How to foster diversity, inclusion, and psychological safety in e-learning?
This article is part of Slush’s whitepaper “Entrepreneurship Redefined” -series, where our partner companies around the world reveal how their work is shaping the entrepreneurial tomorrow. We believe that diversity enhances and expands the ecosystem’s problem-solving capacity – and so does Claned, an e-learning platform from Finland. This is their way of supporting a more diverse and inclusive future.
Diversity, inclusion and psychological safety
When there is a lot of diversity, there is a need for inclusion. The need for inclusion is derived from a situation where members of a community are not alike in many ways. They do not e.g. share the same beliefs, culture, habits, religion, or looks.
In this kind of situation, community members need to find a way to respect each other’s differences. They need to learn to behave in ways that exemplify this, . To make a community inclusive, the diverse individuals need to feel psychologically safe, . What is a community like where individuals can feel psychologically safe? In a psychologically safe community, everyone is treated equally and the community members experience an equal level of belonging to the community.
The concept of psychological safety has various definitions. According to a definition by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business University professor, psychological safety means among other things that community members are not afraid to make mistakes. They feel safe to reveal incompleteness in their skill set to others . Psychological safety can be fostered for example, through open communication, showing trust, empathy and friendliness, providing clarity and presence , . Inklusiiv, a Finnish non-profit organization, and cross-border community offering services to promote diversity and inclusion has combined existing definitions e.g. from Amy Edmonson and defines psychological safety as follows:
”A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. When adopted in the workplace, team members feel respected and safe to be vulnerable in front of each other. Creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to take risks is key to fostering learning and innovation in the workplace.” .
How can you foster diversity, inclusion and psychological safety in an online environment
How can an online course or an online course platform foster psychological safety? Here are our five main suggestions:
- Build trust and respect towards each other e.g. by considering learners as autonomous knowledge creators
- Foster an atmosphere where asking questions and information sharing is a desired activity
- Provide constant support, feedback and as clear instructions as possible
- Provide different materials for different needs
- Make the learning atmosphere as humane and approachable as possible
1. Build trust and respect towards each other e.g. by considering learners as autonomous knowledge creators
The first rule in psychological safety is to build trust and respect towards each other, as stated above , . In order to create trust, individuals need to feel that they are respected and trusted by the teachers as individual actors. This trust can be shown by e.g. allowing learners to influence and organize their own learning. Learners’ ability to influence their learning adequately increases the possibility to reach a flow-state which for its part engages deep learning process . Additionally, learners should be allowed and encouraged to act autonomously and construct knowledge together with others. In other words, learning would in this way become a less hierarchical and a more collaborative process. Therefore, the students should be active and self-driven, collect and construct knowledge autonomously, together with their fellow learners and the teacher .
In Claned’s online learning platform, learner autonomy is encouraged through the possibility to jump from one module, or set of content, to another. Learners can start from the end of the course if they wish to do so. In this way, learning remains more collaborative, and not an educator-driven process, which also enables and supports asynchronous learning. Additionally, learners are able to actively participate in the knowledge construction process. Learners can construct knowledge themselves by adding their own thoughts, reflections, questions, and, course material on the course board. Claned’s called “contextual commenting” feature enables the learner to add comments, reflections and questions directly into specific sections of the course material. Learners can even add their own material into some parts of the course.
2. Foster an atmosphere where asking questions and information sharing is a desired activity
Claned’s course chat function enables learners to create and join discussions openly on the course. Even learners’ ability to rate materials, add comments, questions and highlight text directly in specific parts of the course materials fosters open communication and enables teachers together with learners to create an atmosphere where asking questions and sharing insights is a desired and productive activity. Teachers can engage learners to open communication by adding assignments, e.g. videos where learners have to comment each other’s comments, ask questions in articles or powerpoint files, etc. on a course platform. Teachers can even choose to give points from these comments and in this way demonstrate the value of commenting and asking questions.
3. Provide constant support, feedback and as clear instructions as possible
Teachers can support the creation of a psychologically safe learning atmosphere by adding supportive replies to learners’ comments and questions, identifying and expanding on interest or trouble areas with leading questions or linking additional information on the platform. Teachers are able to add an informative or supportive comment directly into learners’ test answers.
Claned’s intuitive and lean learning platform enables teachers to provide learners clear instructions for the course and the course materials. All the modules and course materials are visible at the same time on the course board which makes it easier for the learner to get a better general view ofon the upcoming contents, tests and desired goals and progress of the course. Learners are provided information on the course structure, what is expected of them and how long the course will take, as a way to make it easier for them to reduce feelings of uncertainty. This way, learners have an easy access for all information and thanks to the platform’s intuitiveness, it does not require a lot of work to learn to use it.
A good example of a Claned customer case where the customer provided constant support, feedback and clear instructions for learners is the collaboration done between Claned and Startup Refugees. Originally, Claned has provided its learning platform pro bono for Startup Refugees. They are an NGO that arranges courses in entrepreneurship and work-related skills for immigrants and refugees. Kati Lappeteläinen from Startup Refugees wanted to emphasize the importance of clear instructions and personal guidance in their online course: “We knew that many of our learners were not very familiar with digital course environments. Therefore, we had prepared our leaflet with screenshots to provide our learners with the best guidance for online learning. We wanted to ensure that everyone has as clear instructions as possible on how to proceed on the course. We even provided personal guidance whenever needed,” Leppeteläinen says.
4. Provide different materials for different needs
Materials for different needs are crucial to provide for learners whenever the learner group has a less homogenous background and varying prior skills. Different learning approaches and materials are inevitable. Learners have a variety of levels of knowledge, technical skills, and, access to devices. In conclusion, a lot of diversity. At Claned’s learning platform, there is a possibility to create tests. Tests can help to define the learner’s prior skills, interests, and needs. Therefore to create different content packages to match each learner’s needs. This customized approach to learning helps to ensure that learners get the materials and support best suited to helping them develop and reach their goals.
Startup Refugees noticed even the need for different instruction materials for their learners. “When the high variation in learners’ technological competencies is taken into account and ensured that everyone has all information and help needed to start learning – only then we can actually enable inclusion and psychological safety”, Leppeteläinen summarizes.
5. Make the learning atmosphere as humane and approachable as possible
In Claned, learners can find and see other learners’ profiles or even start private chats to get to know each other better. Additionally, the possibility to embed videos easily from different sources helps to create a feeling of presence on the course platform together with the appearance of a social media platform with its chat functions. These features help to create a sense of belonging into a community for learners. Learners may be able to feel that they are actually learning with others who are in a same situation with them. The sense of community and togetherness is normally hard to reach in an online environment but the above-mentioned factors help to tackle this problem.
. Q. Roberson, Disentangling the Meanings of Diversity and Inclusion. Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, 2004. Cornell University ILR School.
. A. Edmondson, Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2, 1999, pp. 350-383.
 Best practices to foster inclusion in remote work. Inklusiiv ry, 2020. Available at: https://fi.inklusiiv.org/post/7-best-practices-to-foster-inclusion-in-remote-work.
 High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review, 2017. Available at: https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it.
 Inklusiiv, 2020.
 M. Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996
 J. B. Biggs and C. S. Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2011.
Writer’s note: This blog post has been inspired by the NGO and cross-border community Inklusiiv, their articles, and sources regarding diversity and inclusion.