Inclusive Teaching and Accessibility Online

Last Updated: December 15, 2022 - 1:51 pm

Fostering and maintaining inclusive learning environments is essential to enabling full participation, engagement, and learning for all students. Northwestern University adheres to these principles of inclusive teaching. Both face-to-face and online learning environments are should be inclusive, warm, and welcoming.

The online learning environment requires faculty members to think creatively about how to achieve these goals. In preparation for online instructional delivery, all Northwestern instructors should review these materials and incorporate inclusive strategies into their course plans. The strategies below are tailored specifically for online teaching.

In addition, the Searle Center’s Inclusive Learning Environments webpage provides many resources, guides, and learning opportunities to center inclusion in your classrooms and learning settings. The following strategies, recommendations, tutorials, and resources will assist you with developing an inclusive learning environment in virtual classrooms. 

Cultivate a Welcoming and Inclusive Climate

A welcoming and inclusive class culture is one that both recognizes diversity and fosters student engagement and belonging. These elements are critical for student learning and can be encouraged through creating social presence—the connections among and between students and instructors—in the online learning environment. Remember to clearly articulate your expectations for interactions and engagement to facilitate appropriate and thoughtful student interactions and comments.

Use These Suggested Strategies to Shape Climate:

Collectively set ground rules for course discourse

​Shared rules and expectations can help avoid miscommunication, disrespectful language, and hurt feelings, and can foster a constructive exchange of perspectives, opinions, approaches, and viewpoints.

  • Students can help co-create shared rules and expectations on the first day of the course.
  • These rules and expectations should apply to all synchronous and asynchronous sessions, virtual chats, group work, and discussion boards.
  • Post and remind students about the agreed-upon ground rules.
  • An example of a simple baseline shared expectation is: “Be respectful of the words and opinions of others, even if they differ from your own.”
Recognize challenging circumstances

Students are experiencing a range of emotions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, and global response to social injustices.

Foster social presence
  • To foster social presence, use icebreaker activities at the beginning and throughout your course. Be mindful of not posing questions that will require students to disclose potentially sensitive information about themselves. For example, start class by posting a broad question in the chat function or on the whiteboard such as your favorite music or video, your favorite ice cream flavor, something you enjoy doing outside of schoolwork, something that happened to you last week. The question should not require students to reveal personal circumstances (for example, do not ask, "Where did you go on break?"). Also introduce yourself, sharing your background and interests. During discussions, ask students to introduce themselves when they speak (“Hi, I am . . .”).
  • Check-in with students via email and establish online office hours. Consider holding required one-to-one office hour chats early in the term. Reach out to students who struggle during the quarter. Clearly communicate the best way for students to contact you, your available hours, and your usual response time for email or other communications.
  • For synchronous sessions, invite students to log in 5-10 minutes before the class starts. This can help foster casual conversation and allow students to raise questions. If time permits, you can also let students know you will remain online for 10 minutes after the class ends to answer their questions.   
  • View this 23-minute video, “Translating In-Person Teaching Online,” from the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. You will learn how to navigate Zoom and implement whiteboards, annotations, breakouts, and other techniques to create community among your students, build social presence, and ease student discomfort. The section on creating a social presence begins at the 10:53 minute mark.
Foster equitable participation in class

Give students multiple ways to participate, such as using the virtual hand-raising icon in Zoom, calling on students who visually raise their hands, and opening a discussion in chat for students who are more comfortable sharing their ideas in written form. Many best practices for active learning and discussion in-person can be replicated or adapted in online courses, including, for example, announcing you will allow time to think before calling on anyone, and think-pair-share (individual writing followed by a small group breakout room discussion and report to the full class via chat, whiteboard, a shared Google doc, or full class discussion). You can also use an asynchronous discussion board to promote contributions from all students. This best practice guide (download) from the University of Michigan provides many useful strategies.

