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Creating Inclusive Classrooms Online With Technology

Online learning experience have the power to be even more accessible and inclusive than in-person experiences when the right technology is in place.

female student in wheelchair

She takes care of household duties while she gets the kids ready for school. She goes to work, picks the kids up, runs errands, cooks dinner, and once her husband is home from work, has time for her coursework. This young woman is a student in your accelerated online bachelor’s degree program. She’s also like many of the students who take your online courses — nontraditional, working, first-generation, and low-income…for now.

For online students like her, creating an inclusive classroom and a learning experience equitable to traditional in-person courses could mean the difference between her future success and potential attrition.

As institutions continue to accelerate their digital transformations, online learning remains vulnerable to limited access and a host of barriers that prevent student engagement. Those leading the charge on equity in the classroom can foster a more inclusive classroom experience online when they keep three important areas in mind:

  1. Accessibility
  2. Usability
  3. Inclusion

Who Are Online Students?

To create better accessibility in online learning for students, we first need to know who online learners are, and more importantly, understand their diverse needs. According to Classes & Careers’ Online College Student Trends, online students can be described in the following ways:

  • More women than men enroll in online degree programs, especially at the undergraduate level.
  • While the highest percentage of online learners fall between the ages of 25 and 29, online programs tend to attract a larger share of older, “nontraditional” students.
  • Unlike those at traditional campuses, about half of online learners are married with children under the age of 18.
  • Nearly 40 percent of undergraduate students and 60 percent of graduate students work full-time while attending online colleges and universities.

The flexibility and accessibility of online courses make them popular among such ‘nontraditional’ students. The National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) uses specific characteristics to classify nontraditional students. According to its criteria, nontraditional learners fall into at least one of the following groups:

  •     Full-time workers
  •     Part-time students
  •     Older students who delayed college or are seeking a second degree
  •     Students who are financially independent
  •     Parents to at least one dependent
  •     Single parents

Other Online Learners

In addition, some student groups fall outside of the NCES’s definition of nontraditional learners, but also benefit from online degree programs and courses:

Students with disabilities

In 2016, nearly ⅕ of undergraduates reported having a disability. Your prospective students may have physical, emotional, or behavioral disabilities that make campus-based programs unsuitable. Digital learning tools often incorporate adaptive, accessible features to support such students, such as speech-to-text and the ability to automatically adjust coursework to meet students’ individual learning needs.

A key concept when talking about digital access in higher education is the “digital divide,” which refers to differences in the use of and access to technology web technologies between people with and without disabilities. Research shows that people with disabilities often have less engagement with and access to online resources (Lissitsa & Madar, 2018).

Rural & international students

Online students are beginning to attend colleges and universities further from home than their predecessors did. In some cases, these students live outside the country. For students unable to report in-person on campus, online programs expand their higher education options.

Between 1990 and 2000, nontraditional student enrollments grew by more than 200 percent, and EDUCAUSE reported the significant growth in adult learners correlates directly to advances in online education. Whether because of job constraints, family responsibilities, limited mobility, remote location, or other reasons, these types of students find regular on-campus class attendance not possible.

And this trend has more to do with accessibility than a sudden interest in higher education. So as institutions continue to expand their offerings for nontraditional students and student populations with diverse learning needs, the key will be in enabling online students with the kind of access and tools that drive learning.

Accessibility in Online Teaching & Learning

Evolving technologies in online learning expose instructors and students to new ways of engaging in a virtual classroom. However, that innovation doesn’t matter if it’s not built to be accessible.

At its core, accessibility is about the ability to benefit from a system or entity. In our online world, web accessibility is when websites and tools are properly designed, specifically for people with disabilities, so everyone can understand, navigate, and interact with the web content presented.

Currently, many sites and tools are developed with accessibility barriers that make them difficult or impossible for some to use. When thinking about accessibility and the kinds of tools to employ for creating equity in the classroom, ask these questions:

  • Can the user easily perceive the elements presented in the tool?
  • Can they operate the various functions of the tool easily?
  • Can they easily consume and understand the content presented in the user interface?

