May 25 2022

Online Learning Can Help Minimize Racism and Ableism In and Out of the Classroom

Virtual classrooms present unique benefits and challenges for marginalized students in higher ed.

As pandemic restrictions continue to ease, many colleges and universities are looking to ramp up their on-campus classes and activities. However, it seems that many marginalized students would like to stay remote. In fact, 68 percent of Black students and 60 percent of Hispanic students feel positive about online learning, and the transition to virtual learning has offered some students with disabilities new educational modalities.

Of course, every college student is different, and online learning won’t impact everyone in the same way. But the virtual classroom presents its own unique benefits — and challenges — for racially diverse and disabled students.

Online Learning Can Provide Key Benefits for Marginalized Students

Navigating college life is seldom easy for anyone. But for minority students, it can be even harder, especially at predominantly white institutions. Students may experience interpersonal or systemic bias, microaggressions, and more, both inside and outside the classroom. Online learning can mitigate some of these experiences.

“Being online decreased time on campus, where many students of color experience racism either via microaggressions or more overt forms of hostility or racism, either in the classroom or on the campus itself,” says Raechele L. Pope, associate dean for faculty and student affairs and chief diversity officer at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education. “There is significant data, both anecdotal and from empirical studies, suggesting that being away from those experiences may have positive mental health effects.”

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School can be just one of many responsibilities a minority student has. In fact, with fewer than 1 in 4 Black Americans living in nonfamily households, over a quarter of Asian Americans living in multigenerational homes and Hispanic Americans spending 1.4 times more time caring for family than white Americans, family responsibilities can often conflict with class schedules, study groups or lab assignments — something online learning helps counteract.

“There may have been increased flexibility in some online courses that created opportunities for students of color to prioritize other aspects of their lives,” Pope says, “such as family, work or community.”

Minority students aren’t the only marginalized group that can benefit from online learning. The transition to virtual classrooms has also impacted students with disabilities.

Nicholas Gelbar, associate research professor at the University of Connecticut and psychologist at Educational Testing and Consulting, describes the traditionally hectic scene at the end of the first class of an in-person course. “There’s this rush of people coming up to me, and everybody knows what it is. They’re all here about to hand me the letter that says, ‘I have these accommodations, can we work out what that is?’”

Because of this, despite the invisible nature of some disabilities, these students are effectively outed for all to see. This identification and separation process can have adverse effects, affecting a student’s social life and mental and emotional well-being. Virtual learning, however, has changed this dynamic.

“With COVID, that all got automated in a lot of places, so the students didn’t have to come to me to get the accommodation. The institution reached out and said, ‘Here it is,’” Gelbar says. “Online, that conversation is a private conversation, and I think that’s helpful.”

Virtual access has proved beneficial for disabled students beyond the classroom as well. At the University of Connecticut, students can turn in all their documentation and even meet with people in the disability services office online — a change students want to keep.

“The students are sort of like, ‘This is great!’” Gelbar says. “‘I don’t have to cross campus to meet with my person in the disability services office. I can meet with them online.’ They kind of hope that’s continued, because it makes it easier for them to do everything else they’re doing.”

READ MORE: Understanding the digital equity gap and bridging the digital divide in higher ed.

Virtual Classrooms Aren’t Beneficial for Everyone

Marginalized students in higher ed are far from homogenous. What’s beneficial for one student isn’t necessarily beneficial for all students, and online learning is no exception.

“Being away from campus provided fewer opportunities to get involved with other students of color, benefit from those community events and find an on-campus family or support system,” says Pope.

Similarly, the transition to online learning caused some disabled students to realize just how wide the gap between in-person and online accommodations can be.

“For some students with disabilities, that was a really hard transition,” says Gelbar. “And I think they have found that they prefer the in-person route and have found that, now that most of the classes are available in person, they’ve had a better experience of it.”

Gelbar also says that the self-paced nature of online instruction can be a barrier for some students. Setting and maintaining your own schedule requires you to be self-motivated, and it can be tough to stay engaged through a screen.

“Students can kind of hide and be less engaged online versus in-person because we’re not taking attendance as regularly,” Gelbar says. “It’s asynchronous. So, we’ve got to make sure we’re monitoring that and making sure we’re getting students to engage.”

Pope agrees. “Online learning offers opportunities for increased flexibility and accessibility, which has its advantages, but it is also a space where many students can feel disengaged or disconnected,” she says. “Since students of color frequently report experiencing disconnection or disengagement, online spaces can underscore or amplify those feelings.”

LEARN MORE: How higher ed institutions are meeting the demand for student services.

Cultivating Safe Online Learning Environments in Higher Ed

The racism and ableism that takes place in physical college classrooms isn’t going to magically disappear in online classrooms. While marginalized students might be more removed from the offenders, the actions will persist throughout the course until instructors and the school itself take ownership of the learning environment.

“Institutions must be thoughtful and intentional in designing and implementing online spaces and courses,” says Pope. “Simply transferring course content to an online space is not enough.”

Gelbar is in agreement. “We should design instruction so that it’s accessible to the widest range of people as possible, including people with disabilities and people who have cultural and linguistic differences,” he says. “We should consider all of that when we design abstract instruction up front.”

Creating a safe environment requires more than accessible courses, however. It requires accessible people — open-minded and respectful instructors and students alike. Without them, marginalized students may be hesitant to access the resources available.

“I think it causes shame for students. I think it causes students to not want to access things that they have the legal right to access. We know that of all the students who graduate with disabilities from high school, of the ones that go to college, only 50 percent of them request services.”

Training can go a long way toward fostering the safe online learning environment every student deserves.

Raechele L. Pope
Institutions must be thoughtful and intentional in designing and implementing online spaces and courses. Simply transferring course content to an online space is not enough.”

Raechele L. Pope Associate Dean for Faculty and Student Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education

“Faculty training is essential so that courses create a welcoming, inclusive space for connection and belonging,” Pope says. “It is necessary to provide faculty with the skills and resources to develop these environments. Offering training that is applied in nature and oriented towards problem-solving is ideal.”

It’s critical that online students are also trained. “I think it’s really important to set ground rules and expectations for these environments to discuss netiquette — the etiquette of online learning,” says Gelbar. “That way, even when we’re online, taking advantage of all these asynchronous opportunities, people are connected and feel like they’re part of a community that’s being created in the course.”

Last but not least, when it comes to cultivating a safe online learning environment, student feedback is of vital importance. This feedback is the best way to find out what students are experiencing and how things can be improved.

“Conduct ongoing assessments throughout the semester to get student feedback and ensure that the feedback collected is disaggregated by race and gender (and other socially marginalized groups) to ensure that the input picks up the voices and experiences of both majority and marginalized individuals and groups,” Pope says. “Reviewing and making changes based on the feedback is essential for effective teaching — online or in person.

In the end, online learning isn’t a quick fix for the racism and ableism students experience on campus. But when online courses are designed and cultivated to maintain a safe, multicultural learning environment, it’s a significant step in the right direction.

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