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How Online and Blended Learning Serve and Improve Diversity and Inclusion in Education

Photo: Courtesy of Christin Hume

Of all the issues facing education in the United States and around the world, creating inclusive and diverse learning spaces, regardless of how courses are delivered, is one of the most urgent.


Angela Gunder

Chief Academic Officer, Online Learning Consortium

When it comes to students having not just access to education, but also the opportunity to truly succeed, ensuring students see themselves as belonging in spaces of learning removes significant barriers to success. 

By offering an alternative to the strictly in-person classroom setting, online and blended learning provide ways to enact diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in educational spaces at all levels, from K-12 through post-graduate programs

DEI is an organizational focus for the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), and encompasses diversity, equity, and inclusion topics centered on digital learning, digital technology environments, accessibility, and online and blended learning strategies that center inclusivity at the institutional level and in individual courses.

OLC has created, hosted, and partnered on a number of events and resources in the past year emphasizing issues of equity, and more are on the way. These range from webinars to playbooks to partnering with presidents and provosts on how to build strategic digital plans at the institutional level. 

We look both internally and externally, with our main focus being on building networks and collaborative partnerships that center important conversations, and help develop real-world actionable strategies while amplifying the voices of our professional and institutional members.

Benefits for all

Many people might believe that more inclusivity in the classroom only benefits minority student populations, but that’s simply not true. DEI efforts benefit all students and improve educational outcomes by ensuring more divergent perspectives are heard and understood, allowing for more critical thought around preconceived notions of the world.

And while DEI efforts obviously center cultural and racial inclusion, they should and do extend further. Inclusion initiatives also mean providing more educational opportunities to students with disabilities, who are poverty-affected, who are the first in their families to attend college, or who may simply be affected by time and location, allowing them to more fully participate in learning in ways that might otherwise be nearly impossible.

Students who are blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, or who have mobility or cognitive disabilities can benefit from the accessibility that can and should be inherent in online and blended learning content without having to request a special accommodation in order to succeed. 

And for students who are bound by time, transportation, or are in remote locations, the distance from the classroom becomes a non-issue when educational content can be accessed digitally anywhere at any time. Online and blended learning affords the opportunity for those students to be part of a community they may not have otherwise been able to access.

Increasing access

But online learning isn’t without its potential pitfalls. Reliable and consistent access to technology can be a huge barrier for many students, particularly students in rural areas and on tribal lands where digital learning infrastructure can be lacking. These students may face limited access to computers and mobile devices, as well as the high-speed internet connections required to truly engage with multimedia content, such as videos. 

For true equity to occur, these barriers must be addressed in a way that ensures all students have access to the resources they need to succeed in an online or blended learning space. 

What we learned as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic about the reality of the digital divide for many of our most minoritized students is valuable and must be addressed in strategic, equitable ways — not just in the immediate future, but immediately.

The OLC focuses heavily on DEI efforts in education because it improves educational outcomes for all students. By providing a more inclusive educational space, students from all backgrounds are exposed to diverse perspectives and new ideas that may spur more creative thinking and help create more well-rounded adults. 

When students can see themselves and their peers as belonging in these and other educational spaces, they are more likely to embrace and champion diversity and inclusion throughout their lives. That’s an outcome with a value that’s impossible to measure.

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