While making sure tools and technologies are designed so that people with disabilities can use them is no small task, so too is ensuring that access to an online learning experience is equitable among students with a diverse set of needs. When looking for tools that support equitable access, consider the different types of students you serve.

Examples of Web Accessibility

For example, does the technology powering your online learning programs offer capabilities for visually- or hearing-impaired students? For hearing- impaired students, video content is a challenge. That means making sure you take an inclusive approach to this set of learners’ needs by using accessible tools that have closed captioning. A content delivery feature like this makes it easier for those students to access and actively participate.

Don’t neglect the importance of color either. Five to eight percent of men are colorblind and struggle to distinguish red from green. Plus, small screens make it difficult to separate these colors in direct sunlight. Ask questions about platform colors so you can consider tools that accommodate a border student population.

Every student learns differently, and while it may be impossible to support every student’s unique needs, it’s also important to consider the diversity of learning styles among your online students. With tools that include rich media, such as videos, images, GIFs, and audio in online discussions, instructors can appeal to a broader range of learning styles — and as a result, increase the likelihood of student participation in course activities.

Usability of Online Course Tools

Another key element to any technology an institution employs is usability: how easy is it for students and instructors to learn and to operate the tool you want to introduce into the online learning environment.

Tools with a user-friendly design are naturally easier to learn how to use; they also allow instructors and students to complete tasks quickly; they are free from errors in the interface that could cause confusion; and they offer an intuitive navigation — to even a first-time user. When designed this way, digital learning tools are easier to learn, and that’s critical for online students.

That first interaction with a tool can color a student’s perception of how easy (or not) the tool is to use. If a student can accomplish a task within a new platform the first time they use it, then the tool has high usability. And that small achievement has big impact. They will be more inclined to use it in the future rather than view it as a barrier or challenge. Introducing tools with high usability will drive better adoption and more equitable access and usage across your diverse student populations.

Familiarity Breeds Use

Tools with a user experience that mimics real-life experiences clearly have the highest usability. Where it can apply, EdTech products should borrow from other platforms to integrate experiences that users recognize from their digital lives.

  • Online shopping — many EdTech tools allow instructors to create courses by choosing materials from a library. The workflow of searching or browsing items by category, filtering selections, choosing, and collecting borrows heavily from the retail experience.
  • Gaming — look to online games for ways to guide users to complete tasks and “level up.” Gaming also offers models for creating joy in tech products.
  • Online storage & creation — tools like DropBox, Google Drive, Adobe, YouTube, and others enable the organization, sharing, and creation of tons of content. EdTech products can mirror this familiar way of creating and organizing content with their content creation tools and nested hierarchies.
  • Notifications & social media — Like the many options you have within your social media accounts, your education technology should also allow you to enable different kinds of in-app and email notifications that will help keep students engaged.

If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with in their personal lives, they are likely to explore it more deeply. As an example, Harmonize’s online discussion tool provides a social media-like experience, with content creation, sharing, and reaction capabilities — making it both recognizable and easy to use, which leads to increased student activity and engagement.

When you enable students with familiar tools that can provide a variety of options for them to express themselves and contribute to the course, you’re also being inclusive of how different students learn best and building a more inclusive classroom online.

Inclusion & Equity in the Online Classroom

An inclusive classroom is where students with and without learning differences learn together. Inclusive classrooms are welcoming and support the diverse academic, social, emotional, and communication needs of all students. When it comes to online courses, it’s critical that institutions ensure the tools used address a broad range of learning styles and abilities.

To properly address inclusion, institutions — to the best of their abilities — should ensure all students have access to quality software and hardware. For nontraditional students in online courses who are often moving between work, home, or school at any given time, having access to their courses and the tools 24/7 and from any device is imperative.

