Creating Inclusive Virtual Spaces

Edited by Olivia Lopez, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Virtual places of learning and work bring with them new challenges to maintaining inclusive and safe classrooms and workspaces. The rapid shift to virtual learning and working from home for large segments of the population in the US and globally in response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of these challenges, especially given little time for preparation. In order to address shifting workplace dynamics and accommodate individual needs in a time of heightened inequities, consider the following questions about differences in accessibility and impact. Below we provide a sample of readings on important topics to keep in mind for inclusive learning and working spaces.

Differences in accessibility

  • What are geographic and institutional restrictions to accessing physical working and learning spaces?
  • Are there individuals who lack access to resources needed to successfully participate in virtual workspaces, such as a computer, reliable internet, quiet space, uninterrupted time, etc.?
  • Can individuals of differing ability statuses comfortably engage in virtual work and learning?
    • For example: Sudden Remote Teaching – by Ryan Seslow raises some of the challenges of teaching in virtual classrooms for a deaf/hard of hearing professor
  • How do virtual work and learning accommodate changes in individuals' health (physical, mental), especially during a global pandemic?
  • How do we recognize unique challenges for those with caretaking responsibilities as well as those who live alone and can feel extreme isolation?
  • How does remote communication exacerbate power dynamics, silencing of voices in the classroom or committee and team meetings?

Differences in impact

Resources to help navigate teaching and working remotely and virtually

"Let's start the week by repeating that a summer of planning for better online learning this Fall will be wasted if we do not begin from the premise that our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, anger, and trauma."

- Cathy Davidson, The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course

Creating inclusive classrooms (see below for specific resources to online teaching)

Tips for teaching online

Other resources:

Tips for virtual meetings

For virtual meetings, it is helpful to align meeting goals with meeting structure and attendance, being mindful of power dynamics. Establish norms for respectful conversations or a code of conduct for online meetings.

  • See an example from Mozilla on developing and conveying community expectations for online meetings
    • These include requesting the following information be included in introductions/roll call/attendance records
      • Name / affiliation / pronouns / language(s) / location / social media
  • See the American Geophysical Union's guide for Best Practices for Inclusive Remote Meetings
  • Share expectations at the start of each call before any discussion is opened. An example set of expectations (read out loud by meeting host) is provided below:
    • Be respectful, honest, inclusive, accommodating, appreciative, and open to learning from everyone else.
    • Do not attack, demean, disrupt, harass, or threaten others or encourage such behavior.
    • See also: full Community Participation Guidelines here.
    • Issues: Identify who should be contacted with regards to problems during and after meeting and make sure meetings hosts know how to step in, mute or remove offending material or persons.

Other considerations:

Tips for large online meetings or conferences:

Tips for virtual collaborations:

Tips for dealing with hostile behaviors

Social media and online forms of communication increase risk of targeted harassment of underserved groups.

  • Refer to pre-established norms and expectations of behavior, include sanctions for removal of offending material and individuals
  • Practice online safety (check public/private settings, passwords, etc.)
  • Learn and practice bystander intervention
  • Hollaback! bystander resources
  • HeartMob: End online harassment

COVID-19 Specific Challenges to Equity and Accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities in our workplaces and broader society, including our universities and health care system. Here is a sample of readings to raise awareness and start conversations about the disproportionate impact on members of our communities: