8 Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Online

Robyn Ruttenberg-Rozen and Allyson Eamer


Online learning has the potential to be a learning space centred on justice and equity. Researchers have identified practices that can transform online learning into areas that support equity, diversity, decolonization, and inclusion principles. Caruthers and Friend (2014) label this type of space a thirdspace. A thirdspace is where all members of the class share authority and the instructor actively and purposefully supports each member’s strengths and growth potential. Teaching and designing a thirdspace requires an iterative approach with much thought and reflection throughout a course’s design, implementation, and post-teaching. A course director constantly reflects on their position in relation to their students and asks questions about authority and growth:

  • How am I sharing my authority in the classroom?
  • Do students have opportunities to share their strengths?
  • How am I becoming aware of the strengths of my students?
  • How can I help my students to navigate difficult conversations?
  • How do I encourage productive discomfort within a respectful context in classroom discussions?

Before COVID 19, there was scant research regarding using EDI principles to teach critically in online spaces. With COVID 19, there has been more interest in this type of research. We note a new publication edited by Erin Mikulec and Tania Ramalho (2022) entitled Best Practices in Teaching Critical Pedagogy Online. We refer the reader to our chapter in this book (Ruttenberg-Rozen et al., 2022) for a detailed practice-based example about using critical pedagogy in online spaces.

General Guidelines

Practically, Guthrie and McCracken (2010) recommend four design components to support an EDI teaching framework. The first design component, planning for community and discussions, is foundational to the other three design components: planning for critical inquiry engagement, planning for autonomy and planning for implementation. In what follows, we share Guthrie and McCracken’s (2010) design components with recommendations for implementation and consideration with certain groups of students.

Planning for Community and Discussions

Class discussions and course content with embedded themes of equity, diversity and inclusion often evoke trepidation within both students and instructors. Fear of misspeaking, being ‘called out’ or ‘cancelled’ for using incorrect terminology or being oblivious to one’s privilege can inhibit meaningful dialogue within learning communities. Focusing on ‘intent’ and ‘growth’ will minimize polarizing forces. While one’s choice of words may reveal knowledge gaps, considering the contributor’s intent can influence whether others respond by educating or punishing the offender. For example, when someone says “I don’t see colour,” they could mean “I don’t believe one’s race impacts their life opportunities” or “I have relationships with people of many diverse backgrounds.” A punitive approach would involve calling that person out for not recognizing their white privilege or the power structures that drive racialization. Yet, we could also take an educative approach by exploring the political implications of being racialized. Then, we can discuss why persons of colour do not have the privilege of claiming not to see race. The same is valid for focussing on growth. By approaching EDI content and discussions with a shared understanding that ‘all of us in our learning community will get some things wrong, the instructor fosters a sense of commitment to helping each other learn/grow.

Students will require explicit instruction about what Callan (2011) calls ‘good faith contributions’ tied to a presumption that each of our peers is competent and trustworthy and sincerely seeking to advance the common pursuit of truth. In civil discourse, our demeanour tells the people we’re interacting with that we are willing to assume they are competent and trustworthy. Suppose a person’s contribution to a discussion appears to be untrustworthy. In that case, instructors need to be prepared to distinguish between offensive comments that require calling out (using authority to silence hate speech) and those that require calling in (reasoning openly with a student who makes more muted discriminatory remarks). Callan cautions instructors to be mindful that minoritized students have the right to expect protection within the classroom, so failing to deal with overt discrimination sends the message that students may not be safe.

Collaboratively established discussion guidelines can become the higher authority to which anyone in the class can appeal if they feel the discussion has become uncivil. These guidelines should not eliminate productive discomfort (where learning takes place) but should ensure a respectful exchange of ideas. Arao and Clemens (2013) and Ravitch (2020) have put forward a brave space pedagogy model that calls for participants to acknowledge that it can feel difficult and risky to talk about social justice issues and that it requires bravery to engage in these discussions. They recommend developing a set of ground rules along the following lines:

  1. Agree to Disagree.
  2. Own your intentions and your impact.
  3. Challenge by choice and with reflection.
  4. Respect with an awareness of various cultural understandings of respect.
  5. Challenge – don’t attack.

There are myriad examples of community conversation guidelines that we can use as models for establishing the ground rules for the classroom. The Truth and Reconciliation Conversations Initiative [1:18], for example, proposes five commitments: Compassionate Empathy, Courageous Listening, Painful Conversations, Social Reckoning and Spiritual Reconciliation. Other models include the Crucial Conversations Model, whose tenets are: Master my Stories, Start with Heart, State my Path, Make it Safe, Learn to Look, Seek Mutual Purpose, Explore Others’ Paths, Move to Action). Regardless of the approach taken (commitment, action, mindset or covenant guidelines), this must be a collaborative effort involving student input. In developing the ground rules, all voices must be honoured to ensure that all voices are honoured in the following discussions.

Planning for Critical Inquiry Engagement

The design component of critical inquiry engagement represents both interrogation and action. The first part of this component, critical inquiry, “invites the process of naming, identifying, and interrogating belief systems, practices, policies, and systematic structures as a means of dismantling and transforming” (Medina, 2020, p. 118). Community is integral to critical inquiry because, to dismantle and transform, students need to feel that they are in a safe space. The second part of this component, engagement, is active and infers active verbs such as passion and curiosity (Groccia, 2018). When we engage students in critical inquiry, we want them to be active learners- actively thinking deeply about systemic issues- actively naming and identifying barriers- actively interrogating belief systems.

In planning for this type of active critical inquiry engagement- the first step is to create a moment of surprise that initiates a revisiting and challenging of what students think they know. A student progresses through levels of awareness once they encounter a moment of surprise (Hadzigeorgiou, 2014; Ruttenberg-Rozen, 2020).

  1. First, students challenge their previously held beliefs. They begin to wonder if what they know is as accurate as they think it is.
  2. The wondering propels students to want to learn more.
  3. As students explore new understandings, they accept that new ways of viewing the ideas are possible.
  4. Students begin to make connections between ideas.

Many different teaching approaches can create that moment of surprise, although they all take careful planning. One teaching approach for provoking surprise is reading (academic, blog posts, or newspaper articles). Then after students complete the reading, ask critical and penetrating questions that generate surprise. Another example we have previously written about (Ruttenberg-Rozen et al., 2022) is to develop an activity in which students encounter their previous beliefs in surprising new ways. We then ask students to write a post-reflection to reflect on their surprise and new understanding. The Power Flower activity below is an example of this type of activity. Quick activities in class that provoke surprise might be showing a video or asking a provocative question and then having students go into small groups to do a think/pair/share. In a think/pair/share:

  1. Course instructors first ask a question, then
  2. Students are asked to think about an answer, then
  3. After students think about the question, they go into small groups to share their thoughts.

Planning for Autonomy

For learners to feel part of a community, they also need to feel autonomy and agency in that community. Learner autonomy is about taking ownership of one’s learning, and learner agency is about proactively engaging with learning. The competencies proposed by the Ontario Ministry of Education (which draw on those developed by the Council of Ministers of Education Canada) include a series of skills related to learner autonomy. Within the competency named “Learning to Learn” are the following descriptors (Ministry of Education, 2016, p. 56):

  • learns the process of learning;
  • believes in the ability to learn and grow;
  • perseveres and overcomes challenges to reach a goal;
  • self-regulates to become a lifelong learner;
  • reflects on experience to enhance learning;
  • cultivates emotional intelligence to understand self and others;
  • adapts to change and shows resilience to adversity; and
  • manages various aspects of life – physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being.

Teaching skills of learner autonomy enables learners to have agency in their learning. Educators can facilitate the development of learner autonomy through the way we structure assignments (scaffolding assignments so that each builds on the previous) and provide feedback/feedforward to ensure personalized growth. Furthermore, a social constructivist approach in the classroom and access to digital tools for self-directed learning contribute to learner autonomy.

Planning for Implementation

The final design component is intentional in planning learning that centers around community, critical inquiry engagement and autonomy. It is not enough to plan for only one design component because all components work together. There is no autonomy without community, and there is no challenging the system without autonomy. Likewise, there needs to be a safe communal space to challenge the system. Planning for implementation, then, is about ensuring and being intentional that activities, assignments, discussions and lectures include opportunities for all the design components and that all the design components are present in every class. We have shared examples of activities that support the design components and can be included in your course design descriptions. However, we also encourage you to think about the activities you currently use in your courses and how they can be modified and leveraged to purposefully include opportunities for community, critical inquiry engagement and learner autonomy.


Activity 1: Problem Tree Analysis


We initially found the problem tree activity when exploring lesson plans to support our teaching of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). A problem tree activity aims to identify critical issues within more significant complex social problems and then think critically about the causes and effects. By identifying critical issues, students take a large, often seemingly insurmountable, problem and deconstruct it into smaller parts. Students can then brainstorm ideas about the smaller parts. The learning benefit of using this activity lies in the acts of deconstruction and analysis. If you do a quick Google search on problem tree activity, you can see that many organizations have used the activity in different ways, all to support critical thinking around important and complex issues. Below, we share our adaption of the activity for post-secondary students (undergraduate and graduate students) in our courses. The main design components of this activity are planning for community and discussions and planning for critical inquiry engagement of the activity for post-secondary students (undergraduate and graduate students) in our courses. The main design components of this activity are planning for community and discussions and planning for critical inquiry engagement.


This activity works well for introducing complex ideas drawing on prior knowledge, and consolidating the class. In our graduate courses’ second to last class, we will often use this activity to summarize the course’s big ideas and use the problem tree as a springboard for thinking about the so what’s part of the course.

  • We set this activity up on Jamboard, where each group of students can work on a slide. It is essential to have 1 or 2 Jamboards with slides for groups to do the gallery walk later.
  • Before introducing the activity, we share previous problem trees as examples. We discuss the problem trees, their purpose (identify and analyze issues embedded in more significant complex social problems), and their construction.
  • We then share that our students will identify an issue tied to what we are learning in the course and want to explore further.
  • Break students into groups. The size of the groups varies depending on the class size, but we find groups of 2-4 students are best in both our undergraduate and graduate classes.
  • Either ask each group to draw a tree (roots, trunk and branches), or you can set up each slide with a tree template beforehand.
  • Here are the instructions on our PowerPoint slides (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

PowerPoint Slides for the Activity Problem Tree

Activity Problem Tree

  • Breakout Rooms (20 mins)
    • Jamboards
    • In groups of 2-4, please create a problem tree
      • Think about an issue we discussed in class that you would like to analyze further.
      • What are the main problems?
      • What are the roots of the problems?
      • What are the effects of the problems?
    • Gallery Walk
    • Regroup and discuss
  • As students complete the problem tree activity, we hop in and out of the rooms to interact and help push student thinking and analysis.
  • At the 20 minute mark, we ask students to do a ‘gallery walk.’ In a gallery walk, students learn from what other groups have created through visiting the Jamboards of other group members. We ask students to think about their takeaways from the other problem trees as they see each other’s work.
  • We then regroup for a class discussion.

Possible Challenges

Possibly, something identified as a root cause of a problem may also be the effect of the problem. For example, social attitudes may be both one of the causes and one of the consequences of a given situation. This problem can be a source of confusion if the activity is not sufficiently well introduced or introduced too early in a course before students have explored a problem from all angles. It will be equally essential to ensure that students feel comfortable voicing their opinions within their groups (smaller is better!). There will undoubtedly be differences of opinion regarding how significant or relevant a particular cause or effect is.


There are not many resources required for this activity. Examples of problem trees can be found online and help students visualize and understand what is being asked. While we use Jamboards, any online platform for collaboration would work. The key to using the platform is ensuring everyone has access so the logistics are not time-consuming (everyone choosing their platform would entail sharing multiple addresses so you can have a gallery walk). Finally, you could use a template of a tree if you wish. We have done both in our courses and find there is minimal difference in output.

Activity 2: Power Flower


Students will identify their membership in various social groups associated with their identity markers in this activity. They will relate their identity components [assigned (sex, race, age), chosen (religion, education, place of residence) and developed (personality, body type, languages spoken)] to the dominant/hegemonic social identities within a larger context (the school, community, city or country). They will consider which aspect of their identity affords them specific privileges and insider status and which characteristics mark them as outsiders.

The power flower is an excellent example of self-directed activity despite the collaborative component. The learner is motivated to integrate peer perspectives within their understanding of self and relate their identity markers to those of the dominant culture. The activity lends itself to a great deal of reflection and gives learner autonomy. The learner is prompted by the visual cues, which the power flower provides, to take ownership of the questions that arise through completing the activity: Why have I never noticed how racially homogenous my environment is? Why have I only seen the lack of diversity when I am the one whose under-represented faith, culture, gender, and race? Why does my group get minoritized even when we are not in the minority numerically? The associated design components for this activity are planning for community and discussions and planning for autonomy.


This activity takes a social constructivist approach to identity development. Students decolonize the knowledge they take for granted through exploring hegemonic and normative values (Tsotetsi & Omodan, 2020).

Students are provided with a template of a flower consisting of an inner circle surrounded by two concentric circles made up of petals. See here for a template. Students write down their identities in the first circle of petals using the social identity categories listed within the inner circle (e.g. race, place of birth, first language, sex, social class, education level). In consultation with group members, they use the second circle of petals to write down the corresponding identities of the larger context- typically: the class, school, city or country demographics. In their groups, they then consider the following questions:

How many identity markers do you have that are different from the dominant identity? Are there any forces at work to compel you to change one/some of your identity markers? Which components of your identity could be changed? What would be involved in making that change? What normative processes are at work to establish a particular identity as dominant/normal? How are other identities subordinated or oppressed?

This activity serves as an introduction to identity as multi-faceted and intersectionality, serving as a visual representation of how their various identity markers situate them on spectrums of privilege and oppression.

Possible Challenges

It will be essential to ensure students understand that they are not obligated to reveal any aspect of their identities that they are not comfortable sharing. It may be advisable to leave the category labels in the inner circle blank and invite students to enter whichever categories they choose to share about themselves. Some may choose superficial labels (dog lover/cat lover; first child/middle child), while others may include more personal details such as gender or sexual orientation identities.


This activity is best completed with pen and paper. A flower power template can be downloaded from the internet, or the instructor can draw one. Copies will need to be distributed to students. Students can download the template through video conferencing or the LMS platform if the class meets virtually. If desired, students can also colour code the petals (e.g., with coloured pencils) to indicate the areas where their identities line up with the dominant identity and where they don’t.

Activity 3: Two Truths and a Lie


In this community-building activity, students, in small groups, share the assumptions and stereotypes that influence their thinking when considering the criteria for membership in various social groups. By assessing the integrity of a peer’s identity statements, they become self-aware regarding how salient, and visible identity markers are associated with specific social groups in their minds and the societal context. This activity draws on Positioning Theory, asking, “What does our membership in various groups allow us to do or prevent us from doing?” The main design elements of this activity are planning for community and discussions and planning for critical inquiry engagement.


This community-building activity is rooted in Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory (Nardo, 2021) and uses the Harkness method of student-centred, discussion-based pedagogy (Smith, 2016). It is best done early in a course before students know each other well. Students break into small groups of 4 or 5 and make three statements about themselves: two of which are true and one of which is false. The statements can be experiential (“I like to dance”), but the activity works best if the statements can be related to privileges or disadvantages. For example, “I skydive regularly” signals disposable income since it is an expensive hobby. The groupmates attempt to identify the lie and explain their rationale for the choice to the speaker. The process allows students to think aloud about their assumptions based on salient and visible markers of identity and challenge each other’s assumptions based on discussion guidelines provided by the instructor. The instructor should give an example about their own identity to help students understand how the activity will unfold. The instructor may say:

  1. I once had a bank account balance of zero.
  2. English was not my first language.
  3. I am a timid person and feel awkward in social situations sometimes.

Students would then be invited to guess which statement is false and rationalize their thinking. Guesses might sound like the following:

  • “You’re a professor, so you can’t ever have had a bank balance of zero.”
  • “You don’t have an accent, so English MUST be your first language.”
  • “You’re a teacher/professor, and you talk all day, so you can’t be shy.”

As students sort through the information and visual cues that influence their conclusions, they will be required to relinquish an assumption that they’ve held to be true. Relinquishing an assumption invites discussion about how we categorize people knowingly and on an unconscious level. The instructor then reveals which statement is false and provides, if desired, the background of the two factual statements.

Possible Challenges

Under the instructor’s direction, students must arrive at guidelines to facilitate the discussion. As they explain their rationale for the decisions within their groups, they will be expected to preface their remarks with “In my experience…” or “It has typically been the case for me that…” rather than “All _____ people always are/have ____” or “But you look/are _____.” Students must understand that being transparent about one’s assumptions and bravery requires courage to hear beliefs about oneself. Thus a climate of respect and trust is critical. It may be the case that this activity is best in a post-secondary setting where we can assume a required level of maturity.

General Resources

  • Navigating Difficult Conversations: A 4 module course intended to help educators navigate difficult conversations (about social justice) in their classrooms. It includes an introduction to EDI vocabulary, EDI pushback, civil discourse and actual examples of controversies and protests on Canadian post-secondary campuses.
  • Living Room Conversations: A non-profit organization that strives to connect people across polarizing issues through guided conversations to build understanding and respect. Visitors to the site have access to over 100 conversation guides on various topics developed by dialogue experts who help people of different political positions, backgrounds, and ideologies find common ground and ultimately transform how we talk about complex issues.
  • Open Mind Platform: An educational tool designed to engage in constructive, de-polarized conversations. It is an interactive, psychology-based platform for educational institutions and private and public sector organizations that develops intellectual humility, empathy, and mutual understanding. Its goal is to equip people with the skills, shared experiences and shared language to engage in productive conversations despite differences in beliefs, values and political persuasions.


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Mikulec, E. & Ramalho, T. (Eds.). (2022). Best practices for teaching critical pedagogy online. J.P. Lang.

Ministry of Education (2016). 21st Century competencies. foundation document for discussion. Queen’s Printer for Ontario. http://www.edugains.ca/resources21CL/About 21stCentury/21CL_21stCenturyCompetencies.pdf

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About the Authors

Robyn Ruttenberg-Rozen is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Ontario Tech University. She explores the tensions and possibilities of inclusive pedagogies in K-16 STEAM education for typically underserved, linguistically and culturally diverse, and exceptional populations of learners and their teachers. At the centre of her research is the study of change, innovation, inclusion, and equity. Robyn uses a multidisciplinary approach to humanize STEAM learning and disrupt deficit perceptions of ability in STEAM learning environments. In 2020 Robyn received the Ontario Tech Early Career Teaching Award.

Allyson Eamer is an Applied Linguist and  Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education at Ontario Tech University. She teaches, researches and writes in the area of equity and inclusion, particularly as it relates to second language learners in Ontario classrooms, immigrant experiences of education, and persons with disabilities.  Her publications include themes such as:  under-represented students in post-secondary education, mental illness and English language learning, ethnolinguistic vitality in immigrant and Indigenous communities, and the intersection of race and disability.


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