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Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Online Classroom

By Christy M. Rhodes, Steven W. Schmidt / November 2018

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The growing diversity of the U.S. population continues to impact formal education in many ways. One key area has been the increased awareness of the need to adapt learning environments to enhance the achievement of students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. Culturally responsive teaching is an asset pedagogy designed to increase motivation by replacing mainstream teaching practices with those grounded in students' experiences and ways of knowing. The culturally responsive teaching (CRT) framework places students' cultural identities at the core of the learning process and utilizes the ?cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles? of diverse students [1]. When considering issues of culture and identity, many people first think of race and ethnicity. However, there are many dimensions of diversity present in most classrooms, and CRT means that educators should engage students' additional identities in recognition of the intersectionality of various facets of who their students are.

Another trend that has impacted formal education is the rapid growth of online, or elearning. Often research on CRT, and discussion of CRT, is conducted in the context of the traditional face-to-face classroom. However, the growth of elearning has meant that increasingly more often, the adult learning environment is online.

As a result of the growth of elearning, educators who were used to teaching in face-to-face classrooms now find themselves in the very different situation of teaching online. The online learning environment adds an extra layer of complexity to the development of culturally responsive teachers and classrooms, as described by Heitner and Jennings:

"…a lack of understanding about culturally responsive issues and practices to meet the needs and expectations of online students can lead to miscommunication, mistrust, poor guidance, frustration, attrition, and delayed program completion. These issues may be exacerbated in the online classroom due to the nature of faculty/student interaction, the asynchronous nature of the instruction, the broad cultural and geographic diversity of the student body, and the lack of visual cues in the interactions" [2].

What does culturally responsive teaching in online classrooms look like? How can online instructors use principles of culturally responsive teaching to develop culturally responsive online classrooms? This article will examine basic principles of culturally responsive teaching in the context of elearning. It will focus on practical ideas for instructors interested in developing their own culturally responsive online teaching skills.

Why Culturally Responsive Teaching Is Important

A primary assumption of asset pedagogies is that learners of minority backgrounds experience mismatches between their own cultural identities and the collective cultures of the school, the instructor, and the course. These mismatches can inhibit the learning process. Referred to as barriers in universal design of learning [3], there is a widespread understanding for the need to erase these mismatches or barriers in order to create optimal learning environments for all learners. Culturally responsive teaching positions the learner's cultural identities at the core of the learning process and uses the learner's cultural knowledge, experiences, and frames of reference in order to help the learner be successful in the course and at the school.

The foundation of culturally responsive teaching includes three classroom criteria: academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness [4]. First, the culturally responsive classroom is one in which there are clear and academically challenging expectations for all students. The learning environment is one in which a variety of learning assessments are utilized. Educators must be knowledgeable in content area and highly skilled at creating effective learning environments.

Secondly, the culturally responsive classroom encourages high levels of cultural competence, as students and teachers demonstrate a deep understanding of their own and others' cultures. Finally, educators must have sociopolitical consciousness, or a well-developed understanding of their own world views, along with the knowledge that their own worldviews are shaped by their experience, and, as such, are probably not the same as those of the learners in their classes. Culturally responsive educators are those who continually examine their own cultural perspectives and biases to ensure that they are creating environments that are supportive to all learners.

Taking Theory to Practice in the Online Classroom

How can educators create culturally responsive classrooms? The "Motivational Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching" [5] was designed specifically for adult learning environments and describes norms and practices designed to encourage participation, inquiry, discourse, and respect for all learners. It includes four elements:

  • establishing inclusion
  • developing attitude
  • enhancing meaning
  • engendering competence

Each of these elements will be examined individually, in the context of the online classroom.

Establishing inclusion. Planning for the culturally responsive classroom starts with course development. Just as first impressions of a face-to-face course are based on what the student sees when he or she walks into the classroom for the first time, students' first impressions of an online classroom are based on what they see when they initially access the course. Instructors may post information on their course websites about what culturally-responsive classrooms look like; and these postings may be written, in audio formats (e.g., podcasts) or using video clips (or in some combination thereof). There may also be initial discussions; synchronous or asynchronous, on topics related to racial, gender, ethnic, and sexual identity, to name a few.

Important in this type of information is to define what culture, and culture responsibility looks like. The concept of culture may mean different things to different people, and often, we think of culture in terms of the dimensions of culture we are familiar with (forgetting the broader definition of the concept of culture). Culture can be related to dimensions of diversity such as race, ethnicity, age and gender (among others), but can also be viewed on an organizational level (the culture of the U.S. Army, for example). In order to develop a culturally responsive classroom, learners first have to understand the concept. That involves providing information to learners and then discussing the concept among all in the class.

In order to start developing a culturally responsive classroom, pre-work is required so when the student accesses the course for the first time, the stage is set. Giving voice to students, an important aspect of establishing inclusion, can start at the beginning of the course, with activities in which students introduce themselves and tell the class about who they are. Guidelines for introductions that include content about the importance of culture can help set a culturally responsive tone. Asking specific questions about students' cultural identities and backgrounds (and providing examples) can help students feel comfortable in sharing their own information. To set a culturally responsive tone, instructors may describe their own cultural backgrounds in their introductions.

Icebreaker activities can be useful in culturally responsive teaching. For example, Lehman and Conceição suggest an activity entitled "Where in the World Are You" [6]. A map of the world is posted in the online classroom and students download the map, mark their locations, and share information on themselves and their cultures and traditions (which may or may not be related to their physical location on the map). Again, a broad view of the term culture should be emphasized, as students might share information about any of the different cultural groups to which they belong. They then upload the map back to the course website for others to view.

Establishing inclusion also involves developing a foundation of respect and connectedness through established routines, mutually agreed upon norms, and equitable treatment of all learners. To ensure all students feel included in the learning community, it is important to encourage them to voice their feelings in the face of perceived discrimination or disrespect, and also in sharing the positive, respectful, and reinforcing experiences in the online classroom. Giving voice to those opinions can be challenging, especially in online learning environments, so creating those opportunities through discussions (synchronous and asynchronous) and chat sessions can be useful. Initial discussion forums in which students develop guidelines for the course, including tips for holding respectful, scholarly discussions on controversial topics, and suggestions for course etiquette can all be discussed right at the start of the course. As noted earlier, however, this means the instructor must be prepared, and the course must be set up, to hold these discussions when the course opens.

In a face-to-face classroom, introductions and the establishment of inclusion can happen in real time, but in an online classroom, students do not all participate at the same time. Students typically access online courses at different times throughout a lesson or unit of instruction. Instructors must allow time for students to participate, and to learn about their classmates and the instructor. Therefore it is important to establish inclusion in the online classroom after the course starts. During this time of establishing inclusion, instructors must be engaged in the course. They must show learners they are present. Instructors should be active participants in communicating with students, discussing their backgrounds, highlighting similarities and differences, and using inquiry to learn more about their students. They may also refer to course guidelines, policies and procedures discussed above, so students better understand the classroom environment.

Developing attitude. Helping learners feel positively about content and the learning process is facilitated by building on students' personal experiences and knowledge, in addition to incorporating learner autonomy into curricular planning [5]. Addressing the relevance of the course content to students' lives and creating opportunities for student volition in the learning environment are the foundational aspects of this element. Learners see the relevance of content when they are able to relate it to their lives and experiences. It is important to note that often, textbooks and curriculum are designed for mainstream, majority cultural groups. Therefore, it is imperative to contextualize learning activities in the learners' background experiences and knowledge base. Instructors can use what they've learned while working to establish inclusion (discussed in the previous section) to develop attitude.

One way to address the issue of developing attitude is by supplementing curriculum with materials reflective of diverse identities. For example, in adult English language classes, educators often find informative essays about national and ethnic groups on the Internet, in addition to using international newspapers' English language resources. These provide linguistically-accessible materials that are written from the cultural point of view of the students. Another strategy is to incorporate materials that present images and experiences from members of minority groups, focusing on racial and sexual identities, for example. These inclusive materials create spaces for learners from those communities to add their sometimes-marginalized voices to the class. Additionally, allowing learners to share their own experiences relative to course topics helps the learner to attach meaning to the learning activity; thereby creating cultural connections between mainstream topics and their lives. In the online classroom, instructors have to create spaces for these things to happen, they have to allow for time for these things to happen, and they have to be present in order to guide the activity. Activities such as jigsaw reading or peer teaching can easily be implemented through various technologies and can help facilitate learning in a culturally-responsive way, however in order for them to be successful, they must be set up appropriately, with clear guidelines and examples, and with time to allow students to participate and the instructor to be present and involved.

