If you do, explain them for non-native speakers.
- Avoid gender-biased titles and pronouns (e.g. police officer instead of policeman, and the quiz instead of his quiz).
- Avoid generalizing or assuming an individual represents a larger group (e.g. assuming a female engineer can/will discuss the gender gap just because she’s female).
Emphasize relevance to learners’ personal lives and current situations
Adult learners feel motivated and dedicated when they know that what they’re learning is relevant to the real world. Consider what learners can gain or how they can apply the skills they learn to advance their own goals (Wlodkowoski, 2008), and call out real-world applications and examples in your course materials.
You can connect your course content with learners’ personal and professional lives in several ways:
- Create authentic assessments: Create assessments that relate to problems that are relevant to learners, e.g using a data set that poses an unresolved challenge, using a case study based on a real scenario, asking learners to create a portfolio that could be used in a job interview, etc.
- Ask learners to share: When you ask learners to share why they are taking the course, what their goals are, and how they plan to use their new skills, you invite them to make their own connections to the real-world challenges they’re facing.
- Use examples from your own experiences: When you share how you used a concept, theory, or skill in your own career, or how you solved a problem using the knowledge you are teaching, learners are more likely to feel the content is relevant and important to them.
We invite you to use and share these strategies in your ongoing work to empower global learners!
Note: Coursera, the Coursera Logo, and Learning Without Limits are trademarks or registered trademarks of Coursera, Inc. in the US and other countries.
- A.P. Rovai, (2002). “Building sense of community at a distance,” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 3, no. 1 .
- Ambrose, Susan A. (2010). “How Learning Works: Seven Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching”, San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass Publishers.
- Raymond J. Wlodkowoski, (2008). “Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching all Adults”, San Francisco, California: Jossey Bass Publishers.
- McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S. (2004). “Online Learning: Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of Community”, Educational Technology & Society, 7 (3).