Module 4: Facilitating for inclusivity

4.3 Inclusive facilitation practices

Key principles: Facilitation practices that create safe spaces for class engagement

3 icon of learners side by side
University of Waterloo

In Module 3.3, Key Principles: Facing Challenges in Learner–Learner Interactions we discussed conflict and poor netiquette as common social challenges that come up during virtual teaching and facilitation. In order to create a productive course climate that embraces each individual, instructors should strive for a classroom that fosters belonging and value for learners of all identities, backgrounds, and experiences. While we cannot absolutely guarantee safety in inclusive learning as these spaces are not power-neutral, colorblind, or devoid of conflict, by setting up course infrastructure for learner-learner interactions with inclusivity in mind, many conflicts can be preempted.

Strategies in action: Building course structures that create safe spaces for class engagement

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“student” icon by The Icon Z, from the Noun Project. Used under CC BY 3.0 license.

There are few simple strategies to build positive opportunities for critical but respectful conversations in virtual courses. Thoughtfully organizing learners into smaller groups to help foster a sense of community and reduce the transactional distance between learners, promoting respectful dialogue and critique through careful framing and construction of inquiry questions, and addressing conflict as it arises, provide strong foundations for rigorous but safe learning spaces.

Grouping learners in a different way

The use of small groups is a common way to create small cooperative learner-learner communities within a course. By setting up different types of groups with varying membership throughout the semester, learners will be exposed to different points of view and lived experiences, enriching their overall experience. Group composition can have a significant impact on group functioning and perspectives that are shared. To enhance the richness of discussions and work done, consider setting up groups in different ways:

  • Randomly distribute learners into small groups
  • Allocate learners into small groups according to a characteristic (e.g., their discipline of study if in an interdisciplinary course, their location/time zone).
    • Depending on the purpose of the group, it may be beneficial to group similar characteristics together or equally distribute learners across groups.
  • Allow learners to self-select themselves into a group (with auto-allocation of unmatched learners to groups after a certain date).
    • In the context of assignments, groups could also be labelled with topics so that learners would have flexibility in selecting both their topic and the group members they would like to work with.
    • If allowing learners to self-select, consider if “cliques” of learners are at risk of occurring which may stifle discussion or expression.

Learners can also be allocated into different groups as the course progresses. For example, if you have randomly allocated learners into small groups for weekly asynchronous discussions, determine if it would be beneficial for learners to be reallocated half-way through the semester to gain new perspectives from others they have yet to interact with. This is also a helpful emergency strategy should functioning in one or more groups deteriorate or major conflicts arise.

Facilitating productive and authentic discussions

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“Discussion” icon by mim studio, from the Noun Project. Used under CC BY 3.0 license.

Keeping discussions productive and authentic is essential to creating space for learner viewpoints. Whether or not you have designed the discussion activities in your course, you can help foster spaces in which online learners get a chance to interact as humans, feel at ease, and feel that their perspectives are important. Some of the best strategies for doing this include

  • setting the tone for class discussions by offering examples of good quality posts, emphasizing the importance of good netiquette and healthy academic discourse, and signalling to learners that their viewpoints are welcome;
  • modelling good practices in discussions by creating posts of your own that offer appropriate forms of affirmation and critique in order to push conversation forward and give space to varying viewpoints;
  • helping learners get to know one another by using effective ice-breaker and introduction activities, and encouraging social interaction throughout the term;
  • providing learners the opportunity to share lived-experiences or professional perspectives in relation to course content, grounding and motivating learners in their learning by increasing its real-world relevance as well as exposing different points of view; and
  • fostering learner-led discussions through Socratic prompting, and by encouraging learners to ask engaging follow-up questions in response to each other’s posts.

Above all, keep in mind that all of your learners are human beings, and try to create an atmosphere in which everyone’s personhood is front and centre within all discussions. Doing so helps all your learners to participate fully in your course, which in turn fosters more relevant and valuable discussion experiences for them, and for you!

Going deeper

Socratic questioning is a form of disciplined questioning to help critically pursue thought in a number of directions and for different purposes. Recently, R. W. Paul’s six types of Socratic Questions were expanded to nine types:

  1. Questions of clarification
  2. Questions that probe purpose
  3. Questions that probe assumptions
  4. Questions that probe information, reasons, evidence, and causes
  5. Questions about viewpoints or perspectives
  6. Questions that probe implications and consequences
  7. Questions about the question
  8. Questions that probe concepts
  9. Questions that probe inferences and interpretations

This handout of Questions for a Socratic Dialogue can be a useful resource for framing and extending synchronous and asynchronous discussions.

This staff blog post from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom offers additional thoughts on how Socratic questioning can help facilitate equality and diversity discussions:

Strategies in action: Managing controversy in virtual class discussions

While you may not be in a position to make changes to the content of the course, the teaching and facilitation of a course provides different ways to influence and frame how the content is presented, and counters challenges that may arise in terms of the asynchronous or synchronous class discussions. Common challenges in virtual class discussions include offered by Tondeur and Gatling (2012, as cited in Kelly, 2013), include

  • the asynchronous format: If discussions are done via an asynchronous method, it is possible for instructors to overlook inflammatory or out-of-hand discussions. Learners may be interacting with each other over several days and other students may be able to read these discussions before you notice and intervene;
  • potential misinterpretation of predominantly text-based communication: Tone, intention, and other visual cues are missing when communication is done primarily in a text-based fashion and can quickly lead to misinterpretation or escalation if not addressed in a timely fashion; and
  • relative anonymity: Although less likely if you apply the humanizing principles discussed throughout this course, some learners may be emboldened to post damaging, hurtful, or incendiary messages as they don’t feel personally connected to their peers. On the flipside, this relative anonymity is also often seen as a benefit for learners who may not feel as comfortable sharing during synchronous sessions.

In addition to setting a climate for facilitating productive and authentic discussions using the strategies in the previous section, there are additional strategies for preparing for or addressing controversy in the virtual classroom (Saunders & Kardia, 1997).


Address known issues with the content:
In your work preparing for the term, you may notice certain problematic ideas or omissions of certain perspectives in the course content. Take some time at the beginning of each module (e.g., in a weekly announcement, as a note associated with the content/a particular source, or as a verbal note during a synchronous session) to alert learners of this problem. At the same time encouraging students to critically engage themselves with the problematic material serves to promote a rigorous and inquisitive class environment. You may even choose to ask learners to consider their own agreement or disagreement with that which you have highlighted.
Be prepared to address issues:
Spend a little time reviewing your course topics and determine if some might be considered controversial. Imagine or consider what kinds of controversial perspectives might be brought up during these class discussions and think about (or write down) how you might respond. This is likely to assist you in not getting caught off guard. Timeliness in response would be more important in a synchronous session where issues should not be ignored but addressed right away; in asynchronous discussions, you have a little more time to put together a thoughtful response.
Be open to students’ reactions to course material, even when you feel uncomfortable with the manner in which it is surfaced:
Learners may publicly challenge inaccurate information about particular groups that appears in course readings, films, etc. Learners may react strongly upon hearing what they perceive to be inaccurate and negative information about their group. Learners may resent having to “pick up the slack” in classes where instructors and their peers lack knowledge about the group with which the particular individuals are affiliated. When learners are of the opinion that the information being given in the course is biased against their group, they may feel that they are also missing valuable learning opportunities.
In these types of situations, it is most important to be open to the perspectives these students share. Giving serious consideration to learners’ views that are in the “minority” will encourage learners to respond honestly about issues while also encouraging learners to think more broadly about issues. This does not, however, mean that you have to agree with the learners’ views or feel that the learners’ views are above critique.
Be honest with your level of comfort with an issue:
There are likely to be situations, ideas, or concepts with which you are less familiar and less confident in immediately knowing how to respond to reasonable questions made by learners. Regardless, it is important to respond to comments in ways that learners will not interpret as dismissive. Be honest about your lack of knowledge, acknowledge the learner’s point, and make efforts to secure information about the learner’s point to share with the class at a time in the near future. It is also important to emphasize that everyone can be a teacher and that instructors and learners can learn from one another.
Recognize learners’ fears and concerns about conflict:
Learners enter a course with different levels of experience and comfort with conflict. It is important to normalize the experience of conflict in the virtual classroom, particularly in courses that focus on controversial topics. This can be accomplished through explicit discussion of learner experiences with conflict and the use of structured discussion exercises.
Respond promptly to conflict in a manner that helps learners become aware of the “learning moment” this conflict provides:
Whether it is an inappropriate statement or escalating interpersonal conflict during a live session, a concern about another learners’ behaviour raised to you in private chat during synchronous sessions, or an email alerting you of questionable interactions occurring in a discussion board, it is important to address these issues promptly and directly. Challenging discussions need to be facilitated in a manner that does not result in hostility among learners and create a toxic climate. You can avoid these outcomes by encouraging students to tie their feelings and conflicts to the course material and by looking for underlying meanings and principles that might get buried in the process of class conflict. Learners appreciate tensions between groups in the class being recognized and effectively addressed.
Maintain the role of facilitator:
One of the challenges of teaching is maintaining the role of instructor under a variety of conditions. For example, you can get caught up in expressing your own perspective in heated discussions or can become overly silent in discussions that go beyond your own knowledge base or experience. While these responses are understandable, such role abdication can create chaos in the virtual classroom or force students to fill in the abdicated facilitator role. In order to avoid this outcome, you should examine your typical responses to conflict. It can also be useful to find ways that you may admit your limits with respect to content areas while maintaining responsibility for the group process.

Strategies in action: Considering facilitation practices that respond to the needs of your Indigenous learners

The context of this module is that, as an instructor, you may not have the ability to adjust the content or the design of your virtual course – your sphere of influence might be limited to facilitating the course in term. Given this context, we offer some suggestions for how aspects of your course might be decolonized or Indigenized and how you might specifically support Indigenous learners in your course. For your deeper (un)learning and appreciation, click to listen to a podcast featuring Mitch Huguenin, a Métis Educational Developer specializing in the area of Indigenous Pedagogy at Trent University. He discusses ideas, principles, and strategies related to

  • decolonizing or Indigenizing approaches to facilitating a virtual course (0:00 – 18:59); and
  • how one might facilitate and promote a learning environment that is culturally safe for, and inclusive of, Indigenous learners (19:00 – 40:08).

References and credits

Kelly, R. (2013, March 19). Managing controversy in the online classroom. Faculty Focus.

McWain, W. D. (2014). Questions for a Socratic dialogue.

Saunders, S., & Kardia, D. (1997). Creating inclusive college classrooms. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.


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