Teachers empower students when encouraging them to take charge of their own learning. This can include activities in which learners formulate their own goals and desired outcomes (at the course, lesson or assignment level) and engage in self-assessment of achievement of those goals. This can also include giving learners the option of selecting from a variety of learning activities. They might also ask students to search for books, articles, research, or activities that are relevant to the student's background and to course content, and then share them with the class (or develop book reports, literature reviews or other written or video-based assignments). By viewing the curriculum design process as a collaborative activity, teachers will establish a learning environment that is relevant to their learners' lives, as well as one in which learners feel autonomy over their learning. This also helps the instructor to develop a collection of culturally relevant materials related to his or her course.

While an important aspect of developing attitude is the idea that students take charge of their own learning, it is also important that instructors set guidelines, instructions, and parameters for assignments. These things help to ensure an appropriate level of academic rigor and a level of standardization for all students in the course, which is important when evaluating student performance. As an example, an instructor may ask his or her students to write a review of a book of their choosing related to course topics. Instructions for the assignment might include guidelines for the types of books allowed, page number requirements, style and formatting requirements, and key issues to address in the report. The student has control of their learning because they are able to choose the book, but the instructor sets standards for all students in the course to ensure an appropriate level of academic rigor.

Conversely, it is very easy for online students to become frustrated and tune out in online courses that lack appropriate structure. In the online classroom, students typically don't get immediate feedback from the instructor (or immediate answers to their questions), so developing and communicating guidelines and parameters is all the more important.

Enhancing meaning. Another element of culturally responsive teaching is making learning meaningful and engaging students in reflection and critical inquiry. Learning gains meaning when learners are able to understand the purpose and utility of their learning. The acquisition of new knowledge should be a welcoming process rather than a foreboding one marked by inaccessible vocabulary and content-specific jargon. Effective teachers will offer numerous opportunities for learners to explore and create new meanings together and encouraging them to ground their understanding in their own stories and narratives. The culturally responsive teacher lays this foundation with guidelines and mutual establishment of the norms for online communication. Central to this element is helping students develop a critical perspective, which can be accomplished by helping students connect course content to their own cultural experiences or to the cultural experiences of others. Making connections between course content and students' identities (considering the many different dimensions and levels of identity) is also critical. In the online classroom, these types of things can be done through synchronous class chat sessions, synchronous or asynchronous discussions, or video-based discussions. These types of activities can be facilitated by students, as well. Activities such as "Think, Pair, Share," are designed to help students integrate new knowledge with prior knowledge, develop questions, summarize information, and apply what they've learned in class. These types of activities can be done in virtual learning environments, and can help students to consider multiple perspectives, critically analyze their own assumptions, and develop deeper level understanding of course topics.

Problem-based learning (or problem posing) can be used to make learning meaningful to students, and to also help them in critical inquiry. Games, activities, simulations, and case studies all fall under the category of problem-based education. Problem-based learning lends itself well to online learning. Case studies can be analyzed, discussed and debated, simulations can be worked through, and games can be played in the online classroom. Students can work individually or on teams. From a culturally responsive teaching standpoint, many of these things can be customized so they are more relatable to students. Case studies, for example, can be modified so students more closely identify with the actors, situations, and settings in the case. Instructors and students can develop their own case studies, as well, using a culturally responsive perspective.

Engendering competence. The final element, engendering competence, is comprised of practices that show the learner evidence of his or her learning and proficiency and the use of assessments that are contextualized in the learners' experiences [5].

This requires the use of effective assessment tools that relate to the students' backgrounds and allow them to demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways. This often includes the use of performance-based or portfolio assessments, student-invented dialogues, focused reflections, and journals.

