Learning to practice inclusion online

Behrang Foroughi
Arizona State University





Abstract – Given the increasing presence of online education in and out of Academia, we adult and community education practitioners must engage with online learning while enhancing our understanding of adult learning as it takes place on online platforms. This article shares a highlight of my learning through my continuous journey towards the effective and inclusive design and delivery of online professional courses (e-courses) on community leadership, development and inclusion. More specifically, I will discuss how the patterns of communication within the online learning platform, and the manner in which the course content is developed and delivered, significantly affect learners’ sense of inclusion.

I am a working adult educator, and have been involved in a variety of community development initiatives and non-profit organisations in the Middle East and North America. Recently, I joined Academia as an assistant professor of Community and International Development. I am also involved in both in-person and online courses for University students as well as practitioners in the non-profit and voluntary sector. My appreciation of online education is simple: It has substantively expanded formal learning opportunities that are more accessible, flexible, and even more affordable (Cocquyt et al. 2017). For these reasons, many adult learners choose and prefer e-courses to complete their University ­degrees or professional certificates. Learners in an e-course also have more time and flexibility to engage with the content, in class interactions and in discussions. Every learner also has an equal opportunity to be heard, which is a notable challenge in in-person classrooms.

In spite of the increasing and significant presence of online education, adult education scholars and practitioners have not been substantively engaged with e-courses that deal with community development. Web-based delivery has increased access and flexibility to adult learners, but my concern remains for e-courses in our field to become a reservoir of information and content that online teachers, through traditional and didactic pedagogical frameworks, deliver to individual learners. We must substantively engage with online education to improve the practice while increasing our understanding of adult learning as it occurs online. This article is one such effort, and presents my reflections on ways in which I endeavour to align my practice of online teaching with the principles of inclusion that I preach in my everyday adult and community education wo

The deficit lens

Let me first explain what I understand as inclusion when it comes to teaching and learning. Inclusivity is mostly viewed through a deficit lens – that is, to ensure that those students who need extra help are “brought up to a normal standard by redressing their deficits”. However, being inclusive, I believe, must be about acknowledging, valuing and engaging with the diversity of experiences – of being and doing – and forms of knowledge that students bring to the learning forum. And this principle of inclusion must align curriculum design and delivery with learning assessment. An inclusive curriculum must therefore be “responsive to” and build on “the knowledge base of students” (McLoughlin 2001: 12,13) and must be reflected in both learning and assessment activities. In my attempts to practice inclusion online, I found that there is a significant interlink between course content and in-course communications. As we shall see, the patterns of communication, and how the content is developed and delivered, significantly affect learners’ sense of inclusion.

“I have learned that to enhance learner inclusion and engagement, my role is to allow and enable varied patterns of communication.”

Course communication

Patterns of communication determine the ways in which learners choose to engage with a course. Most often, the main form of expression and communication is through writing. Students tend to, and often feel pressured to, follow the exclusive rules and styles of academic language, which inhibit some, while privileging others. They also tend to value one form of expression and validation of knowledge – that is, through written texts – more than others. I have found that allowing and encouraging different ways of expression enhances student presence and affirms a sense of self with which learners may be more comfortable.

Using audio and video, for example, is one recommended strategy, and there are a variety of tools that enable audio and video conversations. But creating audio and video content demands sophisticated tools yet inaccessible to many. So, where feasible, I encourage and enable audio-video conversations and content creation. For example, I ask learners to create short video reactions to a case study, share a short video summary of a completed module, or a video feedback on each other’s presentations. In addition, I also allow and encourage learner communication in such alternative forms as poetry, the spoken word, stories, thinking maps, drawings, and collages so that they experience different ways of expression and sharing. What I have found specifically engaging is to inspire creative ways of reflection on the course discussions. For example, I asked learners to share a highlight from a thread of written discussions on Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope through either a poem using the existing words in the discussion thread, or a set of connected images depicted in a tableau. I then asked them to draft an outline of a workshop for a specific audience in a community setting using the poem and/or the tableau as the main learning tool. From this, I have learned that to enhance learner inclusion and engagement, my role is to allow and enable varied patterns of communication. This increases students’ comfort in their ways of communication and interaction; therefore, it enhances their online presence and promotes the practice of inclusion of different ways of being, learning, and knowing.

Tools such as Wikispaces and VoiceThread that students need in order to create audio and video contents, images, murals and tableaux have been made increasingly accessible. However, I always allow time and provide support to less technologically savvy students to practice and learn the technology. Or, I simply allow them to use pen and paper and post images of their work online, instead of creating it digitally.