Inclusive of Learner Styles

Inclusion also takes into account the diverse ways students learn. For example, a hearing-impaired student may struggle with video or audio files, but thrive when asked to annotate a photo or comment on another student’s post.

Further, a visually-impaired student may struggle to synthesize concepts presented in an online gallery full of images, but is actively participating in the online discussion using audio files. Neither approach is better than the other; what is important is providing tools that accommodate any which way a person learns.

Inclusive Internet Access

The tools themselves are only part of the story. The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap” – the gap between students who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with students did not have a broadband internet connection at home. Many rural students also struggle with low bandwidth internet. That gap continues to grow.

This clearly impacts the effectiveness of online learning. A study by Muhammad and Kainat (2020) found that internet access problems challenge the efficacy of online learning. And according to a study conducted by Hazwani et al. (2017), an institution’s infrastructure also plays a role in ensuring that online learning operates successfully. Poor infrastructure will limit students’ ability to access course materials.

Technologies & Services to Increase Online Learning Effectiveness

As distance and online learning programs increase in popularity, tools have emerged to better address accessibility, usability, and inclusion. The most effective ones take those areas into account in order to deliver Universal Design for Learning (UDL), giving all students an equal opportunity to succeed. This approach to teaching and learning offers flexibility in the ways students access material and demonstrate what they know.

For example, tools that allow students to access their online courses from a smartphone or mobile device make participation in online discussions more accessible – even if the student is a caretaker or working at a full-time job.

Free public internet, though presenting some data privacy issues, is available in libraries and community centers. Students can also use hubs via Comcast LiftZones to access high-speed internet regardless of their location. However, institution-sponsored 1:1 laptop and internet programs are also gaining momentum, along with government-funded and non-profit programs. Resources to point students to include:


EveryoneOn is a nonprofit that connects low-income families with affordable internet options through their provider partnerships. Since 2012, they have helped more than 700,000 people find an internet option based on their needs. Not only are they a great resource, but they also offer digital skill training classes and help families get computers.


Lifeline offers a discount on either phones or internet costs for families that are at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines. The discount is limited to one service only.

Human I-T

Human I-T is a nonprofit that has partnered with Frontier Communications and its Affordable Broadband program. Instead of recycling electronics, Human I-T reuses donated technology to close the digital divide. They also offer affordable internet connections.

Collaboration & Inclusion Technology for Online Learning

Beyond the basics needed to access a course, digital learning tools that provide additional support to instructors and students in the online classroom are key to boosting equitable accessibility. From tools that accommodate students’ disabilities and support proper pronouns & unbiased wording to diverse learning styles, it’s critical that institutions select tools that increase equity and  accessibility for all.

Harmonize, a learner collaboration platform, is one of the tools institutions use in conjunction with their learning management system to power the online learning experience for students. The technology is designed to promote an equitable and inclusive learning environment.

For example, we all learn and communicate differently. With Harmonize, students and faculty can share content and interact in any format – text, multimedia, recording video or audio, polls, image & video annotation, Q&A boards, chat – all from within the online course.

Tools with such flexibility provide learners of all abilities with the opportunity to express themselves. It also provides rich capabilities that enable diverse student populations to engage with their instructors and classmates in ways that work for them. Using any device, students can choose from a variety of multimedia to make course contributions, including creating videos, images, and audio files or using  closed-captioning and voice-to-text features.

The goal is to choose digital learning tools that support a seamless experience for instructors and students anytime, anywhere across devices. Doing that means making sure those tools are accessible, easy to use, and inclusive.

The bottom line is that having access to the tools and services that power the learning process is paramount. Once access is achieved, making sure the technology you employ to deliver courses meets accessibility needs, is easy to use, and designed to be inclusive of different learners’ styles could spell the difference between online student success or complete disengagement.

To see how Harmonize can help your institution support equitable accessibility, explore Harmonize’s features today or request a demo.