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An Introduction to Inclusion and eLearning

What is inclusivity? Why is inclusivity a critical element of effective eLearning? How do you implement inclusivity into eLearning?


What Is Inclusivity?

Let’s start with what most good articles start with: a definition. In general, inclusivity is the practice of including traditionally underrepresented or marginalized groups of people.

An inclusive online course has, in the interest of being pithy, two key characteristics:

  1. Free of bias, either implicit or explicit, and

  2. Actively promotes, features, and provides visibility, access, and learning accommodations to underrepresented and marginalized groups.

Where Have I Heard About This Before?

"Inclusivity" is one of those interesting perennial buzzwords you might've heard bandied about recently, concurrent with the rise of eLearning discourse. That's an oxymoron, of course (the phrase "perennial buzzword," that is). A buzzword, by definition, is a word or phrase that achieves popularity for only a short period of time. So, why use it in reference to inclusivity?

Because while the term "Inclusivity", and the ideals it espouses, have deep roots in our society, it's often treated as a novelty when it eventually cycles back around into our cultural consciousness. And it does operate as a cycle—back to those aforementioned deep roots, specifically in the field of education:

  • 1835 saw the first college, Oberlin College, to accept black students as well as white students, and was also the first college to go coeducational with women in 1837;

  • 1954 saw the landmark Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling segregation in schools to be unconstitutional;

  • 1975 saw the establishment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (today known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which required public schools to provide free and equal educational access to all students with disabilities.

All of these movements pushed for inclusivity—and all of these movements (and more) are still going strong today, the fight just as important as ever.

Why Isn’t Inclusivity Just the Norm?

Despite inclusivity's long and storied history, every industry boom (like eLearning) is likely to see the concept starting at square one.

Again, I'll ask a "why" question: Why is the concept of inclusivity considered such an oddity every time it inevitably (history shows us it will, thankfully, be inevitable) rolls around in any given field? Don't you think we'd have figured out to start everything we do with a baseline of inclusivity baked right in? Or at least aggressively push to implement it across the board? Given I'm writing this article in the year 2021, clearly not.

Here is one reason I think inclusivity has become such a buzzword-mainstay, and not just a mainstay-mainstay in education (please note that there are absolutely more reasons for why inclusivity isn’t the default, but this is the one I’m choosing to focus on in this article):


The pathway to implementation is not always clear, or obvious. In other words, we don’t always know how to implement it.

Why is Inclusivity Critical to Effective eLearning?

And finally, for your sake, one last “why” question (arguably the most important one, sorry for burying the lede here): Why is inclusivity a critical element of effective eLearning environments?

There are a thousand-and-one answers to this question, so I’ll limit myself to just a few that apply specifically to online education.

Expand Your Course Audience

Inclusion can widen your course’s audience by making it more accessible. Creating an inclusive course can make it more appealing to a larger pool of students, and ensure that traditionally underrepresented peoples have the support they need to be successful in your course, which is a big draw for enrollment.

Engage, Embrace, and Empower Students

Inclusion facilitates student engagement, creates a sense of belonging, and empowers your students. This is a big one. In order for students to do their best work and get the most out of your course, they need to feel connected to (or at the very least, not alienated by) its subject matter.

Maximize Your Course's Potential

Inclusion makes your course stronger, by removing barriers that would limit its impact and reach. By including and considering a variety of students and learning needs, your course will be more robust and more effective!

How Do You Implement Inclusivity into eLearning?

It's not an exaggeration to say that education changes the world. But it's not just your content or knowledge that facilitates change—the way you deliver it can help, too. Let’s get a jump start on implementing inclusivity into this new era of eLearning: here's how to introduce inclusivity into your online courses.

But First...The 'B' Word

The number one thing to do before diving into creating your inclusive course is to examine your implicit biases. Implicit bias refers to the unconscious biases, stereotypes, assumptions, and prejudices we hold—without fully being aware of them, or even fully intending to have them. Having implicit biases doesn’t automatically mean you are prejudiced or discriminatory—it just indicates that you have absorbed generalizations or other potentially harmful thoughts or information (think of it as your brain harboring a fugitive).


Without having an explicit awareness of our implicit biases,

we can’t work to resolve them.

So how do examine and resolve implicit biases?


Determine what your implicit biases are and reflect on how they impact you, your worldview, and your work.


Eliminate your implicit biases. Do so through research, understanding differing perspectives, gaining new perspectives, increasing your exposure to new and different ideas and people, and asking questions. Deprogram yourself, if you will.

Continual Effort

Work towards keeping an open mind moving forward. Don’t fall back into old patterns that may have contributed to your previous implicit biases.

The Do's and Don'ts

I’m going to break the following tips of what to do and what not to do down into categories based on gender and sexuality, race, disability for ease of reference. Note that the following lists are not exhaustive by any means, and do not cover every underrepresented or marginalized community, though many of the tips can be modified to fit just about any.

Gender and Sexuality Inclusion


  • Feature an equal variety of genders and sexualities visually in all promotional and learning materials.

  • Highlight a variety of voices when adding quotes, sources, research, informational videos, etc., relevant to your course (E.g. women, non-binary, trans, lesbian, gay, and bisexual etc.)

  • Use gender-inclusive language. (E.g., humankind instead of mankind.)

  • Allow students to indicate their preferred pronouns.

  • Use current terms approved and appreciated by the members of a group. (E.g. transgender person, transgender people. )



  • Stereotype nouns, roles, jobs, careers, etc. (E.g. “Engineers” should not be exclusively male, “receptionists” should not be exclusively female.)

  • Default to he/him/his pronouns within your course. Ideally, use “they/them/theirs”! “They” is considered gender-neutral—and yes, “they” is grammatically correct and recognized as a singular pronoun. Besides automatically being gender-inclusive, "they" is one of the English language's greatest timesavers—doesn't "he or she" get tiresome?

  • Require honorifics.

  • Use slurs or outdated or offensive terminology.

Racial Inclusion


  • Feature an equal variety of races and ethnicities visually in all promotional and learning materials.

  • Highlight BIPOC voices when adding quotes, sources, research, informational videos, etc., relevant to your course.

  • Use current terms approved and appreciated by members of each group.

  • Use universal phrases, examples, visuals.



  • Default to white stock characters, and do not portray BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) visuals offensively or stereotypically.

  • Stereotype nouns, roles, jobs, careers, etc. (E.g. facilitate racial inequities by marrying examples featuring BIPOC with their racist stereotypes, or use only positive representations for white people, and unfortunate representations for BIPOC.)

  • Use slurs, outdated, or offensive terminology., e.g. “minorities”.

  • Assume that your students will all be from the same country, culture, or background and have had the same opportunities and experiences.

Disability Inclusion


  • Feature an equal variety of disabilities visually in all promotional and learning materials.

  • Use current terms approved and appreciated by the members of that group. Do not use slurs, outdated, or offensive terminology.

  • Use person-first or identity-first language for people in disabled communities.

Person-first language example: a person with a disability.

Identity-first language example: a disabled person.

  • Provide closed captioning and text transcripts.

  • Display text as text (not as an image) whenever possible. When it can't be avoided, make sure to have alternative text provided.

  • Build your course on platforms that are friendly to screen readers.



  • Use euphemisms—they're generally far more condescending than people outside of the communities they're euphemizing realize.


Ultimately, ensuring your course is as inclusive as possible is a smart investment in the relativity of your work. The more people can relate to your content, the more people will leave with a positive experience—and the more likely they’ll be to return for more.


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