Support Student Success With Culturally Responsive Course Design

There are many factors to consider when designing a high-quality online or hybrid course, including accessibility and alignment. But there’s another critical component that is often overlooked — culturally responsive and inclusive design.

Understanding the Need

A diverse group of learners can be found in just about any course.  Each learner brings their own unique lived experiences to the table — experiences often embedded within their own communities and cultures. Culturally responsive design taps into, reflects and respects those experiences and provides increased access to equitable learning. “For a long time advocates of online learning have touted access as a benefit, but I don't think we can really talk about access without talking about culturally responsive teaching. Inclusion and belonging matters in online environments,” noted Dr. Stephanie Spong from the University of New Mexico. “As more students find themselves learning online (sometimes not by choice), this is key to helping them make the most out of their learning experiences.” 

Defining What It Is

Culturally responsive and inclusive design “enables us to minimize institutionalized inequality by creating equitable learning experiences,” explained Dr. Zakaria Jouaibi from North Carolina Central University. It promotes student success by “building upon the cultural capital that learners and teachers bring to the online classroom” (Woodley et al., 2017). Additionally, culturally responsive design helps:

  • Better meet the needs of underserved and underrepresented learners
  • Increase learner persistence and retention
  • Celebrate the diversity of your students
  • Create rich, holistic learning environments 
  • Validate the pre-existing knowledge and lived experiences of learners
  • Engage students in dynamic and culturally-relevant ways
  • Allow students “voice and choice” in achieving learning objectives

“Culturally responsive/sustaining/revitalizing pedagogy is empowering because it creates opportunities for holistic learning that values the cultural wealth of students," added Dr. Nancy López, University of New Mexico.

Implementing Culturally Responsive Design

When Quality Matters (QM) released the Bridge to Quality Course Design Guide for both higher education and K-12 in the spring of 2020, we recognized that it was missing design considerations for culturally responsive and inclusive teaching and learning. To update the guide and incorporate those design considerations, we collaborated with seven members of our community who are experts in cultural inclusivity. “Online learning environments can only overcome historical injustices and personal challenges for students if they are designed and implemented with strategy, intentionality, criticality, and an eye toward inclusion,” shared Mary Frances Rice, a committee member from the University of New Mexico.
The committee worked for months to bring their decades of knowledge, research and expertise to the guide. The ultimate goal was to provide design considerations that assist educators in designing courses that display respect and value for the lived experiences of the students engaged in those courses. “This was a great way to have an impact beyond my online classes,” explained Dr. Xeturah Woodley. “It was a chance for me to learn from other instructional designers and to work on a project that will have a global impact.”

Taking a Closer Look

Because these considerations should be a seamless part of the design, they are now incorporated into relevant design steps in the guide. That way, faculty can consider inclusiveness from the start. For example, take a look at Phase 1 Align, Section B, Step 2 (HE) Step 3 (K-12):

Original Step Updated Step (highlighted)

Choose and use instructional materials that are directly connected to the learning objectives. Whether you create, have students purchase, or adapt free Open Educational Resources (OER), ensure that these materials support the learning objectives. 


Return to your alignment map, and describe how your instructional materials connect to each relevant assessment and your course objectives.


Any misalignment can be addressed by either creating or finding new material to address a “gap” or eliminating or making material that is not aligned to an objective and assessment optional.

Choose and use instructional materials that are directly connected to the learning objectives. Whether you create, have students purchase, or adapt free Open Educational Resources (OER), ensure that these materials support the learning objectives.


Return to your alignment map, and describe how your instructional materials connect to each relevant assessment and your course objectives. Ask yourself who a novice would think are the authorities on this topic after seeing your list of instructional materials. Is that an accurate representation of the authorities in the discipline? Consider whether or not your materials allow students to see themselves or people like them as knowledge creators in your field.


Any misalignment can be addressed by either creating or finding new material to address a “gap” or eliminating or making material that is not aligned to an objective and assessment optional.

Language was added to this step because instructional materials provide an important opportunity to represent diverse experiences. “This language prompts faculty to examine course content to reflect a diversity of thought and representation and encourages instructors to explore new ways to include marginalized perspectives and voices,” explained Dr. Bethany Simunich, QM Director of Research and Innovation.
To learn more about other areas where language was added, watch the screencasts that explain the changes made to the Higher Ed. guide and the K-12 guide.

Culturally Responsive Design Committee Members

This important work would not have been possible without the efforts of our committee members. QM is thankful for the time and expertise they devoted to this project.

