1. Resources and Technology
  2.  » 
  3. Instructional Technologies
  4.  » 
  5. Teaching in All Modalities
  6.  » Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online

Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online

Instructors can draw on principles of inclusive teaching to help students feel a sense of belonging, ensure they can access course materials, and support them in achieving learning goals. The current context calls for empathy and resilience on the part of both students and instructors.

The following resource provides strategies for inclusive teaching online and is structured around the five principles of inclusive teaching as outlined in the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia.

The CTL is here to help!

If you have additional questions or would like support in making your course more inclusive, email CTLFaculty@columbia.edu to schedule your 1-1 consultation. For support with any of the Columbia tools discussed below, join our virtual office hours.

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2020). Inclusive Teaching and Learning Online. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/inclusive-teaching/

On this page:




Principle 1: Establish and support a class climate that fosters belonging for all students.

How can you create a positive online course climate for students in your live Zoom class sessions and your CourseWorks course site? How will you know the climate is supporting learning online? 

It is important to think about your learners, their prior experiences with online learning, and their needs. Transitioning a course online mid-semester provides an opportunity to check-in with your students and partner with them on creating an online learning environment that is supportive. 

What does inclusive teaching and learning online mean to you?

“…ensuring that the different identities that are brought into the shared space–be it physical or virtual– are respected, addressed, incorporated, and celebrated. It focuses on facilitating the space needed for learning to be multi-dimensional, intentional, and critical. Inclusive teaching makes students feel seen and heard and allows them to think more critically about their interactions with each other and with faculty. It has multiple focus areas, including accessibility, bias awareness, and incorporating marginalized and underrepresented voices in conversations and curricula.” – Haya Ghandour, Sophomore, SEAS; Undergraduate Student Consultant, CTL Students as Pedagogical Partners (SAPP) Initiative

Read other students’ insights and experiences.

  • Survey your students about their concerns, needs, and preferences for online learning. Ask students for their thoughts on online instruction, communication, interaction, collaboration, etc. Their responses can inform your approach going forward, and it allows instructors to be mindful of students’ personal situations and barriers to their learning (e.g., students may not have reliable internet access or a quiet space to learn and complete coursework). One possible question comes from a survey shared by Dr. Lance Gravlee (University of Florida, Department of Anthropology): “What would you like me to know or be thinking about as we try to create the best possible learning environment and keep everyone healthy during the rest of the semester?”
  • Remote learning is challenging for both students and instructors. Describe your own fears and struggles in teaching and learning online to break down barriers and demystify the online learning process. 
  • Provide opportunities for students to interact with each other online–discussing in small groups using the CourseWorks Discussion spaces or in Zoom Breakout Rooms–to help students feel more connected to each other and build a sense of community.
    • Encourage dialogue about online learning experiences and share learning strategies that are working for students. 
    • In online discussions, whether synchronous or asynchronous, use names and pronouns used by students. 
  • Put supports in place to ensure that students meet your expectations. This includes holding virtual office hours; being responsive to student emails, chats, or messages; and periodically checking-in with learners. 
  • Address challenging classroom moments directly, whether during live Zoom sessions or in the CourseWorks discussion space. Create guidelines for online discussions (see Principle 2 below), revisit discussion guidelines that were previously agreed upon, ask students to pause and reflect, and to use “I” statements when discussing difficult issues that arise in conversations about course content. 
  • Ask for feedback from students about the online climate. This can be done anonymously using a Google form or live in Zoom using the poll feature (for closed-ended questions). Review and report back to students. 

Principle 2: Set explicit student expectations.

How can you ensure that all of your learners are set up to succeed in your online course? How can you communicate your goals and expectations in meaningful ways? 

Now that all class sessions will be online for the remainder of the semester, students may not know what to expect in this new learning environment. This is a good time to revisit what you expect of your learners and what they can expect of you. 

  • Create community agreements and/or guidelines for online discussion with students. This can be done in a shared Google Doc where students articulate online etiquette, norms and expectations, and take on the shared responsibility to establish and maintain an inclusive and supportive online classroom environment. 
  • Revisit your course goals with a focus on what is essential. Decide on the knowledge students absolutely need to acquire and what skills they need to develop for the remainder of the semester.  
    • Articulate online learning goals that are realistic and make sense to learners given the shift to online learning. 
    • Craft assignments and online learning experiences that align with these course goals.
  • Make explicit the expectations for online assignments – this includes being clear about assignment instructions, how to submit in CourseWorks and by when, and what resources are available to ensure successful completion, as well as sharing the criteria that will be used to assess. Consider using the rubric feature in CourseWorks for transparency. 
  • Create multiple, low-stakes opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning,  which encourages students to stay motivated in the online space and keep track of their progress. Use the Discussions, Assignments, and Quizzes tools in CourseWorks. 
  • Be flexible on deadlines and workload as some students may be in different time zones and may have limited opportunities to have their questions answered and enough time to complete work.
  • Provide timely feedback on student work. This can be done using SpeedGrader in CourseWorks. Use a supportive tone and consider audio and video comments (available in CourseWorks) which add a personalized touch. 
  • Model expected online behavior. Be present in the online space through various communication channels. Use the Announcements and Mailtool to be transparent with students about the course. Comment regularly on student contributions in the online discussion space and if possible arrive early to a Zoom class session to engage with learners. 

