A major goal of inclusive pedagogy is to create a classroom climate that fosters a sense of belonging among students (Armstrong, 2011). Instructors can implement digital tools to promote inclusive learning experiences by supplementing on-ground or blended instruction, or use them as primary discussion platforms for online courses. The learning management system Canvas contains various features and apps that can bolster learner participation and engagement through community building and multiple modes of communication.
Similar to in-class learning experiences, a variety of elements are important for maintaining inclusive online discussions (for instance, clear ground rules for appropriate use, and prompt responses to inappropriate use). Students can serve as thought partners for establishing ground rules which may include: maintaining courteous, and respectful communication at all times; using inclusive language in posts; agreeing that discussion board posts not be shared outside of the course; and understanding that the instructor has the authority to remove and address all posts that are not inclusive. If a situation arises where learners do not engage in respectful, inclusive dialogue, the instructor can use the opportunity as a teaching moment. If the discussion board is not anonymous, instructors can speak directly with the learners involved, first seeking to understand their perspectives, then revisiting and possibly refining ground rules to reinforce proper usage. In the event of an inappropriate comment posted to a non-anonymous discussion board, the instructor can address the issue with the entire class.
With these practical considerations in mind, using Canvas features and apps for online discussions can be a suitable way to build a solid classroom community.
Sample Features & Apps
- Discussion Board. Using this feature, students can express themselves in written form as an extension of oral discussions occurring in class. Students can also add audio files and videos directly to discussions. Responding to a focused or threaded discussion prompt gives quieter students time to think before they respond. Instructors should note that student responses using this feature are not anonymous, which can have advantages depending on the objectives of the activity. For example, instructors may use this tool to have students introduce themselves to each other as a way to foster community. Teaching fellows or peer tutors can also mediate discussion boards.
- Collaborations. This tool allows instructors to initiate a link to a collaborative Google doc shared with students. Instructors can choose to utilize the doc live during class. An instructor might use this collaborative document for a class brainstorm to encourage student participation in classroom activities. Collaborations can also be used for smaller groups of students. Instructors can choose to share the document with the whole class, a subsection of the class, or with groups pre-assigned in Canvas. Learners also have the ability to create Collaborations, allowing for student-initiated group discussion.
- Piazza. With this free application, instructors and students can pose questions. Advantages described by actual professors implementing this tool include: creating opportunities for students to ask questions who might not normally be able to ask them during class (e.g. students in larger classes or those have difficulty attending office hours), fostering student-student dialogue, and enhancing communication lines between instructors and students. Piazza also provides the opportunity to create completely anonymous discussion threads, which can be useful when instructors want to provide a safe space for students to post without being identified, especially if the discussion is a place where students can ask for help from the instructor or fellow classmates. In addition, Piazza allows for monitored posting which gives the instructor the ability to read student posts and choose whether or not to release the post to the class, and also provides an instructor the ability to endorse a student post as a correct or instructor-approved response.
- VoiceThread. A step beyond typical text-based online discussions, VoiceThread discussions can also be created in a multi-sensory format. Instructors and students can post artifacts (videos, audio files, images, PowerPoint slides, etc.), to which video, audio, or text comments can be posted. This approach can encourage discussion or host an assignment where students develop their own videos or files. For example, students might be asked to add a video or audio file where they introduce themselves to the class. An instructor may choose to post a thought-provoking video clip related to class content and invite students to comment.
- CoursePress. Although not a Canvas tool, CoursePress maintains a similar blog-like feel, which can be linked to and utilized in a Canvas course to foster community. Instructors can either use one site for whole class participation, or each student can receive their own sites to create blogs or journal entries during the term.
- Anonymous Feedback Box. Instructors can also enable the anonymous feedback box on their Canvas site, and notify students that they are welcome to provide constructive feedback on their sense of belonging in the course. This feedback can be used to continue to build an inclusive climate.
- Identify areas within the course where student discussion can promote inclusivity: Consider whether Canvas features and apps are appropriate tools for facilitating such discussions. For example, online discussions can be particularly useful for topics where the contribution of all students is central to learning. In this case, the instructor leverages the software platform to promote inclusive participation.
- Prioritize features when choosing an online discussion tool: Determine whether attributes such as multimedia capability and anonymity are important for discussions, and choose a Canvas feature or app based on such preferences. Multimedia postings can be useful for students to add artistic and creative work, audio files, animations, videos and other artifacts to supplement discussion. Anonymous discussion boards might be considered for topics that benefit from freedom of thought and expression, or as platforms for students to seek help on points of confusion.
- Encourage early and continual student engagement with the discussion tool: At the beginning of the course, create an assignment that invites students to introduce themselves to the class using the online discussion tool to build community, and give them practice using the tool. Create additional opportunities for students to utilize the tool over the course of the semester. Instructors can also consult Yale Canvas support services at the Center for Teaching and Learning for any questions on how to use the tools.
- Implement strategically as needed: Canvas features and apps can be re-implemented at any point during the course when more student engagement is desired.
- Ask for student input: Invite students to suggest which features and apps would be most useful for their learning and for building classroom community, and invite their constructive feedback after they utilize the tool.
Armstrong, M.A. (2011). Small World: Crafting an Inclusive Classroom (No Matter What You Teach). Thought and Action, Fall, 51-61.