Diversity in Online Education Print

Andrew T. Arroyo, Norfolk State University

Andrew T. Arroyo is a former nondenominational urban/inner-city minister and is currently an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Norfolk State University — a historically Black institution located in Norfolk, VA. His current research is on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), equity and social justice in theory and practice, and online distance learning. His publications can be found in diverse outlets, including Teaching Theology and Religion and the Learning Communities Journal. Arroyo also has presented at numerous conferences, including the American Educational Research Association, the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, and the American Academy of Religion. An avid ultrarunner, his longest footrace to date has been fifty-four miles through the mountains of Central Virginia.

Mirror, Mirror . . .

No doubt you have heard the question “If a tree falls in the middle of the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it still make noise?” Empirically, we know it does, but experientially, who cares? It would be strange if the noises of trees falling in solitude impacted our lives at all.

Now for another question: “If I teach online and cannot see the race/ethnicity of my students, do they still represent potentially diverse populations?”

Pause to contemplate this.

Empirically we know our students are diverse, just like we know they are married or single, parents or not, traditional or nontraditional, tall or short, and so forth. We know it like we know all falling trees make noise. Yet whether our students’ diversity informs our experience — or practice — is dubious at best. It simply is human nature that what we cannot see, touch, taste, or hear might as well not exist at all. The result of this mentality for online courses is that we treat them as colorless. After all, who has time to do all the work it takes to translate complex course content digitally and think about our students’ racial/ethnic identities?

I suggest such a mentality sells us short. As one who has taught well over one hundred semester-long online courses — that’s one hundred, not a typo — in accredited religious studies departments (or courses with religious components) to diverse populations, I have concluded that focusing solely on content while ignoring identity is to settle for the good rather than to pursue the best. The real-life diversity of our students on the other side of the screen must impact our practice if maximum effectiveness is the goal. In this article I hope to sketch a useful framework that leverages diversity for richer online learning experiences. This begins with understanding the concept of “monitor as mirror,” so we can take action to shatter it.

During the course of each semester, I have noted a particular tendency within myself to allow the computer monitor to become a de facto mirror. A male, White, divorced and remarried father of (so far) three children, endurance athlete, and not-yet-forty Gen-X professor who corresponds with hundreds of students across multiple online courses annually, it is easy to fall into a mindless, Procrustean rhythm that subconsciously assumes the students are little more than carbon copies of me. It is easy to teach how I would want to be taught, to imagine their struggles and strengths are identical to mine, and to treat them, quite literally and not just morally, as I would want to be treated.

I suspect I am not alone in this. Computer screens easily become mirrors so that everything on the screen — from what we post and read to the names and identities of our students — are subconsciously filtered as an extension of our own racial/ethnic self. I am reminded here of the scene “Malkovich Inside Malkovich” from the film Being John Malkovich (available on www.movieclips.com). In this bizarre film, Malkovich takes a brief and disturbing tour of his own head and finds that everyone — men, women, and children — look exactly like him due to his own latent narcissism.

As one whose research interests include higher education pedagogy, I argue this “mirror, mirror” syndrome poses a problem for teaching all courses online, from religion to mathematics. However, I argue that it is a special problem for online religion courses since our content affords us the opportunity to create additional layers of meaning if we use the right tactics to involve our students at the level of identity. Consequently, we need a framework to help shatter the mirror so we can see through to the students on the other side.

The next time you pull up to your computer to conduct the practice of instruction, consider putting the following recommendations into place to help shatter the mirror. These work synergistically for me, although I would encourage all instructors to adapt and make them their own rather than adopt them blindly.

1. Be aware of your own potential for self-identity projection (i.e., online narcissism).

The fact that you have this propensity does not make you morally corrupt. It makes you human! The hustle and bustle of online instruction (which, incidentally, can be far more labor intensive than face-to-face instruction) makes falling prey to the mirror far too easy. Acknowledging this is the first step to avoiding or breaking it.

2. Change the mirror to a picture window.

If you are so fortunate as to have an office with windows, pause from reading this to gaze at the outdoors. Note the diversity of images and colors that greet your eyes. Now log into your online roster with the same mindset. Make it a point to look through rather than at the names in Times New Roman font, 12-point, basic black. See the students those names identify. Realize you just might have the world hidden away in the circuitry before you.

3. Adopt a critical theoretical component within your teaching philosophy.

Every instructor should have a codified teaching philosophy to guide his or her practice. In an article for Teaching Theology and Religion (Arroyo, 2010), I detail some of my own framework as it relates to appreciating diversity in the online experience. Foundational to my approach is the liberation and (trans)formation of students, which is consistent with critical theory and dovetails well with religious studies.

To be clear, this does not entail the professor becoming a chaplain. Rather, the instructor in my philosophy dislodges him/herself from a Eurocentric “location” that objectifies persons and ideas from non-Western cultures (Asante, Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change, 1993), appreciates students as critically conscious ends-in-themselves (Freire, 1993), and creates spaces of freedom where they can interact as cocreators of new knowledge. This requires, in part, that they are encouraged to bring their racial/ethnic diversity to bear on the subject matter at hand.

