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Creating digitally inclusive strategies for diverse student cohorts

13 Sep 2023 | Elisabeth Valiente-Riedl, Jennifer Fletcher and Leela Cejnar At the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2023, presenting for co-authors, Elisabeth Valiente-Riedl and Jennifer Fletcher, Leela Cejnar, provided an overview of how digital competencies might address the needs of increasingly diverse student cohorts, particularly regarding experiential learning.

Globally, universities are promising to build the diversity of their campuses. 

But what makes for an accessible and inclusive campus? 

Is who we teach and how we teach as important as what we teach? 

Yes, it is, and how we teach and learn digitally may hold the key. 


Building on our presentation at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2022, ‘Rethinking experiential learning for the hybrid workforce: enhancing the digital resilience of students and teachers for 21st century employment competencies’, at this year’s conference we discussed the significance of an increasingly digital and hybrid workforce, which demands that digital competencies be extended in tertiary learning environments to include the needs of increasingly diverse student cohorts (Awang Hashim, Kaur, & Valdez, 2019). 

Creating inclusive campuses 

We evaluated complementary debates in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, on the role of digital strategies to bridge barriers for student participation in higher education. This included, for example, addressing cultural and language barriers, as well as disability, socio-economic and geographic barriers (Fung, Su, Perry, & Garcia, 2022).  

We considered the possibility for poor education technology design and policies to exacerbate barriers, if not managed and mitigated (Stone, 2022).  

Creating diverse learners for a diversity of reasons 

The aim in teaching for diversity is not to rely on the visibility of that diversity, but rather to build universal methods and interventions that make learning broadly accessible, across the full range of different environments and situations. Today, a range of diversity factors demand universal design principles to ensure no one is disempowered in a learning environment. However, the diversity of student populations, of course, is not the only driver for inclusive practices in our classroom. There is a clear imperative for higher education to also prepare our students for the growing diversity of the workforce.  

Multiple pedagogies offer a variety of lenses for building inclusive classrooms.  We highlighted four of these at the conference, noting that this is not an exhaustive list.  Each of these offer important principles in helping to create safe and accessible learning environments, which in turn enable diverse cohorts of students to thrive.  

Leveraging inclusive pedagogy to build digital competencies  

Self-determination theory 

According to Deci & Ryan (2017), three basic psychological needs, that motivate self-driven behaviour, are essential to individual psychological health and well-being: 

1) autonomy (feeling self-governed) 

2) competence (feeling competent and effective)  

3) relatedness (feeling connected, loved and interacted with). 

When pedagogical design adequately addresses these psychological needs, students are actively motivated to engage in learning tasks (Wang et al., 2019). Accordingly, this theory can explain the effects of needs-based support on student motivation, engagement and learning. 

Universal Design 

The design of products and environments should be usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialist design. In higher education, universal design principles might involve drawing on multiple means of engagement, representation, action and expression (La, Dyjur, & Bair, 2018). 

Psychological Safety 

Students want to feel assured that they will not be belittled, criticised, undervalued or made to feel “less than” someone else in the team.  A shared belief held by members of a team that they are in a psychologically safe work environment, will empower risk taking when decision making, free expression of views and better collaboration in teamwork (Edmondson, 1999).  

Cultural Competence 

Students should be enabled and equipped with values that teach them to respect, appreciate and understand the cultural backgrounds of others. The development of cultural competence is critical for individuals to work effectively in and across intercultural contexts (National Centre for Cultural Competence, n.d.). 

Bridging the digital literacy gap 

Our observations revealed that digital delivery does not automatically result in the development of digital skills (Cejnar et al, 2022). We believe, as higher education teachers, we need to identify ways to upskill our students both to bridge the gap in digital competence, and to ensure a more inclusive and equitable learning experience.  

Ongoing need to build multi-channel collaboration skills 

The ongoing reconfiguration of work and learning suggest that strategic and proactive innovation in experiential learning is something that higher education institutions and teachers should pay close attention to, especially if we are going to align what we teach and how we teach, with preparing diverse student groups for their varied futures of work. 


Dr Jennifer Fletcher is a Senior Interdisciplinary Lecturer at the University of Sydney with a Health Sciences and Psychology background, and an Advance HE Fellow. Jennifer has research interests in digital healthcare delivery and transdisciplinary education. 

Dr Elisabeth Valiente-Riedl is the Associate Director Interdisciplinary and Engaged Learning in the Deputy Vice Chancellor Education (Enterprise and Engagement) portfolio at the University of Sydney. She is also an Advance HE Fellow with research interests in ethical consumption and interdisciplinary experiential learning.  

Dr Leela Cejnar is an Associate Professor at the Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, and an Advance HE Senior Fellow. Leela was previously an Interdisciplinary Lecturer at The University of Sydney. Leela’s research focuses on developing employability skills in undergraduate students and interdisciplinary experiential learning. 

Inclusive learning and teaching workshops

Our popular inclusive learning and teaching workshop series is a suite of five modules that can be taken individually or as a programme of development covering an introduction to EDI in teaching and learning, inclusive and equitable assessment and feedback, inclusive curriculum, inclusive student engagement and partnership and leading on inclusive teaching and learning. Find out more.

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