How not to say too much

One other significant element initially determining the pattern of communication is course introductions. Introductions are stepping stones to building a community, which is essential in supporting learning in an e-course. How familiar the learners are with each other and how much they want to initially share about themselves in a group of strangers dictates patterns of communication throughout the course. I asked learners to give detailed introductions about themselves at the beginning of a course, which is a common practice in face-to-face adult education courses. However, in so doing, I found tensions on two counts. First off, some are hesitant to share too much personal information and life stories on an online platform, where it remains permanently. Secondly, detailed introductions at the beginning of a course may highlight differences too soon, revealing incompatibilities amongst learners (Hughes 2007). In other words, while some provide brief, shallow introductions, others share detailed personal stories along with academic and professional achievements, all narrated in varying styles. This diverse range of self-presentation impacts on a learner’s engagement and patterns of communication.

Research provides no perfect panacea. My solution is a guided and gradual practice of introductions in connection with several learning activities. For example, first I invite learners to briefly share their study majors or work affiliations, a simple introduction. Then, I ask them to share a moment of significant learning or practice vis-à-vis the course topic. For example, in a Community Leadership course, I ask them to name a leadership trait that they believe they have and explain how they have come to acquire it. In pairs or small groups, they analyse each other’s remarks and present an analysis of how they learn leadership. Or, in an Inclusive Community Development course, I ask them to present an event or an initiative – organised by themselves or their organisations – of which they are specifically proud. Following this, in small groups they discuss their examples and share the values, embedding such practices of inclusion. Where possible, I ask these small groups to meet in person, or virtually using accessible tools such as Skype or Google Hangout. These guided practices of introduction help learners relate to and better understand each other through co-creation of meaning drawn from their own life moments and attributes of significance. This, I believe, supports a sense of community among learners, while alleviating the tensions associated with sharing detailed personal intro­ductions.

The balancing act of the teacher

The teacher’s presence in establishing patterns of commu­nication is significant. What I constantly wrestle with is finding an optimal level of presence in my e-courses. The way I interact with learners, my communication style and frequency of my input are all significant markers of my presence. For example, I have found that sharing information related to learners’ personal and professional interests and goals, as a sign of empathy, encourages learners’ engagement (Sheridan & Kelly 2010).

In order to enhance my online presence through showing empathy, I endeavour to connect with individual learners through sharing appreciation notes in relation to their participation. I frequently integrate short videos in order to connect with students at a more personal and informal level. I make myself available at hours outside of work, for they are working practitioners with full-time work and family lives. I frequently use a course announcement as a tool to enhance my overall presence, for example I share names and highlights from individual and group work in order to further encourage collaboration and engagement. Learners do appreciate it when they realise that their work is read and cared for beyond grading purposes and is noted and valued as significant content. The way I have designed and organised my e-courses often demands my full engagement and presence beyond the required weekly hours of instruction. This is a major challenge, and requires strict time management on my part.

© Nhung Le

Content creation

There is a growing pedagogical trend in Higher Education that incorporates social constructivism, the social/situational orientation to learning (Smith 1999), into the main paradigm of education. Here the learner is central, and learning takes place through communities that regulate, direct, and to some extent determine, their learning goals and paths to achieve those goals. The teacher is a facilitator, an enabler of the learning space and a mentor for the learning experience. Such collaborative approaches to learning and learner empowerment are congruent with decades of Freirean-inspired adult and community education. Drawing from social constructionism theory, what shapes learner engagement is the course structure, and here the components of the online platform and the course design. Let us take a closer look at the dynamics between content development and learning outcomes through the eyes of an adult educator.

The rapid growth of online University programmes has been made possible by and large through major Instructional Design (ID) standards and support in planning, implementing, and assessing e-courses. According to Quality Matters (QM), the leading organisation in quality assurance for course design standards in online education, Instructional Design is a systematic process, employed to guide learning in a consistent manner on an online platform1. It sets a clearly-guided learning path towards a defined set of learning objectives, and if designed properly it shows a direct alignment between learning objectives, activities and assessment, and it is clearly presented at the onset of an e-course. Following Quality Matters, a proficient online educator establishes “measurable, precise, consistent & clear learning (and performance) objectives”, and must provide a structured learning environment to guide learners through distinct activities aligned with the objectives. This often employs rigid weekly modules and assignments with learners as individuals or in groups studying in some form in an imposed time-bound framework towards the objectives defined for them. This is to draw a clear expectation of the activities and the learning purposes. In a nutshell, Quality Matters and Instructional Design intend to facilitate a smooth content delivery from the instructor through the online platform to the learner, and the learner is made aware of what she/he is supposed to learn and how the assessment will be conducted.

