How to Structure Your Online Class for Inclusion, Part 1

Student puts face in hands while looking at computer screen in bedroom

A bunch of black boxes on a video call. An empty discussion board. A student who hasn’t submitted any work all term. These might all be signs that students aren’t engaged with their online learning. But they also might be signs that students don’t have enough Internet access to participate in their online classes; they might be signs that students don’t know how to engage with their online learning; or they might be signs that students don’t feel included in their online class.

Student engagement is influenced by multiple factors in students’ lived experiences. The factors that prevent students from engaging in their classes may often be exacerbated by the conditions of online learning, from access gaps to lack of private spaces, and caregiving or household obligations. While instructors may not directly be able to influence the many gaps in support that students face in their personal lives, instructors can design online courses in ways that are attentive to fostering student inclusion.

Student engagement means more than just task completion. Many experts suggest that student engagement is when students have control or management of the learning process. But in truth, student engagement is when every student can access, participate, and collaborate with course content, peers, and instructors in an equitable and sustainable manner. When students and instructors moved to emergency remote teaching and learning, many faculty and members experienced a loss of engagement with each other. Fewer faculty-student engagements and student-student engagements made students and faculty alike feel dissatisfied with online teaching. So, what can we do about it? How can we ensure every student has an opportunity to access, participate in, and collaborate with each other online?

Online techniques for student engagement may take more exploration. Therefore, this guide is designed to respond to some common questions and concerns about eliciting student online engagement, while also offering new tips, frameworks, and strategies for structuring an online class to be inclusive.

Common Questions about Engaging Students Online

Whether faculty moved from in-person teaching to remote teaching, or seasoned online faculty found themselves teaching online more than ever, engaging students in the learning process and socially engaging with students in online spaces often raises several common questions:

How can I ask students to engage online if I don’t know what kind of Internet access they have at home?

We know that not all students will have the same access to Wi-Fi and broadband speeds. When we structure an online class for inclusion, that means we need to make sure that essential learning activities and materials are accessible to students regardless of how fast their Wi-Fi speeds are. That means that course materials, activities, and opportunities for engagement are available outside of high-bandwidth activities, like participating on live, streaming video calls (e.g. Zoom). This doesn’t mean that an online class structured for inclusion eliminates video calls; rather, an online class structured for inclusion simply gives students multiple opportunities to engage with each other.

For example, during a synchronous video class, instructors can encourage students to participate in the low-bandwidth chat space, rather than having to unmute a microphone or turn on a video camera to speak. Instructors might also have a live note-taking space, as in Google Docs or in Microsoft Teams, so that students can contribute to live note-taking as part of the class session to follow what’s happening in the class discussion.

To arrange for other low-bandwidth, real-time interactions, instructors can schedule chat room dialogues in their learning management system’s chat feature or in a “chat” tool, like Slack or Microsoft Teams. This means students can have a guided “chat stream” dialogue about core class themes or ideas.

Any essential course materials, like assignment sheets or the syllabus, should also be available for students to access outside of a high-bandwidth video call. This means creating a dedicated space for students to find and download text-based versions of all course content.

How do I know if my students are engaged and present in my class if I’m not meeting with them on a video (e.g. Zoom) call or if they don’t have their cameras on?

When you’re meeting with students face-to-face, it might look like they’re engaged because they’re sitting in a chair in the same room as you are. But the truth is, even when a student is immediately in front of you, it still might not be obvious whether they’re actually engaged. While in a face-to-face environment, we might be able to see more easily if students are disengaged through certain body language queues or social gestures, the ways that students perform engagement might look different, and many students are actively engaged even if they don’t appear to be so. For example, some students might be more engaged face-to-face if they are allowed to doodle or draw while listening to a conversation; drawing might not look like engagement, but it is and can be for many students.

When it comes to an online environment, then, assuming that a student is engaged simply because they have a camera turned on may be just that: an assumption. It feels much more pleasant to talk to a sea of faces than to talk to a screen of black boxes but requiring students to turn cameras on while in-class will not necessarily boost engagement. Many students may be listening, attentive, and interested in the material, but may not be able to turn their cameras on because they may be joining class from a public and distracting space, they may not have Wi-Fi capacity to support video streaming, or they may feel uncomfortable revealing the space that they are in.

Holding a synchronous video class session means that, as instructors, we are joining our students in their homes. As instructors, we need to be sensitive to the fact that many home spaces for students are not private, dedicated spaces for working in the way that a face-to-face classroom environment might be.

There are lots of creative ways to tell if students are engaged online even if they don’t have their cameras on. For example, you might ask students throughout the class session to:

  • Respond to polls
  • Contribute a written response to a question in the chat area of the video conference platform
  • Contribute a written response in a shared document
  • Add an image or a response to a discussion board posting

How do I encourage students to participate in online classes?

If you feel like you are getting “crickets” in either a live synchronous video class or on a discussion board, there are a number of strategies you might try. For example:

  1. Ask students what they want or need from your online class. It never hurts to check in with students on how they’re experiencing your class and, in an online context, this is even more important. If you feel like your prompts for conversation aren’t working, ask students (anonymously) how they’re feeling about the class and what would motivate them to be part of class conversations.
  2. Lower the barrier to entry. Entering into a new conversation, whether synchronous or asynchronous, can be scary at first. Think about “icebreaker” prompts or ideas that are easy for students to join in on or respond to. If your questions are long or your prompts for discussion forums respond to long answers, think about how you might break those tasks into smaller pieces.

How can I know if students are being honest about their own work in an online class?

There’s an old saying that “anyone on the Internet can be a dog.” When we can’t see, hear, or interact with the students in our class, they might not seem “real” to us. Similarly, if we haven’t seen our students, we might not know if they are the ones that are actually doing the work for our classes. That can feel a bit nerve-wracking and may raise elevated concerns about academic honesty in our classes.

The hard truth is that we’ve never been able to know for sure, in online or face-to-face contexts, that everything our students do is 100% their own work. But we can make efforts to get to know our students to the best of our abilities and design assessment experiences that are meaningful and that may prevent students from the temptation to cheat. In the Resources section of this article, we’ll point you to some places where these resources are available.

*In Part 2, we’ll discuss two principles for fostering engagement online:
1) Building community to foster engagement online and
2) Creating options for students to engage online

Recommended resources:



Teaching in Higher Ed
Lecture Breakers
With a Side of Knowledge
Tea for Teaching
Think UDL


Virda, R. (2020, February, 5th). Creating community in online classrooms. Inside Higher Ed.

Banna, J., Lin, M.-F. G., Stewart, M., & Fialkowski, M. K. (2015). Interaction matters: Strategies to promote engaged learning in an online introductory nutrition course. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11(2), 249–261.

Baran, E., Correia, A. P., & Thompson, A. (2011). Transforming online teaching practice: Critical analysis of the literature on the roles and competencies of online teachers. Distance Education, 32(3), 421-439.

Lee, S. M. (2014). The relationships between higher order thinking skills, cognitive density, and social presence in online learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 21, 41-52.

Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 77-88.

Black, E. W., Dawson, K., & Priem, J. (2008). Data for free: Using LMS activity logs to measure community in online courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 11 (2), 65-70.

Dr. Jenae Cohn writes and speaks about digital pedagogy and online teaching and learning. She currently works as the director of academic technology at California State University, Sacramento, and has held prior roles at Stanford University and the University of California, Davis. A trained writing instructor, Cohn has taught online, hybrid, and face-to-face composition courses, and supports faculty in the development of courses across modalities. She offers workshops on topics related to online instruction, humanities pedagogy, and digital literacy. Dr. Jenae Cohn is the author of Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading (West Virginia University Press, 2021). Skim, Dive, Surface invites conversation about the spectrum of affordances available within digital learning environments.

Dr. Courtney Plotts writes and speaks about culturally responsive teaching and community building. She has written two books on Latino/a and Black culture and online spaces. She is currently the National Chair of the Council for At Risk Student Education and Professional Standards. She has been recognized by the California State Legislature for A Bold Commitment to Change and Education. She offers workshops on topics related to building community and culture in online spaces, effective culturally responsive teaching, and best practices. 


Brown, S. K. & Burdsal, C. A. (2006). An exploration of student success using the national survey of student engagement. Journal of General Education, 61(4) 433-460.

Counseling For At Risk Student Education and Professional Standards. (2020) Standards and Practice Guide.

Kanevsky, L., & Keighley, T. (2003). To Produce or Not to Produce? Understanding Boredom and the Honor in Underachievement. Roeper Review: A Journal on Gifted Education, 26(1), 20–28.

Pacansky-Brock et al., 2020,

Plotts, C. (2020, May, 14th). Healing in Higher Education. [Webinar]. Magna. Publication. 

Rovai, A.P. & Gallien, L.B. (2005). Learning a sense of community. A comparative analysis of African American and Caucisian online graduate students. The Journal of Negro Education 74(1)53-62

Tu, C., Corry, M. (2002). eLearning Communities. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 3(2), 207- 218.