Problem-based learning activities, such as those above, can be accompanied by opportunities for students to critically reflect on what they've learned. While the same types of activities may be used at this stage, they may be used on a different level than they might have in the enhancing meaning stage. Rather than a case study that involves a unit of class, for example, a culminating case study, requiring students to synthesize what they've learned throughout the course may be used here. Instructors may post prompts or questions for critical reflection, and students can complete reflection papers, online diaries, post on blogs, or create video diaries that demonstrate their competency and proficiency, while focus on assessing broader course concepts.

Creating a culturally responsive online classroom requires planning and engagement throughout the course. The four elements of the "Motivational Framework of Culturally Responsive Teaching" serve as an effective guide for online instructors. Bearing in mind that these elements are not meant to be completed in linear progression but in a cyclical manner, instructors can examine their teaching practices using the following questions:

  1. To establish inclusion, how do I acknowledge the cultural identities, such as racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender identities, of my students?
    • How do I learn about my students and what they feel is important about the learning experience?
    • How do I encourage my students to connect with their classmates?
    • How do I ensure that students feel free to point out class policies that they feel are discriminatory or biased?

  2. To develop attitude, how do I help learners feel positively about content and the learning process, in addition to incorporating learner autonomy into curricular planning?
    • How do I encourage students to communicate with each other and with me on a deep and meaningful level?
    • How do I incorporate materials and resources that represent the diverse backgrounds of my students?

  3. To enhance meaning, how do I help students connect to the material in ways that are based in critical reflection and critical inquiry?
    • How do I incorporate a variety of learning activities and instructional practices?
    • How do I integrate practical applications into learning activities
    • How do I require students to examine the curriculum from multiple perspectives?

  4. To engender competence, how do I use authentic and effective assessment that allows them to demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways?
    • How do I encourage students to take ownership of the learning process?
    • How do I create space for students to assess their own learning?


There is a dizzying amount of literature available about the theory and rationale underpinning the culturally responsive teaching approach. However, with continued dissemination of the "Motivational Framework of Culturally Responsive Teaching," there is a growing awareness of the importance of incorporating cultural identities of adult learners into the online classroom. In this article, the basic principles of culturally responsive teaching in the context of elearning were presented, in addition to tips for implementing the relevant norms and practices in their online classrooms. As online teachers become more proficient at creating culturally responsive learning environments, they will achieve the goal of establishing equitable and inclusive classes for all their students.


[1] Gay, G. Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press, New York, 2000.

[2] Heitner, K. L. and Jennings, M. Culturally responsive teaching knowledge and practices of online faculty. Online Learning 20, 4 (2016).

[3] Rose, D.H., and Meyer, A. Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal design for learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, VA. 2002.

[4] Ladson-Billings, G. Crossing over to Canaan: The journey of new teachers in diverse classrooms. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2001.

[5] Ginsberg, M. and Wlodkowski, R. Diversity and motivation: Culturally responsive teaching in college. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2009.

[6]Lehman, R. M. and Conceição, S. C. O. Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010.

About the Authors

Christy M. Rhodes, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the College of Education at East Carolina University. She has been involved in adult basic education and literacy throughout her career, working with adult English language learners in the U.S. and abroad. Her research focuses on the ways adult educators create inclusive learning environments and the culturally responsive teaching framework. She is currently adapting the Culturally Responsive Teaching Survey (CRTS) for use in adult basic education classes, in addition to adult English language classes. She is currently on the Board of Directors for the National Coalition of Literacy and serves as the Co-Director of the Commission for Adult Basic Education and Literacy of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

Steven W. Schmidt, Ph.D. is a professor of adult education and the Adult Education Program Coordinator in the Department of Interdisciplinary Professions at East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina. He holds Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in adult education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater. Prior to his faculty appointment, he worked in employee training and development at Harley-Davidson Motor Company. In his teaching, research, and consulting work, Dr. Schmidt specializes in online teaching and learning and workplace training and development. He served as president of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education in 2014 ( and is the author of two books: Organization and Administration of Adult Education Programs and Case Studies and Activities in Adult Education and Human Resource Development.

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