TEACHING AT PITT: Diversity practices for teaching online


If one thing is certain in an online classroom, it is that the class will include students with many differences: different genders, identities, religions, linguistic and economic backgrounds, and cultures. It is important to design a course that respects the diversity of our students so that there is a sense of welcoming and appreciation for all students.

The following four guidelines can assist you in developing and maintaining a respectful online classroom environment.

1. Examine your own stereotypes and biases

Work to recognize any biases or stereotypes you may knowingly, or unknowingly, carry. Make an effort to eliminate any of these that reduce a welcoming environment. Honestly ask yourself the following questions: What are my identities and biases? How do these relate to my online learners? You can enhance your awareness and deeply reflect on your implicit assumptions by completing a social attitudes survey at Project Implicit.

2. Diversify course content

Include course readings that represent a spectrum of authors with diverse genders, cultures, linguistic backgrounds, religions and socioeconomic statuses. Case studies, treatment plans or websites can be opportunities to introduce a variety of cultures into your online discussions.

Select texts and readings with language that is gender-neutral and free of stereotypes or cite the shortcomings of material that does not meet these criteria.

If images of people are used in materials such as PowerPoint slides, assignments or discussions, make it a point to include visual representations of different genders, ethnicities and cultures that reflect the entire student population.

Subject matter librarians can assist you in finding materials and resources that support diversity in your discipline. Contact the ULS Subject Specialists

3. Provide ground rules for discussion board

At the beginning of the semester or module, make students aware of controversial topics that may come up and provide guidance on how to appropriately discuss these topics. State guidelines in the syllabus for respectful communication and exchange of ideas in the discussions. An example is provided here:

When posting on the Discussion Board in your online class, you should:

• Make posts that are on topic and within the scope of the course material.

• Take your posts seriously and review and edit your posts before submitting.

• Be as brief as possible while still making a thorough comment.

• Always give proper credit when referencing or quoting another source.

• Be sure to read all messages in a thread before replying.

• Don’t repeat someone else’s post without adding something of your own to it.

• Avoid short, generic replies such as, “I agree.” You should include why you agree or add to the previous point.

• Always be respectful of others’ opinions even when they differ from your own.

• When you disagree with someone, you should express your differing opinion in a respectful, non-critical way.

• Do not make personal or insulting remarks.

• Be open-minded.

4. Accommodate online learners with special needs

Accommodations include making sure students know how to obtain support, navigate course materials for readability, and accessibility of text.  For example, make it a point to include captions and transcripts for recorded lectures. Transcripts and captions benefit many students including international and non-traditional students, and students on mobile devices. The captions provide cognitive reinforcement as students read and hear major concepts at the same time. Transcripts are downloadable and searchable, which serve as valuable study aids. For information on accommodating students with special needs, contact Disability Resources and Services.

Finally, take advantage of the University Center for Teaching and Learning’s array of workshops, programs and materials to help faculty build diversity into their courses to create an inclusive learning environment. Explore the Faculty Knowledge Base for a resource bank of technology tools, best practices, and how-to guides. The Teaching Center staff also is available for one-to-one consultations by request at teaching@pitt.edu.

For additional resources on the topic of enhancing diversity practices in online courses, please review the following references:

  • Landis, K. (Ed). (2008). Start talking: A handbook for engaging difficulty dialogues in higher education. Anchorage, AK: University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University.
  • Linder, K. E., & Hayes, C. M. (2018).  High-impact practices in online education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.


Charline Rowland is the Diversity Program coordinator and Barbara Frey is a senior instructional designer with Pitt Online in the University Center for Teaching and Learning.