Inclusive Online Course Design & Facilitation

Last revised: 04/15/2024 by bjg


This article provides practical tips and resources for incorporating more inclusive design strategies into online courses.

Why is inclusive design and practice important in the online course?

Research shows that a student’s sense of belonging directly affects knowledge acquisition, persistence, and motivation (Dost 2024; Davis 2019). This is particularly true for students who are African American, first generation, of lower social and economic status, and female students in male-dominated STEM courses. Inclusive design strategies can help to close achievement gaps by making all students feel welcomed, valued, and respected.

Reasons why some instructors are hesitant to incorporate more inclusive practices into their courses:

  1. They may think they need to restructure their entire course.
  2. A perceived lack of competence in diversity-related curriculum design; they may feel they lack the resources and time to do this work well.
  3. In large classes, this may be seen as prohibitive.
  4. There may be a perception that inclusivity is not relevant to the subject matter, due to the objective nature of content, especially in STEM courses.
  5. A perceived lack of rigor: instructors may think teaching with inclusive practices makes the course easy.
  6. Universities often reward research, rather than teaching.

Inclusive Course Design Strategies:

  1. Instructor bias: Start by reflecting on how your own biases might be affecting your choice of instructional materials, assessments, and teaching methods. UConn’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CETL) offers more information and resources on examining and mitigating instructor bias.
  2. Whose voice is being heard? Think about whose voices are being represented in your course materials:
    • Promote a sense of belonging by selecting materials from diverse scholars in your field of study.</li
    • Select examples and case studies from different cultures
    • Provide plenty of alternative examples/resources for international students when making references to popular culture (movies, film, etc.).
  3. Identity: Share your personal pronouns in your syllabus. Sharing your pronouns sends a message that you respect diverse identities.  While you may encourage students to share their pronouns, avoid making the practice mandatory – some students may not be comfortable sharing this information.
  4. Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to give students flexibility, choice, and more control over their learning.
    • Multiple Means of Representation: Following principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), provide students with instructional materials in a variety of formats.  Provide students with opportunities to understand and process the information in ways that are more common to their background, culture, etc.  This could include providing a textbook chapter both as a hard copy and in a multimedia format
    • Multiple Means of Expression: Using another principle of UDL, give students options  to show what they know by giving them alternative assessment choices. This could include exams, papers, concept maps, projects, etc.
  5. Multiple formative assessments: Give students plenty of opportunities to “practice” and receive feedback on their work.  This helps both the students and the instructor to see where gaps in learning exist.
    • If a course relies on only a few summative assessments, you a’re not getting a complete picture of a student’s ability to synthesize the course materials and meet course outcomes.   An inclusive approach provides more opportunities to practice and show what students know.
  6. Accessibility of digital documents, media & technology:  Make sure course materials and technologies are accessible to everyone in your course. 
    • Videos should be closed captioned. This is particularly important for students whose first language is not English, however,  all students benefit from being able to listen to and read along with the lecture. In a recent eCampus student survey, 83% of students polled reported using closed captioning in online courses.
    • Digital documents should be tagged, searchable, and provide alternative descriptions for images.  Accessible documents are necessary for students who use screen readers to have information narrated to them. In a recent eCampus survey, 8 out of every 50 students report using screen readers (16%). Note: accommodation requests are not required for students who use screen readers.
    • Some disabilities are invisible. Think about accessibility for all students, not just those who request accommodations. 
    • For more information on making online content accessible, see the following:
      1. eCampus Accessibility Checklist and Guide
      2. UConn’s IT Accessibility Site

Teaching in more Equitable and Inclusive Ways:

