Digital Learning Blog

Inclusive Teaching and Beyond: The Need for Institutional Change

by | Jun 3, 2024 | Digital Learning Blog

“Inclusion” has become a post-pandemic buzzword in many universities, highlighting historical inequities within a broader crisis in higher education. As universities face record levels of student despair and disconnection, campuses across the country report dropping enrollments and widening disparities in educational outcomes. This has spurred an unprecedented movement to rethink higher education, where fiscal demands and social concerns align. The focus on learning science is intensifying, with research emphasizing that support and accommodation programs can help students persist in their learning while addressing disparities in post-pandemic distress and overall mental health.

At the same time, further efforts are essential to advance inclusion and equity on campuses, particularly due to structural discrimination and latent attitudinal biases. There is a pressing need to have the values of fairness and equity more broadly reflected in admissions policies, faculty hiring, demographics, administrative policies, and leadership. These areas require proactive efforts to change the culture of the university itself, ensuring that initiatives are not only reactive but also part of a strategic, comprehensive approach to cultivate a truly inclusive educational environment. Such changes are vital to not only address immediate disparities but also to lay the groundwork for sustained progress in higher education equity.

Within this context, the changing demographics of the undergraduate population have prompted a reevaluation of traditional teaching methodologies. The typical four-year, full-time student model is increasingly becoming an anomaly as students today are more likely to balance their academic pursuits with work and family commitments. At UCI, this reality is reflected in the composition of the student body, comprising growing numbers of first-generation (49%), low-income (46%), and Pell Grant-supported (38%) students, as well as those from historically marginalized communities.1 These students face a myriad of challenges, from juggling family responsibilities (52%) to navigating inadequate study environments (48%), necessitating a pedagogical approach that is as diverse and adaptable as the student body itself.2

DTEI’s Inclusive Teaching Institute (ITI), launched two years with support from the Office of Inclusive Excellence, works to meet these challenges.3 By promoting practices that enhance digital literacy, embrace Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and foster community building and compassionate learning, the ITI aims to create a learning environment that is equitable, accessible, and conducive to the well-being of all students. Inclusive teaching at UCI goes beyond the mere diversification of content; it is about recognizing the “diversity” of students learning needs in reimagining the “how” of teaching, ensuring that course structures, language, and assessment practices are designed in a manner that acknowledges and supports the varied needs and aspirations of all students.

The ITI’s approach to teaching is grounded in the belief that good intentions alone are just the beginning. The pursuit of inclusive learning in a multidimensional effort on three levels: Diverse Content: insuring that course topics and materials will hold relevance to diverse backgrounds and identities to promote engagement and and belonging in the pedagogical encounter: Holistic Design: applying inclusion principles in every aspect of course planning, delivery, and assessment to insure a comprehensively equitable experience of for all students; Responsive Instruction: evaluation of course design, classroom methods, and student experience through the lens of inclusivity. Central to this endeavor are two guiding questions: “Who might be left behind by my current practices?” and “How can I invite those students in?”4

While initiatives like ITI offer valuable tools, achieving true inclusivity demands a national reckoning. The rise of these programs across the country reflects a growing recognition that effective pedagogy is just one piece of a much bigger institutional puzzle. The actions of individual instructors exist within the larger contexts departments, schools, and universities, each of which requires scrutiny in relation to equity and inclusion. Campuses also need to examine the historical role they may have played in upholding social inequities, as well as continuing imbalances in faculty and leadership demographics, or administrative policies that unintentionally advantage/disadvantage certain groups. Fortunately, a growing literature now exists to help

think through principles of inclusion and beyond. These publications offer a critical lens for understanding the complexities of campus equity and charting a path toward a more just and equitable future.