Tension in the system

In following Quality Matters and Instructional Design standards, I have found tensions. For example, Instructional Design’s focus on achievement of performance objectives and content delivery in alignment with pre-set learning objectives (Reiser & Dempsey 2011) may be inconsistent with adult education’s emphasis on learner-centred engagements and interactions as well as support for self-directed and collaborative inquiry. In upholding Instructional Design recommendations, online educators contradict one significant adult education principle, which is the construction of content in negotiation among the learners and the facilitators. Additionally, following Instructional Design standards restrains the flow of activities primarily towards pre-set learning and performance objectives; and this presumed expectation inhibits learners to co-create, affirm and contest learning as they relate to each other and their experiences.

“Learners own their learning when they participate in creating its content.”

What I have learned through reflection and student feedback is congruent with a basic adult education principle stating that learners own their learning when they participate in creating its content. In other words, I have learned to allow learners to enter an activity in the form of an open forum, and encourage and facilitate content co-creation through sharing and reflection of learners’ relevant experiences and stories. Learning is enriched when learners are enthusiastically engaged in self-directed inquiries that are connected with their personal concerns, goals and experiences while shared and discussed in a support group of peers. Within this pool of personal narratives, I invite them to explore what stands out for them given their interest, care, and assessment. I make them discuss their takeaways in small groups, and to the extent possible, draw principles and guidelines and articulate them to an audience of their choosing (e.g. future generation of health practitioners in a public housing complex, or youth outreach workers in a specific part of town). Next, I provide them with a variety of similar stories and inquires available via different online media. This is to mirror their learning in light of the recommendations, strategies, and guidelines shared by other known organisations or groups of practitioners. Thirdly, I engage them with some critical reading of the most relevant literature. By then they have already created substantive content out of their personal stories and other self-selected initiatives. So, the delivery of specific academic content occurs at a later stage and in relation with their takeaway. This adds another significant layer to their analysis. Student feedback was consistently positive on allowing them to co-create content prior to their encounter with the academic scholarship. This I believe is in harmony with an adult education principle that suggests that the learner is the content of her/his own learning. Finally, I ask them to present a community action plan along with their professional portfolio in relation to the proposed action plan. This helps them imagine and evaluate their capabilities and skills within a scenario they had gradually designed for a familiar context to which they belong.


I have briefly presented here how I am involved in exploring ways to practice adult education values and principles in creating online learning journeys for students and practitioners of community development. I emphasised that the processes of content creation and in-course communication are two significant aspects in enabling inclusive learning. I believe that it is time adult educators engaged with online education and such pedagogical standards as Quality Matters. We must establish conversations with Instructional Design, as a growing academic discipline, and connect with instructional designers in our respective institutions to practice and co-create Instructional Design strategies that are congruent with our core adult education values.


1 / For more on Quality Matters, see www.qualitymatters.org/


Cocquyt, C.; Diep, N. A.; Zhu, C.; De Graeef, M. & Vanwing, T. (2017): Examining social inclusion and social capital among adult learners in blended and online learning environments. In: European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, 8 (1), 77–101.

Hughes, G. (2007): Diversity, identity and belonging in e-learning communities: some theories and paradoxes. In: Teaching in Higher Education, 12 (5–6), 709–720.

McLoughlin, C. (2001): Inclusivity and alignment: Principles of pedagogy, task and assessment design for effective cross-cultural online learning. In: Distance Education, 22(1), 7–29.

Reiser, R.A., & Dempsey, J.V. (Eds.) (2011): Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed.). Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Sheridan, K. & Kelly, M. (2010): The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses. In: Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6 (4).

Smith, M. K. (1999): The social/situational orientation to learning. In: The encyclopaedia of informal education. http://bit.ly/2rvh6IG

About the author

Behrang Foroughi is an Assistant Pro­fessor at Arizona State University, where he works in the areas of Commu­nity Leadership, Social Innovation and ­International Development. His community development practice has involved work­ing with nomadic and indigenous communities, non-profit leaders and social activists in the Middle East and North America.


Adult Education and Development


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