Principle 3: Select course content that recognizes diversity and acknowledges barriers to inclusion.

How can you engage students with online content that offers diverse representation? 

With a wealth of online resources available, consider ways to integrate relevant course materials that bring in diverse perspectives and examples. Encourage students to play an active role in sharing resources they find online and making connections across course content. 

  • Invite students to find and share materials available on the internet, including e-texts that relate to course topics and reflect a range of perspectives and backgrounds. 
  • Critically evaluate the presentation of digital material. If you assign text or media that is problematic or incorporates stereotypes, point out the shortcomings and consider supplementing with other course materials. Encourage students to think critically about course material and related external sources to develop their information literacy skills. 
  • In online discussions, recorded lectures, and live Zoom sessions (whether during class sessions or in office hours), use examples that speak across diverse populations. Draw on resources, materials, and anecdotes that are relevant to the subject and sensitive to the social and cultural diversity of your students.  

Principle 4: Design all course elements for accessibility.

How can you make sure that your use of CourseWorks and Zoom is accessible to all your learners? How can you provide students multiple ways to engage and express their learning? 

With the rush to online teaching and learning, accessibility should be at the forefront and not an afterthought. All students benefit from accessible content, and opportunities to engage with course materials that set them up for success. 

  • It is important to be mindful that not all students will have access to reliable internet, software and hardware, and devices (e.g., microphone, webcam, printer). Thus it is important to offer flexibility or alternatives for students to access materials online, for instance sharing PDFs instead of videos which require more bandwidth. 
  • Offer synchronous and asynchronous elements to ensure that all students, regardless of time zone, have opportunities to engage with course materials, with their peers, and with the instructor (see the CTL resource Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones for more suggestions). 
  • Record lectures and Zoom meetings that can be viewed any time. Be sure to include transcripts and captions. For instance, YouTube provides auto captioning, or turn on auto captioning in Panopto. The captions can be edited for accuracy and made available to learners.
  • When on-screen during a live session or recording a lecture, be sure to verbally describe any visuals like images, diagrams, or charts so that students who have difficulty seeing the visuals can still access the content.  
  • Check in with learners to help them stay motivated and keep up with coursework. 

The Universal Design for Learning framework is a valuable resource, and we encourage instructors to draw on it in the following ways: 

Provide multiple means of representation

  • Ease barriers for learning by providing support materials, background information, and multiple types of examples to facilitate knowledge transfer. Provide information in multiple modalities (e.g., multimedia with captions and transcripts) and in a format that learners can adjust themselves (e.g., by increasing text size or altering brightness). 
  • Create accessible presentations and online discussions by using fonts and colors that are accessible to all learners. 

Provide multiple means of action and expression

  • Provide frequent opportunities for informal assessment and feedback on progress, and build into this process places where learners should stop and reflect before acting. 
  • Create opportunities for students to play an active role online by articulating their thinking through online discussion or taking the lead in facilitating a live Zoom conversation. 

Provide multiple means of engagement

  • Encourage collaboration online by using group features like discussion groups in CourseWorks and breakout groups in Zoom. 
  • Encourage learner autonomy. Invite students to do investigations or research on self-selected topics to draw on personal interests/relevance and to share this through a short video, audio recording, or live Zoom presentation. 
  • Invite students to co-design elements of online classroom activities or assignments. 

Principle 5: Reflect on one’s beliefs about teaching (online) to maximize self-awareness and commitment to inclusion

How can you ensure that your online interactions with students are inclusive and fair? What are your beliefs about online teaching? How might you become more self-aware about your online presence? 

Whether you are new to teaching online or a seasoned online instructor, taking time to reflect on your experiences, assumptions about your learners, and online learning in general is critical to practice as it provides insights into small changes you can make to foster inclusive teaching and learning. 

  • Take time to reflect on who your students are, and the contexts and conditions in which they may find themselves wherever they may have relocated. Don’t assume that all students are in a space that provides them with an ideal learning environment. 
  • If you are recording your Zoom class sessions, consider re-watching the recordings and making notes about your interactions with students, who you call on, your tone, the types of examples you use, the clarity of your explanations, etc. What trends or specific actions stand out? What impacts might they have on students?
  • Invite a colleague to observe your online CourseWorks set-up or view one of your recorded Zoom sessions or pre-recorded lectures and provide feedback. 
  • Invite the CTL to provide formative feedback on your teaching through our teaching observation service for faculty and for graduate students.
  • After every live Zoom class session, make notes about what worked well, what could be improved, and what you will do differently next time. 
  • Ask your students for feedback on their learning experiences in Zoom and CourseWorks. Use this feedback to inform your course design and instruction. 


Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. Inclusive Teaching Resources (includes MOOC, Guide, Accessibility resource)

Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (2020). Asynchronous Learning Across Time Zones

Rice University. (2020). Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely. Reflections on Teaching and Learning. The CTE Blog. 

Sathy, V. and Hogan, K. A. (2019). Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

CIRTL Network. (2020). Teaching Inclusively in the Online, Synchronous Classroom. Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning.