Promoting Access & Equity in Online Learning

student with headphones staring intently at laptop
DEIBOnline LearningStudent Success
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Christal E. Carmichael is a Professor of Psychology at North Carolina Central University


The world as we know it is changing drastically, right before our eyes. With the shift to online learning, our educational system is now realizing the value of virtual and personalized instruction. Education now operates with a completely different approach. While the end goals remain the same, the ways in which we engage are ever-evolving. The many barriers we face with traditional learning can be eliminated in the online learning environment.

Tremendous progress has been made to provide the most flexible and focused educational platforms, accessible to many of us without interruption. However, there is still an opportunity gap—rather than an achievement gap—when it comes to accessing this rich and robust educational system. This gap highlights the disparities across the globe in the form of dropout rates, standardized test scores, college enrollment and college completion rates. So far, the efforts to close this gap have not been successful but we continue to strive to promote equity in the access and delivery of education.

There was an article published recently in the New York Times referencing how the current pandemic has heightened awareness of the sheer number of disparities that exist in the college world. The post discussed how the sudden shift to online learning is a great opportunity that affords many of us unlimited exposure to education. However, the uneven distribution and access to technology among different groups based on socioeconomic status and/or race shows that there is a great divide.

Until we can ensure all students are treated equally and given equal access to high-quality education, we have little chance of achieving equality. By providing all students access to a high-quality college education with curriculum that prepares them for their chosen career and up-to-date instructional materials and related technology, educational institutions can break down equity barriers, while preparing their students for a lifetime of success.

Tips for Breaking Down Equity Barriers in Higher Ed

Consider the factors important to students that impact achievement

Priorities may vary greatly from student to student. It’s vital to understand the cultural differences and personal circumstances that could hinder a student’s ability to learn.

In the event of technical problems (hardware, software, internet connection problems, time zone differences), ensure students can listen to your lecture asynchronously to prevent them from falling behind. This also provides note-taking support, students can stop, start and create accurate notes from your lectures.

For deaf and hearing-impaired students, verbatim transcripts and/or captions can be made available. Students with chronic illnesses and other challenging life circumstances (childcare, computer sharing, etc.) should be able to access the information, even if they cannot attend live, by watching the recording later.

Prioritize equitable access to the learning environment

Ease of access is an important factor in the online learning environment. When creating your curriculum, be certain assignments and information can be accessed easily by everyone by considering all delivery options and choosing the one that best suits ALL students.

Considering that attention spans and motivation are key, focusing on a single topic per video lecture or recording, allows us to create lessons that are portioned, easier to play on mobile devices with data, and more conducive to learning in smaller segments.

Always examine how we can help ALL students succeed

Offering that extra level of compassion and flexibility goes a long way in establishing a trusting relationship with students. This is even more important in the online learning environment. The cookie cutter approach is not what works best for all students.

Create spaces where students feel valued and included

In the online learning environment, creating the warmth of a face-to-face classroom can be challenging. This post by fellow professor Essie Childers offers some great tips for fostering presence and compassion in a virtual environment.

Set clear expectations

Be sure that your course syllabus is very specific, so students are aware of all expectations at the start of your course—or even before it begins. When students are clear on the expected outcomes as well as the resources available to them to ensure their success, they are more apt to engage and be motivated throughout the course.

Fostering Success Through Inclusivity and Transparency

Virtual learning opportunities offer the ability to break down the walls in our educational environment if we adhere to the mission of equity for all. The use of digital content, tools, and resources helps students achieve more, all while creating more equitable learning experiences.

Although we are aware of the seamless access these new personalized learning models afford some, we must ensure that we continue to promote equity within each of these digital platforms. This can absolutely be achieved, but we must be inclusive in our strategies while being transparent, sharing expectations and not assuming or taking for granted what our students know or don’t know.

We must continue to evaluate our approach to teaching and be willing to be flexible and offer multiple points of access. For example:

  • Providing alternative learning opportunities that require no technology
  • Partnering with university resources, like the library, to make materials accessible to ALL
  • Remembering that not everyone has access to top-quality internet

Finally, we must be open to feedback from our students so that we can actually hear their position on how diverse and inclusive our learning environment actually is. It could be far different from what we perceive it to be.

Inclusive environments value and include everyone. So, when possible, offer all your students compassion and flexibility and watch them transform into the highest-achieving learners who we’ve dedicated our lives to nurturing.

For more on fostering an inclusive classroom experience, download our free ebook full of peer tips.