  1. Build an inclusive community of learners: Start building your learning community at the beginning of the semester. 
    • Use a discussion forum to have students introduce themselves to you and each other. Introduce yourself and share something personal to show your students you too are human! Consider sharing your own struggles as a student and the strategies that helped you to persist.  Creating a space where students feel safe asking questions and being vulnerable is important for the learning environment. 
    • Create a fun discussion forum for community interests which allows students to get to know each other in a safe and welcoming environment.
  2. Use effective communication: 
    • Use the Announcements tool in HuskyCT 2 – 3 times per week. 
      1. Introduce the beginning of each new module or topic.
      2. Remind students of due dates and other important events
      3. Summarize key topics and observations at the end of each module/week.
    • Culture is intertwined with communication.  Consider your audience and reflect on your own unconscious biases before messaging.
    • Ask for student feedback and consider incorporating small changes in your next course iteration.
    • Since students cannot ask questions and receive immediate feedback in the online, asynchronous classroom, communication needs to be very clear and succinct. The most common communication problems in online classes include: 
      1. Ambiguous  message – the message is unclear to the recipient.
      2. Passive messages – messages are incomplete, too slow, or too infrequent.
      3. Incongruous message – the message does not agree with itself or conflicts with previous statements.
  3. Be Present: An online course is not a self-paced or correspondence course.  Research shows that instructor presence impacts student engagement, motivation and the learning community (Baker 2010).  When instructors are not present, students report feeling isolated and disconnected (Hanson, et al. 2022).  Here are a number of ways to be present in your online course:
    • Connect with students personally:
      1. Use their name when addressing them in communication or feedback
      2. Email students when:
        • they were successful on an early exam or paper or when a student’s efforts have substantially improved.
        • they did not do as well and offer to help
        • they have missed assessments (particularly early on in the semester) or have not been logging into the course on a regular basis.
      3. Communicate regularly:
        • Use the course messaging tool to communicate transitions between modules, to summarize discussion posts, and to remind students of upcoming due dates and events.
        • Provide regular feedback to students on formative assessments. Use your syllabus to let students know how long after a due date grades and feedback will be provided and stick to that policy as much as possible.
      4. Show students that you are human and that you care about their learning. Provide students with a video introduction so they can both see and hear you (use closed captions).  
  4. Be flexible with deadlines: Some students have invisible accessibility issues (mental health) and may require more time to complete assignments.
  5. Self-reflection and student feedback: While designing, developing, and teaching your course, reflect on how you can make both your instructional materials and facilitation more inclusive. eCampus highly recommends using formative surveys either one quarter or half way through a semester to ask for feedback from students on what’s working for them.  Review the Survey Tools & Assessments page from Academic IT to find a survey option that works for you.
  6. Additional Considerations for International Students:
    • Technology – VPN is of most concern to students participating from another country. Sometimes the internet connection is very slow.
    • Time Difference – Consider that it could be difficult for international students to get help when needed due to the time difference.  If synchronous sessions are a requirement, consider recording for those students who are unable to join at specified times.
    • Accessible technology – Sometimes students cannot access the material because the technology is not available.  Example – YouTube in China. Provide alternatives for these students.
    • Submit the syllabus with technology needs ahead of time so students can prepare. Note: This is useful to ALL students.

Inclusive practices are important for all subjects, class sizes and modalities.  Start with small changes. Over time, they could make large impacts.


  1. Baker, C. (2010). The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation. The Journal of Educators Online, 7(1). 
  2. Davis, G. M., Hanzsek-Brill, M. B., Petzold, M. C., & Robinson, D. H. (2019). Students’ Sense of Belonging: The Development of a Predictive Retention Model. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 19(1). 
  3. Dost, G. Students’ perspectives on the ‘STEM belonging’ concept at A-level, undergraduate, and postgraduate levels: an examination of gender and ethnicity in student descriptions. IJ STEM Ed 11, 12 (2024). 
  4. Gunawardena, C. N., Frechette, C., & Layne, L. (2019). Culturally inclusive instructional design: A framework and guide for Building Online Wisdom Communities. Routledge. 
  5. Ladyshewsky, Richard K. (2013) “Instructor Presence in Online Courses and Student Satisfaction,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 7: No. 1, Article 13. Hansen-Brown, A. A., Sullivan, S., Jacobson, B., Holt, B., & Donovan, S. (2022). College students’ belonging and loneliness in the context of remote online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online Learning, 26(4), 323-346. 

Related Posts and Resources:

  1. INCLUSIVE ADDIE: Initial Considerations for DEI Pedagogy
  2. UConn CETL: Equity Minded Teaching
  3. Effective Communication in Online Courses

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