Inclusive Learning Environment
Training & Learning

The Keys to Building a More Inclusive Learning Environment

No two people are alike, and modern learning and development professionals must be aware of this as they teach to more diverse populations. This is especially true when it comes to online learning; when you host an online class, you could end up teaching a very diverse range of learners who have different educational needs and restrictions.

Every L&D professional needs to learn the keys to building a more inclusive learning environment. Inclusive learning environments are beneficial for both instructors and learners alike. Let’s discuss how you can do just that with a few simple steps.

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Why is inclusivity important for learning environments?

Inclusivity is about more than just meeting educational benchmarks or following procedures. It’s an important part of ensuring that all of your employees can learn effectively.

Each learner has different learning abilities, comfort levels, and difficulties. This is true no matter whether you teach in person, online, or in a hybrid environment. The more inclusive you make your learning environment, the more easily your employees will absorb the materials you give them, and the less bias will affect your classes.

Ultimately, inclusivity results in several key benefits for you and your learners:

  • Your employees maintain engagement more easily, so they actively absorb the materials from your courses.
  • You can meet your employees’ learning preferences and needs, thus improving your skills and reputation as an instructor.

You learn how to teach a wider range of employees, allowing you to expand your classes in the future and potentially increase your earnings and cash flow if you teach online exclusively.

How to create an inclusive learning environment

Fortunately, there are many ways to create an inclusive learning environment for both in-person and online classrooms. 

Acknowledge and work with people who have special needs

An inclusive learning environment is exactly what it implies. It’s an environment (in this case, your workplace) where all people feel that they are being supported, including those who have special needs or conditions such as ADHD or dyslexia that may affect their ability to learn or work. 

For example, an L&D manager or online instructor can better accommodate learners with ADHD by:

Alternatively, an online instructor can provide an inclusive learning environment for learners with dyslexia by:

A truly inclusive learning environment means that managers and instructors need to work together with employees in a thoughtful and respectful way. People with special conditions that affect their ability to learn or work are far more likely to do well in a setting where their situation is acknowledged, and where their managers and instructors make an effort to work with them. As noted above, meeting the learning needs of your employees can improve your own skills as a manager.

Include captions for videos/recordings

One of the easiest ways to create an inclusive learning environment is to include captions for any videos or recordings you plan to show. This is true for both in-person classes and online classes.

Captions are great for individuals with hearing impairments. You should include captions by default even if you don’t believe you have any special needs employees present at the time. If a video doesn’t come with closed captions, you can draw up a script for the video or recording and include it with the materials you present to your employees.

For learners with hearing impairments, it’s also a good idea to:

  • Start a conversation by catching the person's attention, and maintain eye contact
  • Speak in front of the person in a normal way (without exaggerating). Pause your speech and check if the person understands.
  • Favor writing and asynchronous work
  • During group discussions: take a few seconds to summarize the discussion face to face

Use verbal descriptors or image descriptions

Similarly, many of your learners may benefit if you use verbal or image descriptions for any visual media you include in your lectures.

For example, say that you have a graph or chart meant to demonstrate a certain principle for the topic at hand. However, one of your employees or colleagues can’t download the image to their computer, or maybe they can’t make out the chart’s colors (perhaps because they are visually impaired and need to use screen readers).

If you have an image description ready, you can simply recite this description and break down what the chart describes. In this way, the learner gets the same educational value as the others, and you don’t have to slow down your lecture, nor do employees feel left behind by their peers. You can check what level of WCAG compliance your software, learning materials, or learning management system has.

Use inclusive language

Educators can go even further and make in person and online classrooms more inclusive by tailoring their language to this goal. Specifically, instructors should:

  • Think about their values and how they approach topics such as gender, race, and different abilities
  • Ensure that they don’t use examples or case studies that marginalize groups or make students feel unwelcome

For instance, instructors can make notes of each student’s name and preferred gender identity/gender expression so they can address them properly.

Inclusive language goes beyond mere social politeness, however. Imagine a circumstance in which an online class includes an example about two adults in a loving relationship. Rather than default to the heteronormative standard of a man and woman in a straight marriage, an inclusive educator might:

  • Avoid referencing the gender or sex of the couple entirely
  • Come up with a different example for their class

By the same token, be mindful of your language and educational texts and try to stay away from harmful stereotypes. Don’t assume, for example:

  • That your male students will want to talk about sports or “get” sports metaphors
  • That your students for a traditionally gendered topic are indeed all one gender – for example, you should not start a class on electrical engineering by addressing everyone with, “fellas”, or “guys”
  • That your students all have the same experiences

In fact, you can foster and master a more inclusive environment by acknowledging the experiences of your students and by encouraging new perspectives and a diverse debate environment among your class attendees.

Related: Here’s How L&D Teams Can Celebrate Pride Month at Work (and Support Their LGBTQIA+ Colleagues)

Consider room or digital class material layout

If you teach in person, consider your room layout and ensure that all employee workspaces have a clear line of sight of you and the main blackboard. That way, no one feels left out and as though they can’t view the lecture materials you gesture to or use at the front of the room.

Be sure to consider differently-abled students who may not have the same mobility as others. You should ensure that circulation areas, like the route from the door to the back of the room, are clear of obstacles. Consider adding benches and seats for people to rest at, too, and don’t hesitate to offer assistance to your learners without forcing it!

Other good tips to help differently-abled students get around and feel comfortable in your class include:

  • Don’t make any sudden movements when guiding a wheelchair
  • Always signal when you need to move if you are moving with or near a differently-abled student
  • Don’t rest on a wheelchair since you may risk unbalancing that person
  • Try not to destabilize a person you’re helping walk or get around, or to walk or proceed too quickly 

The same principles apply when you teach online students. Your digital class materials or website page should be well-designed, easy to navigate, and have all the major materials accessible to everyone. Don’t place key documents, for example, hidden in corners of your website where they’re easy for learners to miss.

Make materials available ahead of time

Speaking of teaching online, you might consider adopting the practice of making assignments lecture notes, and other materials available ahead of time. By doing this, people who may miss your online lecture can still see what you talked about and catch up to the rest of the group promptly.

More importantly, this allows people to prepare if they know they won’t be able to download your materials on the day of your lecture for one reason or another. They can also ask you questions about the materials if something seems confusing via text messages or chat, giving you the chance to make a course correction if needed.

Test your learning materials

Lastly, you can always err on the side of caution and test your learning materials, class layout, and video accessibility/inclusivity yourself. For example, open your upcoming lecture video and view it first. See if the captions make sense, determine whether the volume is appropriate for all your learners, and analyze other elements of the material to see if it’s truly inclusive and enjoyable to absorb.

If you do this, you’ll be able to anticipate and correct pain points for your employees or colleagues before they even encounter them. 

Be more self-aware–and be honest!

Even if you have the best of intentions, you can’t escape the fact of human psychology: you hold specific biases and assumptions, just like the rest of us. 

However, you should articulate the assumptions and expectations that may influence your approach to teaching or how you set up your classroom environment(s). It never hurts to take a hard look at what you assume about your learners and:

  • Ask yourself whether you are really being inclusive
  • Determine whether you might overlook someone or a specific need

To ensure that you welcome all your learners, ask out loud whether there’s anything you can do to make them more comfortable. Above all else, always remain humble and open to feedback; after all, your learners are best able to understand their needs and whether you’re meeting them!

Wrap up

Prioritizing inclusivity will greatly benefit you and your learners. Inclusive learning environments are beneficial for people since they help them learn more effectively. But they’re also great for you as an L&D professional. Take these tips to heart, and don’t forget to use them in conjunction with one another for the best effects.