Culturally Responsive Teaching in Digital Learning Environments

In 1994, author and educator Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced the term “culturally relevant pedagogy” into the vernacular of the education world.  This term was used to describe an approach to teaching that engages learners whose experiences and cultures have traditionally been excluded from mainstream settings.  Building on the work of Ladson-Billings, in 2010, Geneva Gay sought to further operationalize this idea  and started using the term “culturally responsive teaching” (CRT) to refer to the use of “cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.” (Gay, 2010, p.31)

Since 2010, many educational researchers have built upon the original work of Ladson-Billings and the core principles behind CRT to produce meaningful research about best practices in teaching that, ultimately, improve academic outcomes and help develop positive cultural identities for historically marginalized students.

But what about a digital environment?  What does CRT look like in practice when teaching and learning are mediated through technology?  This post seeks to explore some effective examples of CRT at work in digital classrooms, especially in higher education environments.

To begin with, it will be helpful to further flesh out what CRT “looks like” in a general sense.  According to Gay (2010), effective CRT will be:

  1. Validating: CRT utilizes cultural knowledge, worldviews, background experience, and performance styles to make learning encounters relevant and effective for students while affirming their differing strengths and contributions to a classroom environment.
  2. Comprehensive: CRT will support students of color in maintaining connections with their communities while cultivating an ethos of camaraderie and shared responsibility; acquiring individual skills and knowledge  will not be held separate from the development of the whole learner.
  3. Multi-dimensional: CRT will require attention to curriculum, context, climate, instructional techniques, classroom management, assessment, and student-teacher dynamics and the role each of these plays in a learning environment.
  4. Empowering: CRT will promote personal confidence, courage, and initiative on the part of the student, ultimately enabling students to be better human beings.
  5. Transformative: CRT is explicit about respecting the cultures and experiences of traditionally under- and misrepresented populations (especially African American, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian students), and it recognizes existing strengths in these students that may be further enhanced in the learning process.
  6. Emancipatory: CRT resists the constraints of the historical norms in education and expands ways of knowing in a manner that is psychologically and intellectually liberating.  This requires making authentic knowledge about different ethnic groups accessible to students and acknowledging learner agency in course design.

Woodley et al. (2017) offer some excellent examples of CRT in an online classroom that use these six principles as the framework and rationale:

Sample ASample BSample C
ValidatingPre-assess technology comfort levelIncorporate student introductions. Asking specific questions about students’ cultural identities/ backgrounds and providing examples can help students feel comfortable in sharing (Rhodes & Schmidt, 2018)Utilize an icebreaker activity or question that provides a platform for establishing social presence
Comprehensive &Multi-dimensionalAssign projects with opportunities for exploring possible solutions to issues of equity and social justice (also Emancipatory)Use a discussion board as a platform for a respectful debate where multiple solutions or perspectives can be exploredCreate pathways for students to use different mediums for turning in work; this may include options for submitting directly to an instructor and not on a public board
Empowering & EmancipatoryCreate opportunities for leadership or facilitation of group work and discussions for all studentsAllow students to co-design the course and establish mutually-agreed upon norms (Rhodes & Schmidt, 2018)Let student interest drive discussions and deliverables with relevant application to their own lives as a motivating factor
TransformativeProvide program and/or course orientations to help build community and comfort levels in an online environmentCreate opportunities for weekly synchronous or asynchronous course discussions among classmatesShare knowledge; utilize student presentations for assignments

Each of the above samples were drawn from the expertise of instructors in a higher education context, but many–if not all–can easily translate to a physical classroom (perhaps using technology to enhance the activity), and/or a K-12 learning environment.  The thread that runs throughout each of these examples is the student-centered nature of CRT.  Student self-expression, tech-supported or otherwise, allows students to “…name their own reality.  Teachers, in turn, are able to foster a space where their students’ lived experiences are legitimized and incorporated into the ‘official’ curriculum” (Frederick et al., 2009, p. 11).

When it comes to technology’s potential for supporting student-self-expression, Ferlazzo (2020) highlights some recent, “teacher approved” digital tools and platforms that have worked well for online teaching/learning, especially as they have proved their merit for online teaching/learning during the pandemic.  Each has the ability to put the elements of instructional design listed above into practice.

  1. Flipgrid:   At its most basic, this free tool can be used by students and instructors to produce short video introductions at the beginning of an online class to increase social presence, but it also has the ability to support video dialogue betweens students.  This increases opportunities for collaboration, response, and expression.   Additionally, “English- and world-language learners can practice new speaking skills while previewing and editing their video responses as they master pronunciation” (Ferlazzo, para.15).
  2. Google Slides: Also free and easy to use, when students have editing access to a Google Slide deck they can collaborate, observe, and modify each other’s work in real time creating a much more interactive classroom experience which also gives opportunities for students to act as co-constructors of learning.
  3. Peardeck:  Easily integrated with Google Slides, Peardeck allows various add-ons to be shared on slides during a synchronous class session including various types of formative assessments (polls, matching, multiple choice, etc.), drawing boards, interactive questions, audio recordings, etc.  Peardeck helps create varied ways for students to express themselves and their learning in a digital classroom.
  4. Padlet: Often used like a virtual whiteboard, Padlet is a great way to share thoughts in real time in a virtual class.  The image search option is oft-cited as a nice option for students to vary their mode of expression online, especially for English Language Learners.
  5. Quizizz, Baamboozle and Kahoot: These are (also free) online game/quiz platforms which can easily be used for assessments or reinforcement activities and are especially helpful in online environments when completed by teams/small groups.  Additionally, problem-based learning can be used to make learning meaningful/relatable to students, and to help them engage in critical inquiry (Rhodes & Schmidt, 2018).

Some additional suggestions I’ve come across include:

  1. iMovie:  If students have access to this app already on a personal device (often included for free with Apple products), iMovie is an approachable way for students to create more detailed and creative video responses for a project or presentation wherein they can also see themselves reflected (perhaps literally) in the final product.  The final product can then be shared out to their classmates in either a synchronous or asynchronous fashion.  A video production is also a good example of an alternative form of assessment.
  2. Kialo:  Free for educators, Kialo is a tool designed to frame a debate or map a logical argument. It’s specifically designed for classroom use and promotes thoughtful collaboration and critical thinking while helping students construct well-reasoned arguments on important topics.

At the end of the day, culturally responsive educators are reflective.  They continually examine their own cultural perspectives and biases to ensure that they are creating environments that are supportive to all learners, and they continually think critically about their course design (Rhodes & Schmidt, 2018).  To conclude, then, I’d like to leave you with a set of meaningful reflection questions from Rhodes & Schmidt’s 2018 article, “Culturally responsive Teaching in the Online Classroom” which may prove helpful as you ponder the design of your own learning environments and experiences, now and into the future.


  • 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?


  • 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?


  • 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?


  • 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?


Ferlazzo, L. (2020, November 8). 10 favorite online teaching tools used by educators this year. Education Week.

Frederick, R., Donnor, J., & Hatley, L. (2009). Culturally responsive applications of computer technologies in education: Examples of best practice. Educational Technology, 49(6), 9-13.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Rhodes, C. & Schmidt, S., (2018, November). Culturally responsive teaching in the online classroom. E-Learn Magazine.

Woodley, X., Hernandez, C., Parra, J., & Negasj, B., (2017). Celebrating difference: Best practices in culturally responsive teaching online. TechTrends 61, 470–478.