Monitor student interaction

Monitor small group discussions, breakout rooms, and chats to ensure adherence to ground rules for respectful discourse. These types of engagement can help build community among students but they should be held to the same discussion standards as full class sessions. Be prepared to intervene if students engage in inappropriate or harassing behavior. A helpful strategy can be to consistently remind students throughout the term about the shared ground rules and expectations for respectful discourse.

Respect and affirm names and identity

Use NameCoach to make sure you know how to pronounce names correctly. Ask students to use their full name in Zoom (although they could put nicknames in parentheses if they prefer). Invite students to use the rename function to add their pronouns in their name on Zoom if they would like to. Model this same best practice for yourself, both in Zoom and on your syllabus and other course materials.

Create a syllabus statement

Provide a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement as part of your syllabus. This can help establish a welcoming tone and demonstrate your values for the learning environment. The statement can address how your teaching philosophy engages with diversity, equity, and inclusion, and your expectations for valuing and respecting difference in your class.

Provide Students with Clear Guidance on Course Expectations

It is important to share your course standards and expectations clearly in an online class, as there are fewer opportunities for informal communication, reminders, and impromptu explanations that often occur in in-person settings. Instructors should clearly communicate three fundamental course elements:

  1. The broad course goals - what are the intended outcomes of the course?
  2. The course learning objectives - what learning will students be able to demonstrate when they have completed the course?
  3. The overall course expectations - how should students expect to participate and engage in order to achieve the course goals and learning objectives?

Use These Suggested Strategies to Provide Clear Expectations:

Clearly include your expectations on the syllabus

Review examples of ways to set expectations around online interaction.

Update often

Each week, provide an update on that week’s learning objectives, meetings, and assignments to help students stay on track.

Provide clear instructions about assignments

For example, how frequently should students post to group discussion boards? What length of post is expected? Augment written instructions for assignments by including a brief video explanation, using an assignment/grading rubric, or posting models of exemplary work.

Ensure that all students can access course materials
Establish protocols for online communication during the course
  • This includes the use of synchronous dialogue/communication, virtual hand raising, and muted microphones. Because students will encounter different protocols across their classes, it is important to communicate your expectations at the beginning of the course and throughout the term.
  • During synchronous sessions, ask students to use audio, and if possible, video. However, also keep in mind that while appearing on video can increase social presence for many, it can be intrusive, uncomfortable, and/or inaccessible for others. Some of our students have less privacy at home and some have less economic privilege; using video exposes both of these conditions. Other students live in areas without reliable internet bandwidth. With these realities in mind, follow these recommendations:
    • Invite students to use the alternative background feature on Zoom to protect their privacy if/when video is critical to the teaching and learning experience.
    • You may encourage the use of video but you may not require it, nor require any student to divulge their reasons for not doing so. Discuss these classroom norms on the first day of class and within your syllabus.


When presenting students with online material, it is important to adhere to accessibility guidelines in the following areas:

Recorded material

Closed Captioning for Live Classes:

  • Captioning can be added by a captioner typing directly in Zoom. If you don't have a captioner, the best option is Alternative Communication Services (ACS), an organization AccessibleNU and Northwestern IT work with on a regular basis. ACS can arrange for captioners to join your meetings. View contact information and pricing details.
  • AccessibleNU also has instructor information for remote learning and can help make accommodations for students with disabilities. Should a student require live captioning as an accommodation, please ask them to contact AccessibleNU at

Captions for Recordings:

Course Materials

Make sure your course materials are accessible to those using screen reader software:

Planning for student needs

Share Academic Support Resources

Setting clear expectations also requires communicating to students how to obtain the resources necessary to support their learning, especially as they too are transitioning to an online learning environment. Normalize and guide help-seeking by providing information about campus resources to all students at the beginning of the class.

Connect students to Academic Support and Learning Advancement (ASLA), which provides a list of academic and well-being resources for undergraduates.

To learn more:

Explore these useful resources from other universities