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Creating a More Equitably Engaged Classroom: Step 2 - Initiate

Written by Stacy Hall on Jan 29, 2021

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion, Graduate Programs, Digital Education

Editor's Note: This article was co-authored by April Coan, a faculty training specialist with 10 years of experience working in higher education and five years of experience as an equity and conflict resolution practitioner. Coan also has first-hand knowledge of what it takes to design an engaging classroom experience—she used to be an online instructor and facilitator.

Thomas Edison once said, “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” In other words, action matters. My team, Faculty Engagement and Development, advises faculty in 2U-powered degree programs on all aspects of online instruction. One essential aspect of our coaching involves how to create more inclusive and inviting learning environments for all students. Last week, I broke down the first step to more equitably engaged classrooms: evaluate. This week, I focus on putting strategy into action.

The Second Step: Initiate

“What can I do to better understand participation patterns in my online classroom? And what can my students and I do together as a community to facilitate more equitable engagement?”

Initiating more equitable engagement in any classroom requires planning as well as implementation. In an online environment, this process may also involve re-imagining traditional teaching practices in order to structure digital learning spaces that offer all students equal opportunity to succeed. The following three simple strategies can help successfully promote equity and build a sense of classroom community where every student feels included, involved, and heard.

1: Communicate Equity in the Syllabus

Adding a diversity statement to a course syllabus not only establishes a clear commitment to equity and inclusion, but also it serves to warmly welcome students from all backgrounds. Diversity statements can help establish classroom norms regarding dialogue around certain conflict-prone topics, and affirm how valuable all students’ unique perspectives are to the course. The Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning has several excellent examples of diversity statements used in syllabi today.¹

Additionally, a syllabus needs to provide the right resources to students. For example, does it include information about the school’s Writing Center, Tutoring Center, or Accommodations Department? If these kinds of resources are not part of the original syllabus, they can always be attached as supplemental content in the coursework section of the digital learning platform.

2: Build Community through Classroom Collaboration

Building a strong sense of community in the classroom requires intentional collaboration with students in the planning and organizational process of a course. Adults learn best by taking charge of their own learning, so it is good practice to hand over the reigns to students in strategic and thoughtful ways. For example, educators can ask students to volunteer to facilitate (or co-facilitate with another student) an asynchronous discussion in a shared cloud document, on the course wall, or in an online discussion forum.

Faculty can also create a community agreement together with their students. Prompted by a simple question such as, “What does respectful behavior in an online classroom mean to you?”, students can collectively brainstorm on a virtual whiteboard or in a collaborative cloud document. Their responses can easily be converted into a community agreement and posted on the virtual course wall or announcement board.

Designating specific roles in small group breakout sessions is another way to help build classroom community.² One such role could be “The Encourager,” whose responsibility is to help facilitate each group member’s contribution (e.g., “We have not yet had the opportunity to hear from Erica”). Similarly, in live sessions, the chat box can often be challenging for faculty to monitor and respond to while juggling several tasks at once. In order to ensure questions asked in chat are addressed, students can volunteer to help facilitate the chat box during synchronous instruction. Assigned roles can even be factored into everyone’s participation grade.

3: Consider All Modes of Communication

When initiating online classroom activities and discussions, relying on verbal responses alone may not be the best way to ensure all students feel included and heard. By harnessing the power of asynchronous discussions, live chats, small group breakout sessions, and collaborative cloud documents, faculty can create spaces for engagement where they previously did not exist, thereby hearing the historically unheard.²

For example, quieter students may feel drowned out by more dominant voices in the room—while international students, or those who learned English as a Second Language (ESL), may feel intimidated in a room of native English speakers. To open up room for more equitable conversation, faculty can invite students to write their responses on a digital whiteboard or in a chat box. Or they can send students into breakout rooms for smaller group discussions, which may feel less intimidating and help students build more rapport with one another.

Concrete Ways to Embrace and Ensure Equity and Inclusion

Armed with these pedagogical strategies, educators in 2U-powered degree programs are better equipped to initiate more equitable practices in their online classrooms. Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, nurturing stronger classroom community and bolstering students’ emotional well-being is more important than ever before.

Tune in next week for step three: involve.

¹ Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Diversity Statements: Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from

² Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. (2020). Getting Started with Managing Classroom Conflict: Center for Teaching Innovation. Retrieved September 02, 2020, from

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