Representation in 21st Century Online Higher Education: How the Online Learning Culture Serves Diverse Students

Representation in 21st Century Online Higher Education: How the Online Learning Culture Serves Diverse Students

Maggie Broderick
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3583-7.ch010
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This chapter examines representation of women and minorities in 21st century higher education with regard to how the online learning culture serves diverse students. Over the past two decades, faculty and student representation by women and minorities has increased, while online learning has also grown exponentially, becoming almost ubiquitous in its reach and scope. Even with differences across institutions (public versus private, size of the university, and populations served), the online learning environment has a seemingly agreed-upon set of rules, standards, and practices. Arguably, online learning has a distinct culture, which can thus be viewed through the lens of Vygotskyian sociocultural theory. While online learning may have some perceived downsides, a potential benefit is that the nature of the technology and the agreed-upon culture of 21st century online learning across institutions may serve to mask and inhibit implicit bias and thus level the playing field for women and minority students and faculty in higher education.
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In 2009, I taught my first online course after having taught on-ground for several years. I am a white woman, like a sizeable percentage of faculty members in my discipline of Teacher Education (U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Very little information was revealed to me about my online students, aside from their names and contact information. I had previously taught in a diverse, inner-city public school district, and I did assume that a few names on my roster were more typical of African American students. My own implicit bias as a white woman likely impacted my judgement of my students’ names, some of which I interpreted stereotypically (Conaway & Bethune, 2015). However, given the nature of the online learning environment, I did not initially reflect much about the racial make-up of the students enrolled in my first course. I engaged with the students on the discussion board, graded their weekly work, and got to know them fairly well as individuals from their posts and assignments. During our tenth and final week together, my students submitted a PowerPoint presentation assignment that was designed to serve as what they would present to their own K-12 students on the first day of school. All students were required to include a personal photo in this presentation. As I opened the drop-box and started grading that final assignment, I suddenly realized that 85-90% of my online students were African American, and mostly female. I truly had not realized this fact until that moment at the end of the course. Again, my own implicit bias – both positive and negative – certainly played a part in my ongoing understanding of this initial experience. I have continued to teach many hundreds of students online for the past decade, and have only met a few of my students in person. This personal experience provides a window into the unique cultural environment of today’s online classrooms.

Over time, I sought to learn more about the racial make-up of my online students by studying statistics from my institution, which I had never thought to consider before jumping in and teaching that first course. That initial surprise, however, guided my ongoing reflections about how online courses tend to mask the racial and/or demographic make-up of our students, simply due to the existing technology and how we use it. I thought about how most instructors have implicit bias toward and against particular groups of students, and how that impacts each student’s chance at success. Indeed, today’s typical online courses share a culture of allowing for a more blind approach to the racial and/or demographic make-up of our students, and perhaps thus a more level playing field. It is important to note that this idea does not imply any kind of post-racial utopia, as some might have naively thought 25 years ago about the Internet in general (Scholars Question the Image of the Internet as a Race-Free Utopia, 2001), but instead a more nuanced idea regarding mitigating implicit bias. By its very nature, the online learning environment, like most online interactions, is more anonymous than the traditional face-to-face learning environment. Faculty and students do not immediately rely on typical interpersonal factors and implicit judgements based on race, ethnicity, age, accent, and other factors. Instead, the online learning environment provides much more of a blank slate, which perhaps can level the playing field in some ways. This chapter explores how the unique cultural experience of the online learning environment may benefit students and faculty who might otherwise be affected by the implicit bias of others in the classroom environment. Addressing implicit bias in both on-ground and online education is crucial, especially when inclusion and diversity may not always been given appropriate consideration by participants and stakeholders. The lens of Vygotskian Sociocultural Theory (Vygotsky, 1978, 1962) provides a context for understanding the potential benefits to members of online learning communities in 21st century higher education. A literature review documenting changing trends for minority and women faculty and students in higher education (both on-ground and online) illustrates the need for greater understanding of this unique paradigm.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Vygotsky: Theorist on human development and learning via a nurture-based model in which culture, language, and experience take precedence over other elements.

Masking Effect: The ability for participants in internet-based communications and interactions to remain somewhat anonymous or only partially identified, especially with regard to demographic factors.

Diversity: The extent to which varied groups of humans participate in, are welcome in, and contribute to the culture of a given place, scenario, culture, or situation.

Mediation: The process by which something is facilitated or made more comfortable and accessible for the participants.

Collegiality: The friendly interaction and willing exchange among faculty and other participants in higher education.

Bias: The implicit or explicit expression and feeling for or against a particular group, especially with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, and other demographic factors.

Faculty: Instructors and professors in higher education, regardless of rank, tenure, and/or employment status (i.e., full-time, part-time, itinerant, adjunct, etc.).

Online Education: Teaching and learning occurring primarily or entirely in an online (internet-based) environment.

Minorities: Adult humans identifying as underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the United States of America, compared to adult white Americans (which have been the historically majority population until very recently).

Magic Mirror: The construct introduced in this chapter pertaining to the unique feature of the online learning environment in which participants can choose how much identifying information about themselves to reveal or not reveal.

Sociocultural: Frameworks (based on the works of Vygotsky and others) about how humans learn and grow via ongoing cultural experiences mediated by other people and objects, which contribute to the scaffolding process.

Women: Adult humans identifying as female.

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