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Fostering an Inclusive Environment when Developing Online Courses

Does your online course respect and encourage diversity?  Here are some facts and questions to consider in order to maximize your course inclusivity.

Current State of Technology

Each year our society’s growing dependence on technology has become more and more apparent within our everyday lives. The surge of this dependency is reinforced by the numbers collected in the 2015 Global Digital Snapshot, which states that there are currently over 7.3 billion people in the world today. Approximately 43 percent of those individuals (over 3.2 billion) are active Internet users, and and over half of the world’s population (over 3.7 billion) own a cell phone.1

This upswing in technology use is not only prominent in Western nations; it has also made great gains in other nations worldwide. Many developing countries, primarily in India and China, have seen record growth over the course of the decade. Approximately 90 percent of the world’s population can access mobile networks, three-quarters of which live in developing nations.2 Having the ability to buy inexpensive computers and smartphones have made it possible to address many issues that have been caused by the global digital divide.3 Individuals living in rural and low-socioeconomic communities now have the capacity to acquire the same knowledge and access to many services as others do through the Internet. As a result, the demand and desire for communities to take advantage of online education has begun to grow.

The first online courses appeared within the Mid-1980s, and for decades after, such courses were concentrated in only a few institutions. Now more than 95 percent of colleges and universities with over 5,000 students offer online classes for credit. By fall of 2012, 4 million undergraduates took at least one course online. To put this number in perspective, more students now take a class online than attend a college with varsity football.4

As the presence of technology continues to grow in Higher Education, it has become more challenging to find the best ways to engage our increasingly diverse student population. This is a result of many factors; one of which is the evolving demographics of what is considered a typical student.  Due to the flexibility and the ease of access of online courses there is an evolving shift in the makeup of the student body as a whole. In Clay Shirky’s recent article, The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed.,4 he explores how the “non-traditional” student is becoming the “traditional” student in online higher education. These are students who:

  •      Did not enroll into a university or college immediately after high school
  •      Are mostly 25 years old or older
  •      Has dependent children or elders
  •      Usually are married, or a single parent
  •      Tends to be enrolled part-time
  •      Usually works full-time
  •      Does not live on campus

This also includes understanding that while technology has eliminated many barriers that have in the past prevented individuals from accessing higher education online, there are still large portions of the population who struggle with access to the internet and latest technology.  These groups include:

  • Students with Disabilities (many times referred to as Special Education or SPED)
  • Economically Disadvantaged
  • Limited English Proficient (many times referred to as English Language Learners or ELL)
  • African American, Hispanic and Native American.

There are three primary reasons these groups have a slower rate of technology adoption: inconsistent internet access, the high cost of the latest technologies or operating systems used in digital devices, and insufficient access to free or cheap applications of online tools.

5 Strategies to Consider During Online Course Development

There are many factors to consider when developing an online course.  One of those factors includes becoming informed of the cultural diversity among students and finding unique ways to include their culture into the course.  Here are five strategies to consider to help foster inclusivity and showcase cultural awareness.     

#1 – Know Your Student Audience

Having a good connection and understanding of your course’s student population is essential to moving toward becoming more culturally aware.  Here are a few suggested areas to assess prior or during the first week of a course:

  1. The number of international students enrolled in the course.
  2. Reasons why students decided to enroll in the course/program.  
  3. If there are any bilingual or multilingual students are enrolled the course.
  4. The different student cultures and backgrounds in effort to learn more.

#2 – Review Course Activities for Cultural Awareness and Sensitivity

Awareness and knowledge is key to the development of course activities that recognize the cultural backgrounds of your students.  With recognition and encouragement, diversity will lead to a more harmonious online course environment.

#3 – Tap Into Your Student’s Backgrounds, Cultures, and Experiences

When students tap into their past experiences, it allows them to make deeper connections to the course curriculum. In order for those opportunities to be present, barriers in the form of misconstrued perceptions must first be addressed.  Most often is the misconception that our differences are what draw us apart.  In fact, we find that those same differences are not that different at all.  There are many common connections among student cultures and diverse backgrounds, and these connections can bring them closer together.    

#4 – Incorporate Tools to Help Bridge the Cultural and Socioeconomic Gap

There are a variety of available technologies that can help bridge the cultural and socioeconomic gaps faced by many online students.  Through the use of apps, multimedia, and collaborative tools, students have the opportunity to participate in technology-rich course activities without having to purchase expensive software or make costly hardware upgrades to their machines.  Examples of some of these tools can be found within the TeachOnline articles Third Party Tools used in ASU Online Courses5 and Technology Tools Currently Integrated in Blackboard.6

#5 – Strive to Create a Safe, Trustworthy, & Positive Rapport

The absence of a safe and harmonious course environment often can result in the hindrance of a student’s potential to dive deep into the course content, as well as their desire to make connections with the course community.  Establishing parameters and encouraging cultural awareness of diverse backgrounds at the start of the course can help to delineate any negative or unwarranted behaviors among students in the course.

Suggested Activity

In order to successfully establish an inclusive and culturally aware online course environment, the expectation must first start at the beginning of the course.  The Critical Multicultural Pavilion EdChange project by Paul C. Gorski provides a list of excellent Awareness Activities7 that range from strategies and preparation to icebreakers.  Below is an example of one of these activities that works especially well within an online course.

Exchanging Stories — Names

  • Step 1 – Briefly write about the story of your name (i.e. Who gave you your name & why?  meaning, origin, nicknames.  Reason for being named?  Any interesting story about how you were named.)
  • Step 2 – Share your story as an introductory discussion board post among the course community.
  • Step 3 – Comment on another student’s post (i.e. What you liked about the post, any connections you would like to share)
  • Step 4 – Reflect on the activity and experience (How did it feel to share your story?  Why was this activity important?  What did you learn?)

Summary

Technology allows for a more diverse and all-encompassing student body. Therefore, it is important as educators to be sensitive to technological and cultural gaps.  It is important to be cognizant of barriers that diverse populations are faced with and for instructors to strive to find ways to work with them.  We hope the resources provided in this article will help others to create a more inclusive and connected online course.

 

Co-written by Monique Jones and Obi Sneed

References

1 Global Digital Statshot: August 2015. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2015, from http://wearesocial.com/uk/special-reports/global-statshot-august-2015

2 The Role of Science and Technology in the Developing World in the 21st Century. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2015, from http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/chetty20121003

3 Digital Divide – ICT Information Communications Technology. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2015, from http://www.internetworldstats.com/links10.htm

4 Shirky, C. (2015, November 6). The digital revolution in higher education has already happened. No one noticed. (2015, November 6). Retrieved December 30, 2015, from https://medium.com/@cshirky/the-digital-revolution-in-higher-education-has-already-happened-no-one-noticed-78ec0fec16c7

5 Hobson, S. (2014, March 28). Third-Party Tools Used in ASU Online Courses – TeachOnline. Retrieved December 30, 2015, from https://teachonline.asu.edu/2014/03/third-party-tools-used-in-asu-online-courses/

6 Savvides, P. (2015, November 16). Technology Tools Currently Integrated with Blackboard. Retrieved December 30, 2015, from http://teachonline.asu.edu/2015/11/technology-tools-currently-integrated-with-blackboard/

7 C. Gorski, P. (n.d.). EdChange – Multicultural, Anti-bias, & Diversity Activities & Exercises. Retrieved December 30, 2015, from http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activityarch.html