5 things to read on… creating an inclusive learning environment

by | Aug 31, 2021 | Inclusive teaching

Freddie Gent, Institute of Teaching and LearningManchester Museum is the focus of the University’s Diversity Calendar for August. The current hello future project is transforming the museum to be a more inclusive environment and more relevant to the communities it serves. Whether physical or virtual, our teaching spaces should also be inclusive environments which facilitate the needs of our learning communities.  

Each day, the allure of learning, discovery and exploration draws people to Manchester Museum. Coming from all walks of life, people enter the Museum space to nurture their knowledge whilst contributing their own lived experiences to the reception of an exhibit. If we held up a mirror to this facet of the Museum, we could be forgiven for recognising our own classrooms in the reflection: a space for pursuing and sharing knowledge amongst individuals whose existence was previously unknown to one another.  

Individuals in any one community are united by an enthusiasm for the subject at hand, but we must be aware that the diversity of perspectives so greatly valued in our classes will also mean different expectations of how the learning community should function. It is important that, as facilitators of these communities, we create an inclusive environment in which our learners can thrive and feel that their views are respected. Whether our classes are online or on-campus, the space we encourage our students to enter must give each member an equal opportunity to learn. To help, here are 5 things to read on creating an inclusive learning environment. 

Do unto students as they would have done to them

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, for a while learning environments were mostly virtual. Interactions in this online environment have been different to those that we would have in-person, but Maha Bali’s post for THE Campus highlights that communication and interaction with students has been more important than ever during this period. In order to shape your learning environment, it is important to listen to your students and set the precedent for an open and welcoming space.  

One of Bali’s tips is to “create semi-synchronous ‘third-places’ for communication”, or a space for informal chat. It is worth noting here the great work that our students have done in setting up their own Discord servers to create and maintain online communities throughout the pandemic. Several of the student teams supporting these servers were nominated for and recognised during the SU Education Awards

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Building a more inclusive university environment 

Compared to the San Francisco institutions spotlighted in this article, Manchester is a sprawling university with a multitude of teaching and learning spaces provided for our students. However, the idea of using the city itself as a learning space particularly caught my eye, especially as a major factor in many students’ decision to choose our university is the city itself. By considering what Manchester has to offer—and what each individual has to offer to Manchester—the city becomes an open environment for learning. In terms of more practical advice for teachers, small gestures such as sending an email to check in with your academic advisees can go a long way to creating a welcoming learning environment.  

Create inclusive learning and teaching environments –guidance produced by the University of Leeds 

The University of Leeds has compiled a useful bullet-pointed guide of factors to consider when creating inclusive learning and teaching environments. Practical advice about choosing the physical teaching space can be found at the bottom of page 5, but elsewhere there are several nods to the inarguable fact that an inclusive environment cannot be treated as a standalone topic. For example, by designing a curriculum and resources that require fewer adjustments for students with particular needs you have already shown that you recognise and respect the diversity in the classroom. 

Bournemouth University Awareness videos 

I attended a conference recently where an anecdote was shared about a student who, despite excelling in every course unit and receiving great support from their institution, decided to terminate their studies after one year. A key factor in this decision was a feeling that their peers lacked understanding of their disability because they [the peers] were unsure how to ask what support they could offer.  

This anecdote immediately came to mind when I came across Bournemouth University’s Awareness Events. Within the series, staff and students increase their knowledge of mental health problems and consider changes to the ways they work, live and think so as to better support colleagues or peers who might live with these conditions. By building awareness throughout our university community, staff and students can co-create more inclusive environments that recognise each individual for who they are and respect one another’s needs. 

Online discussion boards 

Collaboration tools such as discussion boards are a great way of building communities in both synchronous and asynchronous contexts. The effective use of online discussion boards was explored by inaugural ITL Fellow Professor Ralf Becker, drawing particularly on his own use of Piazza. Piazza allows both the course convenor and the student to pose questions and can even facilitate peer-assisted study if students are offered an opportunity to answer one another’s queries before the course convenor affirms the answer.  

An overview of Professor Becker’s findings has been written up for the Humanities Teaching Academy. The FBMH eLearning team has created some guidance for staff on the use and integration of Piazza with Blackboard.