  • Dr. Racheal Brooks, Ph.D.
    Racheal Brooks
    Dr. Racheal Brooks is the Coordinator of the Office of e-Learning and a Spanish and graduate-level research methods instructor at North Carolina Central University. She also serves as Co-Chair for the University of North Carolina System QM Council, is a member of the QM Academic Advisory Council and the NCCU Distance Education Advisory Council, and is an NCCU QM Coordinator, QM Master Reviewer, QM-Certified Program Reviewer, Course Review Manager, and facilitator of several QM workshops. Dr. Brooks's research interests include online instruction and learner success, online curriculum development, digital accessibility, instructional technology, qualitative research methods, program assessment, Spanish language acquisition at HBCUs, second language learner beliefs, and minorities in Spanish language studies. Dr. Brooks earned a BA in Spanish from North Carolina Central University, an MA in Spanish Literature from Georgia State University, and a Ph.D. in Educational Research and Policy Analysis with a specialization in Higher Education Administration from North Carolina State University.
  • Dr. Nancy López, Ph.D.
    Nancy López
    Dr. Nancy López is associate vice president for equity & inclusion, professor of sociology, Director/co-founder of the Institute for the Study of “Race” & Social Justice, and the Founding Coordinator of the NM Statewide Race, Gender, Class Data Policy Consortium at the University of New Mexico. She co-chairs the Education Subcommittee of the Governor’s Advisory Racial Justice Council. Her scholarship and over 20 years of teaching are guided by intersectionality (simultaneity of settler colonialism, structural racism, heteropatriarchy, racial capitalism, and other systems of oppression/resistance). Her current research, funded by the WT Grant Foundation, is a mixed-method study in three research practice partnerships that examines the role of ethnic studies curriculum/pedagogy in reducing complex intersectional inequalities in high school. Dr. López is a Black Latina, first-generation college student, NYC-born child of Dominican immigrants, and Spanish is her first language.
  • Mary Rice
    Mary Frances Rice
    Mary Frances Rice is an assistant professor of literacy at the University of New Mexico. Her scholarship uses interdisciplinary approaches to support inclusive online educational practices and policies. Mary was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities. She is also an Online Learning Consortium Emerging Scholar and a Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute fellow. Prior to entering the academy, Mary taught junior high English language arts, ESL, and reading support classes and instructed endorsement courses for teaching multilingual learners.
  • Dr. Zakaria Jouaibi, Ph.D.
    Zakaria Jouaibi
    Dr. Zakaria Jouaibi is a senior instructional designer at North Carolina Central University. He has been teaching graduate courses in Cultural Competency with ELLs & Their Families, Methods & Materials for TESL, Survey of Educational Media, and Instructional Innovation. He has also taught Arabic, French, and ESL courses. Dr. Jouaibi is a QM-Certified Program Reviewer, a QM-Certified Master Reviewer, a QM-Certified Peer Reviewer, and a QM-Certified APPQMR and IYOC Facilitator. He is also the Professional Development Coordinator for the UNC System QM Council. His research interests include online andragogy and pedagogy, curriculum and course design, inclusive design, and professional development.
  • Dr. Laurell Malone, Ph.D.
    Laurell Malone
    Dr. Laurell Malone is the Coordinator of the Office of Faculty Professional Development (OFPD) and associate professor at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). She earned a BA in Biology from Earlham College, an MA in Early Childhood Education from the University of Virginia, and both an Ed.S. and Ed.D. in Education Administration from Virginia Tech. Dr. Malone has served NCCU in a variety of leadership positions including Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership, Coordinator of the Master of School Administration Degree Program, Faculty Senator, and Facilitator for the ACUE (Association of College and University Educators) online course in Effective College Teaching. Dr. Malone has taken coursework to be a QM-Certified Master and Peer Reviewer. Her expertise and research interests are in instructional leadership, curriculum development and design, culturally responsive pedagogy, and data analysis, assessment, and accountability.
  • Dr. Stephanie Diane Spong, Ph.D.
    Stephanie Diane Spong
    Dr. Stephanie Spong has been the Associate Director with the Center for Digital Learning at the University of New Mexico since June 2019. Previously, she was an instructional designer and then campus director for faculty development and instructional design at Valencia College in Orlando, FL. She has taught college-level English and first-year experience courses for nine years at both UNM and Valencia College. She has co-authored articles in Computers and Composition, Kairos, and the Journal of Business and Technical Communications and has a forthcoming guide on teaching for graduate students from West Virginia University Press. Stephanie holds a BA in English and Women’s Studies from the College of William and Mary as well as an MA and a Ph.D. in Language and Literature from the University of New Mexico.
  • Dr. Xeturah Woodley, Ph.D.
    Xeturah Woodley
    Dr. Xeturah Woodley is an associate professor and program coordinator for the Learning Design and Technology Program at New Mexico State University. Her research, teaching and service weave together Black womanist thought, critical race theory and social justice praxis as she interrogates the inherent biases that plague American higher education. Dr. Woodley’s research interests include womanism, social justice issues in higher education, and critical pedagogies in online education.

Woodley, X. M., Hernandez, C., Parra, J., & Negash, B.* (2017). Celebrating Difference: Best Practices in Culturally Responsive Teaching Online. Tech Trends, 61(10), 470-478. doi:10.1007/s11528-017-0207-z