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Moving beyond student IDs: Strategies to support multicultural awareness in the online (and face-to-face) classroom

Written by: Jennifer Schneider
7 min read

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. (Nelson Mandela)

Over the past decade, online programmes have become an increasingly common method of learning for an increasingly diverse population of students (Allen and Seaman, 2017). One relatively recent report found that the number of students taking ‘at least one distance education course’ has reached over six million (Online Learning Consortium, 2017). As Kristen Betts writes, ‘[t]he ubiquity of technology has transformed education, making online learning part of the “new norm”’ (Betts, 2017). Students at all levels (and from a wide variety of backgrounds, demographics and cultures) are increasingly looking to online options for further education. In fact, an article exploring the challenges faced by the further education (FE) sector acknowledges that embracing technology is critical to remain ‘competitive and attractive to the widest range of students, including adult and distance learners and apprentices’ (McKean, 2017).

However, this trend (and opportunity) is not without challenges. Access to online learning is not in and of itself sufficient to ensure a student’s educational success, even for post-secondary students. A recent study examines some of the ‘promises and limits’ of online learning and describes a variety of practices that can improve online learning experiences (Xu and Xu, 2019). Xu and Xu note that ‘online courses without strong support to students may exacerbate educational inequities’ (2019). Culturally diverse groups of learners both need and deserve personalised support in order to succeed in the online learning environment. Similarly, Bettina Love reminds readers that teachers ‘will hurt a [student] whose culture is viewed as an afterthought’ (2019).

Online instructors serving this increasingly diverse population are encouraged to continuously reflect on teaching strategies and inclusivity. Gollnick and Chinn (2017) write that ‘[m]ulticultural education is a construct that acknowledges the diversity of students and their families and builds on the diversity to promote equality and social justice in education’ (p. 19). For multicultural education ‘to become a reality in the formal school situation, the total environment must reflect a commitment to multicultural education’ (Gollnick and Chinn, 2017, p. 25). Online learning environments are no exception.

This article reflects upon the work of Gollnick and Chinn and shares 10 actionable and practical strategies for supporting a broad, balanced and mindfully multicultural online classroom. 

1. Reflection

Questions are powerful tools for raising awareness, promoting critical thinking and inspiring positive action. As prompts for intentional and ongoing reflection, both online and face to face, instructors might consider the following questions.

  • What types of messages might my language and choice of content convey?
  • How well do my actions model and support a mindfully multicultural environment for all students?
  • How might I more deliberately acknowledge, embrace and celebrate unique backgrounds and experiences in my classroom?

2. First impressions

Arthur Dobrin writes about the power of first impressions and the ‘halo effect’ (2013). Before beginning an online course, we can actively evaluate course shells from the lens and perspective of entering students. Consider:

  • As a student in this course, what might seem unclear or confusing?
  • How might I more intentionally welcome all students upon entry?
  • Does my course layout model inclusivity at all times?
  • Are all components of my course accessible to all students?

3. Evaluation

There are resources to help educators (both online and face to face) to evaluate written texts and websites for multiculturalism. Similarly, there are tools that can help us to evaluate course shells, content and ourselves for inclusivity and multicultural competency. For sample assessment tools, see:

For accessibility tips and resources, see ‘Accessibility in online courses – trends, tips and tools (Bastedo and Swenson, 2014).

4. Assignment assessment

Whenever possible and appropriate, create room for student choice and voice in assignments (topics, prompts, format). Meaningful choice (in both online and face-to-face environments) ‘empowers students to take control’, supports intrinsic motivation, strengthens assignment relevance and ‘ownership of the learning process’, and conveys respect for students (Fulton and Schweitzer D, 2011). Proactively offer alternatives (in discussions and written assignments) when appropriate; consider providing students with options regarding paper topics, readings, presentation modalities and research areas, for example. Ensure that supplemental resources represent a wide range of gender, ethnic and racial groups.