UCI’s own ITI workshops have used Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom by Kelly Hogan and Viji Sathy. This highly accessible book opens with a discussion of providing “structure” in courses as it means of ensuring clarity about course components and study skill support to learners. After that come dozens of practical tips to enhance course design, syllabi, assignments, class, activities, discussions, communications, office hours, and much more. Inclusive Teaching has proven to be an excellent resource at UCI, which also is available as a free download from the UCI Libraries

One of the most widely cited works in this genre is Sarah Ahmed ‘s On Inclusion: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life.5 In the book, Ahmed discusses the limitations of individual programs within universities in making broad-based change within universities. She draws a critical distinction between institutional rhetoric (“saying”) and institutional action (“doing”) on issues of diversity and inclusion. Colleges and universities issue statements, set up diversity offices, and otherwise “tick boxes” in performative gestures that often do little to address deeper inequities. Moreover, such efforts sometimes have the additional effects of diverting attention from white privilege while suggesting that equity issues have been “solved.”

Radical Inclusion: Seven Steps to Help You Create a More Just Workplace, Home, and World by David Moinina Seng looks at systemic change based on Seng’s own experience as Minister of Education in Sierra Leone. 6 Recounting his efforts on behalf of women and girls in that nation’s public schools, Seng walks readers through a systematic program of identifying exclusion, assembling stakeholders, building coalitions, advocating more broadly, and then working to solidify what he terms a “new normal.” As a step-by-step advocacy guide, Radical Inclusion can be helpful for anyone at a university feeling daunted about where to begin a program for change. As Seng writes, “the kind of systemic changes that radical inclusion demands can only come from sustained and definitive actions at both the micro and macro, or individual and society, level.”

Continuing the theme of of how bring about change is The Resilient University: How Purpose and Inclusion Drive Student Success by Freeman A. Hrabowski III, et. al.7 As suggested in the the volume’s title. Hrabowski leans into theme of adaptability and continual improvement as he builds on previous writing he has done on empowerment. Changing an organization depends, first of all, in recognizing complexity in large institutions, then in developing persuasive narratives, and finally in recruiting key change agents (leaders as well as other influencers) in the effort. Persistence matters greatly in a relentless “habit of mind” because “Success is never final in a constantly evolving world.”

This message of ongoing work and continual challenge is especially important in these challenging times for higher education in the US. The good news is that universities across the nation, including UC campuses like UCI, are actively responding and innovating in this ever-changing landscape. However, achieving true inclusivity requires a national conversation and sustained action at both the individual and institutional levels. A critical distinction exists between rhetoric and action on diversity and inclusion. Colleges and universities must move beyond performative gestures and tackle deeper inequities. While inclusive teaching is a vital first step, it’s not enough. A comprehensive strategy is needed to transform the cultural fabric of universities. This means embedding inclusivity into every facet of campus life, ultimately setting a national precedent for more equitable practices in higher education.

1 UCI Forum on the First-Year Experience

2 UC Undergraduate Experience Survey

3 UCI Inclusive Teaching Institute

4 Kelly A. Hogan and Viji Sathy, Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom

5 Sarah Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Inclusion in Institutional Life

6 David Moinina Seng, Radical Inclusion: Seven Steps to Help You Create a More Just Workplace, Home, and World

7 Freeman A. Hrabowski III, et. al., The Resilient University: How Purpose and Inclusion Drive Student Success

About the Author

David TrendDavid Trend
Professor, Claire Trevor School of the Arts

David Trend is a Professor in the Department of Art at the University of California, Irvine. Before arriving at UC Irvine in 1997, Trend was dean of Creative Arts at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA, where he developed multimedia partnerships with schools and corporations in Silicon Valley. Prior to that, Trend was graduate program coordinator in the Inter-Arts Center of San Francisco State University. During the past fifteen years, Trend has been a frequent consultant for foundations, state arts and humanities councils, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Trend’s teaching draws connections among the fields of cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and media analysis. Courses he has taught at UCI include Language and Vision in Everyday Life, A Culture Divided, Issues in Media Violence and Fear, Seminar in Cultural Activism and Radical Democracy, Issues in K-12 Education, and Media, Art, and Technology.

In recent years, David has played a vital role in supporting DTEI faculty development programs. He and Megan Linos, DTEI’s Director of Digital and Online Learning, received the 2022 Confronting Extremism through Community, Thriving and Wellness award, which supported 40+ faculty and graduate students cultivating a DEI-A culture in the classroom via the first Inclusive Teaching Institute in Spring 2023.