Get to Know Your Students’ Backgrounds, Perspectives and Learning Journeys
There is a tendency to tailor higher education to the needs and interests of students who traditionally constitute the majority of the student body. In many universities based in Western countries, this group consists of white, middle class, able-bodied, and cisheterosexual students. While this tendency can at first glance seem innocuous, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that this pattern – often insidiously – contributes to a further deterioration of the educational environment. Students belonging to underserved groups in particular are doubly affected by the status quo. Against the backdrop of a rapid transition to online learning and the accompanying set of challenges it presents for creating inclusive online learning environments, it is imperative to seek out ways to better understand the backgrounds, perspectives, and learning journeys of the students in our classrooms. To that end, this module helps to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the diversity among the students in our classrooms.
What do we want them to learn?
In education, we want every individual to be treated with dignity and as a sovereign, unique participant to the learning context. Learning is also optimal when the course meets the student’s needs, appeals to their talents, and feels relevant to their life. Instead of integrating every person to an existing, static system, the learning context can be made responsive to the various learning needs, talents, and ambitions of every student (and teacher). This means that the teacher first needs to get to know the students, including their needs and backgrounds, so that the teaching and learning process can accommodate the diverse needs of the student population. (Domagała-Zyśk, 2018; Pacansky-Brock, Smedshammer & Vincent-Lammer, 2019).
Just as teachers bring their own individual preferences, experiences, and biases that shape the classroom environment, so do their students. A fundamental difference between the influence of these individual student identities on the online classroom and that of the teacher lies in the dynamics of power between student and teacher. Similarly, a teacher’s own assumptions emerging from their positionality also shapes the online classroom environment (Salazar, Norton & Tuitt, 2010). The asymmetry of power between teacher and student in shaping the online classroom means that students are dependent on their teacher to create a safe, educational, and inclusive environment. Since there is a tendency to privilege a specific group of students, teachers must first gain proper insight into the diverse identities, experiences, and learning journeys of the students in their classroom before they can cater to the learning needs of every student. Students whose experiences do not align with their teacher’s presumptions of what is ‘normal’ are likely to fall outside of consideration when designing education because their needs have a higher probability of being different from the learning needs of the traditional student. Creating an inclusive online classroom, requires teachers to recognise, acknowledge and use their own positionality to understand their role as facilitators of a diverse classroom with students from different backgrounds and with different needs. Teachers can achieve a more inclusive classroom by actively centring their students’ perspectives and in doing so actively avoid further marginalisation (Acevedo, 2015).
The deliberate effort to get to know students is particularly important in the case of underrepresented students. Firstly, because their positions, views, and needs diverge from what is most standard and what teachers are most used to. Secondly, because they are likely to be less visible in the classroom, and even more so in an online environment. Underrepresented students who are not familiar with their fellow students and have experienced unfair treatment before, are more hesitant to participate and interact in informal settings. Getting to know students, which requires some level of nearness, is not always easy in physical classrooms and even more difficult in online learning environments. The lack of face-to-face interactions also veils cues about identities or disabilities that would be visible in an in-person context. Although it can be pleasant when characteristics that are normally noticeable (like a hearing aid) are concealed, it can also complicate matters when other students and teachers have less understanding of one’s special needs, or when students must explicitly articulate those characteristics and needs. Hence, certain students feel safer as passive observers instead of participants in online education, which can be detrimental to their learning experience. The paragraphs below discuss a handful of practical insights, strategies, and tools for dialogue that teachers can employ to better understand their students’ perspectives and experiences.
Creating moments of engagement
As mentioned before, a lack of in-person contact can present new challenges for the classroom environment, but it can also be experienced as an advantage. Online, classroom participants have more autonomy in how they present themselves. Students can feel freer to choose which aspects they verbalize and which they do not communicate. For example, some deaf and hard-of-hearing students do not disclose their deafness while chatting, tweeting or posting other messages. Fortunately, digital technologies also provide manifold ways to collect personal information in safe and engaged ways, for example by conducting a brief survey, having students record a brief introduction video presentation, or present a visual graphic on a digital pin board (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2019). These tools can help to bridge the physical distance by creating educational situations that are small-scale and feel safer. For example, group projects and pair work in digital breakout rooms can be moments to engage underrepresented students in conversations and common work. These moments might form good starting points to make more informal contact (Domagała-Zysk, 2020).
Broaching complex subjects
When we talk about diversity, some of us tend to avoid emphasising the differences that exist amongst us. In fact, sometimes people prefer not to discuss certain issues at all because they stir complex feelings. This is a view that is based on good intentions, but it might not have the desired equalizing effect when the problem is not being addressed. The ‘color brave’ approach entails broaching subject matter that can sometimes be difficult, foreign, and uncomfortable – precisely for this reason (Lillie, 2014). The goal is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Color brave is an approach to the subject of race and ethnicity but one that can also be applied other elements of our identity. In the context of online education this can be useful to analyze and mitigate its barriers such as digital literacy, internet access, and privacy by firstly opening them up for discussion.
Spaces for dialogue
When it comes to catering to different perspectives, it is important to create a space in which diverging ideas can be discussed. For this purpose, the ideas of ‘safe spaces’, ‘brave spaces’ and ‘accountable spaces’ have been suggested (Ahenkorah, 2020). In a safe space an environment is created where everyone actively eschews harmful and exclusionary behaviour. A brave space is focused on accommodating space for everyone to show up authentically and willing to embrace difference. The aim of accountable spaces is the cocreation of equitable conditions and outcomes for all those involved in a manner that honours everyone’s values and needs.
ECHO, Center for Diversity Policy