Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment: Learn, Care, Challenge and Share

Learn - being active learners
Care - caring and valuing everyone
Challenge - doing our very best
Share - sharing equally and openly

I recently came across the four values for a Special School in the UK: learn, care, challenge and share. It struck me that these were the four things one needed to consider when trying to create an inclusive learning environment and were perhaps particularly apt in recent months when we have had to pivot to online and blended learning. Inclusive learning is one of the cross-cutting themes within Lancaster University’s Education Strategy and was a focus for one of the Sunway visits to Lancaster, where I was able to learn and share ideas with Sunway colleagues, as well as being challenged and appreciating the importance of valuing the contributions and context in which colleagues were working.

For me, inclusion is a key consideration when it comes to curriculum design; it starts at the design phase, but is something that should be considered with respect to the teaching and learning environment and when thinking about the activities that students will complete independently, or with peers outside ‘the classroom’ when they are not working directly with the educator.

This brief paper looks at a few of the issues that I have learned more about and found helpful when thinking about inclusivity within an online or blended learning context. It recognises the importance of caring and valuing everyone, and acknowledges the challenges that online and blended learning presents and the benefits of sharing practice in terms of time saved and enhancement of the student experience.

Since 2020, many HE staff and students have rapidly engaged in online learning. The two learning features outlined here relate to online learning and inclusive curriculum design. Firstly, well-known to online educators, is the Gilly Salmon five stage structured model. The model provides scaffolding for learning that guides and supports students to access learning and ultimately take responsibility for their own learning and development. The five stages are: access and motivation, online socialisation, information exchange, knowledge construction and development. For further practical online learning ideas, my colleague, Kyungmee Lee, from the Lancaster’s Educational Research department, has written a paper on 14 simple tips for better online teaching that may be useful.

Secondly, inclusive teaching and learning is served by the inclusive curriculum design (ICD) principles of: anticipatory, flexible, accountable, collaborative, transparent and equitable. They inform a series of subject focused guides Morgan and Houghton, 2011, which would be interesting to reflect more upon from an online perspective. These relate to the why, what and how considerations of universal design for learning (UDL), namely, engagement, representation, action and expression as advocated by CAST, for further details. The ICD principles and UDL practices and materials all help encourage consideration of the barriers that may prevent learning, especially within an online learning environment.

Care for me evokes values of respecting and valuing all those engaged in the learning activity. This includes the diverse range of students who we teach but also and importantly involves care of ourselves and our colleagues. Given the phenomenal amount of learning that many of us have had to engage in to move to online learning during the pandemic, it would be easy to forget the individual. Inclusive teaching and learning either in person or online, needs to take account of everyone involved.

A survey undertaken at the end of summer 2020 at Lancaster highlighted the diverse student responses to many of the teaching and learning arrangements that colleagues had put in place to enable students to access learning. Unsurprisingly, what works well for some students doesn't work well for others. Flexibility, collaboration and being transparent about what is required and possible are three of the ICD principles which appeared to have made a difference. The opportunity to ask what to do, or where to find resources is less obvious online, making the need to anticipate and make transparent what is required more important and something students clearly valued.

Caring does not mean providing a single solution; an inclusive approach advocates variety and choice. However, what was also evident in the student feedback, was that students valued and appreciated clear communication and appreciated it when staff acknowledged the challenges that they were facing. Thinking about ways to embed wellbeing in the curriculum (Houghton and Anderson, 2017) using the five ways to wellbeing, is another suggestion to facilitate an inclusive commitment to learn and care.

There are obvious challenges of time, experience in teaching online and in the UK perhaps one of the biggest challenges relates to the production of captions and transcriptions for learning videos to ensure accessibility. This challenge has however resulted in many students benefiting from this inclusive legal requirement.

Another challenge is responding to the diversity of need arising from the intersectionality of learners’ characteristics and experiences. Whilst it’s important not to make assumptions about students, nevertheless, thinking about the potential barriers to learning they might face in order to try and anticipate and adapt to minimise the impact saves time and is clearly more inclusive. What now seem like obvious examples, such as thinking about time zones, access to the internet, finding a suitable place to study, intrusion in personal space, were not things typically thought about for in-person teaching but are now part of creating an inclusive environment.

Learning to be inclusive relies on creating a space and environment where colleagues and students can share their ideas. The past year has seen a rapid increase in the number of webinars, podcasts, moving conferences and sharing practice events online, often with resources which can be viewed later. In the past year, I have been reminded of the safety advice given to those on planes, to put your own oxygen mask on before starting to help others, and so the final point is to care for your own wellbeing so that you can care for the learning of your students and together with your colleagues meet the challenges of creating inclusive learning.


Dr Ann-Marie Houghton 
Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University, UK

Lancaster University and Sunway University established an academic partnership in 2006. While the Lancaster-Sunway partnership initially focussed on teaching, it has evolved over the years to also include research collaboration and engagement activities.