Well-managed asynchronous discussion boards are one vehicle for this goal. Asynchronous boards are ideal because students can carefully consider and edit their thoughts prior to posting. They are generally allowed one “original post” each week, which is to be followed by at least one reply to a classmate’s original post. More dialogue is encouraged beyond that, of course. The original post should be no more than 200 words (or no one will read it due to its length), include a combination of summary, critique, and analysis, and evidence clear interaction with the week’s readings. The reply should challenge or build upon a classmate’s thoughts and should be no more than 100–150 words. Well-crafted posts should take multiple hours to complete in order to meet expectations.

The key to shattering the mirror, however, is in encouraging students to incorporate their own diverse perspectives so that the dialogue is infused with the rich racial and ethnic cultures that make up the class. This must be done intentionally rather than waiting for it to happen accidentally. The outcome is a conversation we never intend to have (Gadamer, 2004). The fact that we do have it speaks to the liberative and (trans)formative potential of a critically conscious online environment.

Of course, many students need to warm up to the idea that they have such power at their fingertips. They might also need coaching along the way. Short podcasts of 3–20 minutes in length are useful tools for connecting with them on both an explanatory and a visionary level in this regard. Clear explanations of how to liberate themselves and incorporate their cultural perspectives into the discussions point the way, and visionary encouragements inspire students to rise to the occasion. I also have condensed my teaching philosophy into a short three-page document that I make required reading the first week of class, and I refer to it throughout the semester to keep it alive in the students’ minds.

4. Become a student of culturally sensitive pedagogy, especially related to the online environment.

Most religion instructors have little to no formal training in pedagogical methods. Professional development becomes essential, therefore, for all instructors — especially for those who are entering the still-young world of online education. Culturally sensitive pedagogies are an essential aspect of any personal professional development program, and though I have found some skepticism among colleagues as to the validity of this notion, I would expect religion instructors to be more open to the idea. If cultures vary in their spiritual beliefs, rites, and rituals, why wouldn’t they vary in approaches to learning?

Resources for learning about this concept are abundant, but not all are created equal. A helpful place to begin is Rovai, Ponton, and Baker’s Distance Learning in Higher Education: A Programmatic Approach to Planning, Design, Instruction, Evaluation, and Accreditation (Teachers College Press, 2008). Their chapter on culture simplifies technical terms of the trade related to situational and dispositional challenges that some online students may face. Situational challenges include the digital divide, personal costs, computer-mediated communication, and racism, while dispositional challenges include field dependency, high-context communication, and collectivism.

Situationally, we know that Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis, tend to benefit affluent students more than disadvantaged ones (Murnane, Ricjard J., and John B. Willett, Methods Matter: Improving Causal Inference in Educational and Social Science Research, Oxford University Press, 2010), and that real world applications of cutting-edge web technologies reveal deep racial disparities, particularly among Blacks (Crutcher and Zook, 2009). Professors should be familiar with their students’ socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic composition, at least generally, so they avoid blunders of incorporating the right technology in the wrong way. Just because a technology is new, innovative, and exciting does not mean it will aid learning. It could do the opposite.

Dispositionally, we know that some cultures (e.g., Black and Hispanic) tend to flourish more where there is rich dialogue and immediate nonverbal feedback to match. If the online environment naturally favors “autonomy, isolation, competition, standardization, and depersonalization” (Arroyo, 2010, 38), we online instructors who may have students from more collectivistic cultures cannot stand idly by. We must create environments that engage such learners. At the same time, if our primary population includes autonomous learners, then that also will inform how we design our courses (Rovai, Ponton, and Baker).

Since my primary student population at the historically Black university where I work tends to prefer high-context environments, I have had to incorporate the practice of high instructor presence into my classes. In large classes — and with the number of classes I teach — this becomes exceedingly time-consuming if attempted every week. Aiming for a middle ground that will meet students where they are without burning myself out, I designate some weeks as decidedly student-driven and others where I am fully central to each individual student’s learning.

During weeks where I am central, I launch a complete invasion of the discussion boards. A student scarcely hits the submit button on a post before I have made a reply. In my replies, I hone like a laser on a point or two by posing comments and questions that demand an in-depth response. It is as though I fix an online gaze upon the student, and suddenly it is as though each student is alone with me in a room. Since we are online, some choose to hide simply by ignoring me. Most, however, engage me and allow for an unexpected dialogue to emerge.

To borrow a phrase from Kanarek’s (2010) method of teaching Talmud in face-to-face courses, this can be called “the pedagogy of slowing down.” Students are singled out in the classroom space for a rigorous, precise exchange with the instructor that ensures a given topic is processed with the utmost care. Unlike in a traditional free-for-all where students can come to the aid of a classmate, under this model the instructor maintains a strict focus on the individual student and does not move on to another until the learning is complete. It is an exhaustive process, but the beauty of this method for asynchronous online instruction is that I can conduct these focused conversations with all students simultaneously, whereas in a traditional classroom it is limited to one at a time. A potential downside is that students will not read anything I post to others because they will be so focused on and nervous about their individualized exchange with me.

As a final thought, I have attempted in this article to provide a framework for shattering the mirror by both capitalizing on and designing courses for diverse populations. But my experiences, though broad, cannot possibly capture the full range of possibilities. Like many of the religious traditions we teach, online instruction is evolving. What is needed are dedicated instructors willing to do the same.