Culturally Responsive Online Teaching
Online education can help solve the issues of equity and access for students across the United States. We have heard fantastic stories of student success in graduating from high school due to access to online courses.
Last year, Susan Sawyers wrote an article for USAToday showcasing how some students are using online courses to graduate on time. It's a great window into the potential and echoes many stories we hear from students, families, and community members who are experiencing online education. A diverse population of students was able to take classes to retrieve credit for classes they may have failed in the past.
How could online learned have helped solve this in the first place? We know there are many online course providers as well as online schools that provide a variety of choice for online and hybrid schools. It is a budding area of education that we know is paving the way for equity and access, but it does have its potential pitfalls.
Online educators run into the same struggles of engagement that brick-and-mortar teachers run into and, in fact, the technology can serve to distract many students. How do we engage students? Look at culture and the role it plays in the engagement of online learners. A researcher in online learning recently published an article that examined culture in distance learning:
Distance learning environments are by no means immune to the problems arising from cultural differences. In fact, these environments may even be more prone to cultural conflicts than traditional classrooms as instructors in these settings not only interact with students who have removed themselves from their native culture, but they also interact with students who remain "physically and socially within the different culture, a culture that is foreign to, and mostly unknown, to the teacher."
—Sedef Uzuner in Questions of Culture in Distance Learning: A Research Review
Culture, of course, includes a variety of identifies and aspects, from race, ethnicity, and gender to religion, socioeconomic status, and place in the world. Geneva Gay recently printed a new edition of her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, and it explains many of the dispositions and practices teachers need to have. The next step is to ensure this sort of practice occurs consistently in online course instruction. We need to remember that simply having access to great online courses does not mean they will be culturally responsive, nor does it mean the teachers themselves will be.
So what is culturally responsive online teaching? Culturally responsive online teachers identify and take advantage of cultural strengths and resiliencies through aligned online teaching best practices, while using diverse discourse structures and curriculum. These resiliencies vary across culture and experience.
As an example, many of our students have the resiliency to be highly adaptive and agile. They can look at a subway system map and easily navigate from place to place in a variety of ways. Many of our students have the resiliency to communicate across cultures. The common language at school might be English, but Tagalog is spoken at home. Even online students have a culture that they live in. They access a different language. They navigate and evaluate data constantly. Why shouldn't we make use of these resiliencies?
These resiliencies align with online teaching best practices. In their book Engaging the Online Learner, Conrad and Donaldson point to collaborative problem or project-based techniques and constructivist principles as an effective working framework. Many of our students have the resiliency to work in a group to build consensus, while other cultures work well in teams to complete a task. Some students are outspoken, while some are reserved; this is not because of they are "bad students" but because it is part of their culture. You as the teacher must know that cultures exhibit different ways of knowing and look for the online teaching tools and strategies that work toward the resiliencies and cultural norms.
In addition to instructional strategies and curriculum, the system that students enter needs to be culturally responsive as well. Learning management systems and their online structures need to be just as diverse as the cultures they serve. The typical paradigm of "reading and doing" that many online courses have needs to change. We are in danger of replicating a system for the online world that has not served all students in the brick-and-mortar world. Structures need to be examined and built to allow for diverse discourses that align with online teaching best practices. If the style of learning online is not as diverse as the students, then the powerful technology that is used in online learning is useless.
We need to ensure that we train our online educators with the tools and skills it takes to interact with students of diverse populations, especially as more students begin taking more courses online. All students have cultural strengths and resiliencies; we need to ensure that we are using all these strengths, including the culture of online learners, to engage the students in learning while using the technology as the tool.