5. Collaboration and feedback improvement cycles

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. (Maya Angelou)

Share course design feedback (through formal and informal institutional channels and with course developers, instructional designers and other members of programme development teams) in order to raise awareness of potential oversights and opportunities for a more representative curriculum. Instructors are often closest to course content. Design teams (especially in online environments, where courses might be pre-developed and are not updated each session) rely upon feedback to support relevance and inclusivity.

 6. Personalisation

Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. (Parker Palmer)

Celebrate diversity through warm, inclusive and supportive responses. Students often enter a new course (online or face to face) feeling vulnerable and unsure. There are many ways we can help all students feel that they belong (Hewitt, 2007). Consider:

  • When greeting students, make note of preferred names/pronouns
  • Actively seek out what makes students unique
  • Share personal anecdotes and narratives to humanise interactions
  • Express interest in cultural backgrounds and the etymology of unusual names
  • Merryfield writes about making the most of access to insider discourse throughout learning communities (2003). Suggest that students read all posts, even if they don’t formally respond.

7. Qualitative discussion reviews

Review online discussion prompts for student choice. Encourage students to share relevant and meaningful resources. Read all students posts (both text and subtext) and proactively address insensitive posts and cultural insensitivity.

Prioritise warmth, support and authenticity. Pause and review all emails and posts for tone and clarity (Frederick and Shaw, 2015). Praise in public, coach in private. Actively explore all sides of a topic. Assign ‘topic sides’ neutrally (based on first letter of last name, first letter of first name, etc.). When a discussion prompt requires students to take a position, ask that peer responses take a counter position. Use questions intentionally (Kelly, 2009) and in a learner-focused manner (Educational Development Centre, nd). Actively encourage students to reflect on explicit and implicit issues of culture, diversity and inclusivity as they relate to discussion topics.

8. Quantitative self-checks

Keep track of your weekly online discussion board responses. Strive for consistency and equity in replies shared with students over the course of a term. Merryfield reminds us to be watchful for ‘the lesson of isolates’ in student responses (2003, p. 154). Encourage students to respond to different peers each week and/or to posts with no replies.

9. Private interactions

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. (Margaret Mead)

In emails, be careful not to make assumptions about preferred gender pronouns. Address students by name. Phone conversations can often help to personalise instruction, build relationships and clarify misunderstandings. Encourage students to share audio recordings for name pronunciations (Pappas, 2013). Strive to pronounce students’ names properly.

10. What’s not said matters too

Every word has consequences, every silence too. (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Continuously search for implicit biases that may unintentionally and unknowingly impact and influence classroom dynamics and learning. Best practices include intentionally and thoughtfully addressing all open questions (posted on classroom forums, for example), providing timely acknowledgements and responses to all emails (including those with no clear questions), and sharing personalised feedback on all assignments.

Let’s continue the conversation and the learning together. These strategies are only small steps in an ongoing journey. Consider selecting one of the shared strategies for use in your next course. Please share your experiences and your own best practices.


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Betts K (2017) The growth of online learning: How universities must adjust to the new norm. In: Education Dive. Available at: (accessed 14 April 2019).

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Love B (2019) Dear white teachers: You can’t love your black students if you don’t know them. In: Education Week. Available at: (accessed 14 April 2019).

McKean P (2017) As challenges for the FE sector continue, leaders acknowledge technology as a way forward. In: Jisc. Available at: (accessed 14 April 2019).

Merryfield M (2003) Like a veil: Cross-cultural experiential learning online. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education 3(2): 146–171.

Online Learning Consortium (2017) New study: Over six million students now enrolled in distance education. Available at: (accessed 14 April 2019).

Pappas C (2013) The 5 best free audio tools for teachers. In: eLearning Industry. Available at: (accessed 14 April 2019).

Racial Equity Tools (nd) Multicultural competency. Available at: (accessed 14 April 2019).

Xu D and Xu Y (2019) The promises and limits of online higher education: Understanding how distance education affects access, cost, and quality. American Enterprise Institute. Available at: (accessed 14 April 2019).

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