Level the Playing Field: Strategies to Ensure Equitable Access in Online Courses

By Dr. Diane Chapman, Executive Director, OFD, and Dr. Donna T. Petherbridge, Associate Vice Provost, Academic Technology Innovation, DELTA and Assistant Teaching Professor, Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development

As we approach the end of this semester of emergency remote teaching and prepare for summer, we’ve become keenly aware of the inequities in online classes, and can now work to level the field. The reality is, some students who are trying to take our courses are struggling, and will continue to struggle, for reasons ranging from technology issues to the school/home life balance they are trying to maintain in spaces that they may now be sharing with parents, siblings, and even additional people now in their homes. A recent WUNC interview of an NC State student explored the access gap and detailed Ty’s struggle with sharing limited internet resources with his family. One of Ty’s coping strategies is to drive to a McDonald’s parking lot to submit his assignments using the McDonald’s wifi.

While we may not be able to resolve issues for everyone, as instructors, we need to be cognizant of these challenges. Here are a few ways we suggest you approach your courses to be as equitable and inclusive as possible for your students, wherever they may be.


Keep your technology requirements as low as possible. At a minimum, we know that for online learning, students need access to a computer and a reliable internet connection. Depending on additional choices that you make, students may need more equipment; for example, if delivering a monitored exam using Respondus Monitor is something you must do, then students will need a microphone, and web camera, and broadband internet. A practice quiz in advance of a high-stakes test is a good way to both understand what challenges your students might have and help ease anxiety about using this software.


Remember that online communication and online work can take longer than it would take in a face-to-face environment. Consider this when creating assignments. A conversation taking 30 minutes face-to-face may take a couple of days using a discussion board, as students log in at various times to respond to each other. Students may also simply need more time to access and complete an assignment. Think about students who are sharing internet access with others, or who have to drive places to access wifi, or who may have caregiver responsibilities to balance with school. Consider giving students a generous window of time in which to take a test or submit an assignment. Also, try to be flexible in your due dates and times. Let students know early what might constitute an exception and how to get one.

Course Design (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the notion that instruction need not make accommodations for individual learners when designed for all learners. One step toward UDL in your online course is adding an additional way of accessing course material. For example, if you have students read a PDF, add the ability for the PDF to be read aloud by a screen reader. Or if you create a lecture video for students, provide a transcript so those with low bandwidth can access the content in textual format. This “plus one” mentality can help create equity quickly.

A focus on access and inclusion during course design (or redesign) can make immediate differences in equity in the online classroom. Think about how students are perceiving your intentions. Online learners get their cues about your course and assignments largely through what you write. Use inclusive language in your syllabus and assignment instructions. State your commitment to equity and inclusion in your syllabus and invite students to let you know about issues of inequity (confidentially or anonymously.) You can also design your assignments so that students can contribute in a variety of ways. This allows students to decide what works best for their needs. For example, you might allow students to write a short paper or record and upload an online presentation. Or you could give students assignments that allow them to take on different roles, thus, allowing them to choose how they can best contribute. Not only do these approaches promote equity and access, but they also make the best use of what activities work well online at the same time (synchronous) and what activities work well online at different times (asynchronous.)

Some other design tips to make instruction more equitable:

  • Hold any real-time (synchronous) meetings only during the times that your course would normally meet. Encourage (but don’t require) attendance.
  • Design activities where attendance is not mandatory (i.e., record live lectures and meetings; allow for alternative assignments for students with low bandwidth, illness, family obligations, work obligations, etc.)
  • Be flexible with extensions.
  • Remember we are all learning in this environment and both instructors and learners will make mistakes. Address them and move on.
  • Try the methods you are asking your students to follow. If they are difficult for you, they are likely more difficult for your students.

Serving Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities may be significantly disadvantaged and struggle more in the shift to remote emergency teaching than we realize. With the sudden shift to remote teaching, you, as an instructor, may not have had the time to carefully consider how to teach online students with visual, hearing, or other impairments. At NC State, the Disability Resource Office (DRO) remains fully functional, and students can schedule individual appointments through phone, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. Instructors can also reach out to DRO and can get advice and support on solutions that can work for students who may need additional assistance in online courses. Support for these students may range from extra time on tests, to ensuring that audio and video is transcribed, etc.

Online teaching takes years to perfect. As online instructors, we are constantly learning and adjusting and improving. It’s remarkable how effectively and quickly NC State instructors adapted to emergency remote teaching in the face of COVID-19. But online teaching has a learning curve so remember to congratulate yourself on what you have accomplished this far because every step you take toward improving your teaching will result in greater equity for your students over time.