Explore How Your Biases Affect Digital Learning
The unprecedented proliferation of online education driven by the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities that existed in the physical classroom, which disproportionately affect already vulnerable students (Li & Lalani, 2020). Challenges surrounding accessibility and engagement of marginalized students take on different forms in online environments, as the conventions and norms of ‘traditional’ education are rendered unconducive to attain learning goals. Moreover, teachers have their own individual preferences, experiences, and biases that shape the classroom environment and interactions with students. On top of that, taking the time to consider these influences and their implications on learning is sometimes hampered by other work-related matters. Consequently, the question of what makes a classroom a safe, educational, and inclusive environment has become even more pressing than before. Despite these challenges, the transition to online education has concomitantly provided opportunities to discuss these matters more in-depth and direct efforts towards enhancing the learning experiences of students at the margins of the educational system through flexibility, access, diversification, and participation. In this module, you will learn to make use of these opportunities by first exploring your own position and biases, and the ways in which these affect digital learning through the concept of positionality.
What do we want them to learn?
In an educational environment where the paradigm of the ‘ideal educator’ is an all-knowing, neutral, and distant individual, one can easily become blind to their own biases in pursuit of objective scholarship. It is important, however, to remain vigilant of how our own positionality influences our classroom and as a rule generally extends to digital contexts rather than disappearing altogether in the online sphere, which is an erroneous presupposition (Zambito, 2020). In fact, teachers always carry with them their social identities – i.e., their bodies, communication styles, preferences, experiences, talents, and needs – which shape their strengths and comfort zones, as well as their implicit and explicit preferences and judgements. Inclusive digital education requires an increasing awareness and critical interrogation of how dynamics of power affect the online classroom (interpersonal awareness), and what role the teacher’s own assumptions emerging from their positionality play here (intrapersonal awareness) (Salazar, Norton & Tuitt, 2010).
Warf (2010, p. 2558) offers the following definition of positionality:
Positionality is the notion that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how one understands the world. In this context, gender, race, class, and other aspects of identities are indicators of social and spatial positions and are not fixed, given qualities. Positions act on the knowledge a person has about things, both material and abstract. Consequently, knowledge is the product of a specific position that reflects particular places and spaces.
In other words, positionality is a concept through which to understand what role we take on in certain social interactions. In the context of digital education, positionality can be taken to mean the awareness or reflection on the manner in which our own experiences and personal background influences the way we interact with and perceive our digital classroom environment. By grasping the concept of positionality and applying it to our own contexts, we are able to concretise and articulate the oft-invisible aspects of the classroom culture and digital education. In this sense, positionality is not only considered to be a concept, but also a practice in and of itself. To practice positionality means to constantly inquire into the way your perspective of a certain event is shaped by your personal background and lived experience. At the same time, it is also useful to practice positionality when faced with the perspective of others as an effort to better understand them – paradoxical as this may seem. For most teachers, this will be a personal learning process of trial and error and may place them outside of their comfort zone. As with any learning process, this requires commitment, flexibility, and self-reflection. In the next section, you can find examples of situations in which practicing positionality is encouraged to help foster inclusive (online) pedagogies.
Determining teaching style
Just as we all have our own learning style, we also have our own teaching style as educators. The decisions that we make have a serious effect on the experiences and achievements of our students. Consider, for instance, what the relation is between your own learning style and teaching style. What are the consequences of this? What are ways in which you could cater to other learning styles? Does your teaching style have the same effectiveness in an online setting? What digital tools can you use to enhance the learning experience of your students and your teaching experience?
Dealing with ‘hot moments’
While teaching or interacting with colleagues, situations of conflict or tension can arise. During these moments, we are confronted with our own emotions and reactions. Practicing positionality allows us to understand what experiences shape our response. Consider, for instance, what emotions you are experiencing in these moments, and how they perhaps differ from the emotions that you see amongst your students and colleagues. Did you also consider how these moments might pose new challenges which necessitate a different approach from you as an educator when they arise in an online environment? How can you adapt to interactions in the digital space?
Creating a curriculum
When designing a curriculum, we often consider the sources we include to be neutral and objective, yet personal preference can play a big role here. Think for example of including scholars you personally know, emphasizing topics that you find important because of your involvement in them or including articles that had a profound impact on your own personal development. In the digital context, you can think of choosing specific source types and media of your personal preference. For example, opting for a textual explanation of a particular theory rather than an informative video on the same topic.
Of course, this is not something you can completely avoid. Nevertheless, by reflecting on your positionality, you can identify the factors that shape your decision-making and make your students aware of the reasoning behind designing the curriculum in a particular way.
Didactic and pedagogical adaptability
Classroom interactions are dynamic, with students and contexts varying each time. Technology is also constantly evolving, and some students might have much more digital expertise than their teachers – who sometimes have little time to keep up with technological developments or approach them with trepidation. Principles for teaching and teachers themselves continuously evolve as well. Even disciplines, institutions, and society slowly move in particular directions. As no situation will likely remain the same, practicing inclusive education involves a continuous openness to the situation at hand and a willingness to keep learning and reflecting. Engaging in such moments of reflection jointly with students can have a positive effect on them because they then see that it is acceptable to reflect and learn from a situation together, even when this is done in hindsight.
ECHO, Center for Diversity Policy