Online education isn’t all about the right technology. It is about building an inclusive online learning environment through relational and humanistic approaches that welcome diversity of all types. Let me explain why this welcoming approach is so important to me – and how educators can use it to create their own meaningful and humanistic classrooms.
I was born on a small farm in Arkansas, the seventh of 10 siblings. Although my father’s studies ended after the third year and my mother only completed the fifth year, my nine siblings and I graduated from high school and three of us graduated. a Bachelor’s degree. A degree wasn’t enough for me, however.
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in information systems, I followed an MBA and then a master’s degree in human resources management, project management, information systems management and accounting and financial management. Then I got a doctorate in education and built a 25 year career as a senior professor of business and technology at DeVry University.
It was an unexpected trip for the son of a sharecropper, but what might surprise some in academia is this: I got four of my degrees online.
With this in the background, it shouldn’t be surprising that I have a lot of thoughts on how academic institutions can become more equitable and accessible in an increasingly digital world. The most important reason for welcome diverse student populations is of promote and embody the values of equity, justice and equity. Benefits for students include the development of better cognitive skills, greater ease of working in the global marketplace, and more success in jobs requiring complex social intelligence.
Act for inclusion in the classroom
Diversity, equity and inclusion cannot start and end with statements of principle – they must be implemented through actions by educators in the classroom. I have worked over the years to develop ways of being in the classroom, some of which may seem occasional or quite minor, that help convey the great value I place on each student.
1. I call my students “scholars”. It elevates their position in their own eyes and in the eyes of their peers. Only those who have been treated with disrespect can fully appreciate the pride in being addressed by that single word. My academics feel seen, respected and honored for the unique perspective they offer.
2. I intentionally invite my students into the virtual classroom. Every day, I turn on my video camera and encourage others to do the same on purpose. I believe in the importance of creating an online learning environment and a classroom culture where students feel invited to show their faces. And every week I will see more and more of my students feeling comfortable joining the video.
3. I use humor. Laughter throughout the class session relaxes students and reassures them that they are part of the class community. This is increasingly important in an online environment where forming meaningful relationships can be more difficult. I bring humor to my classroom by starting live sessions with a humorous story, usually with me as the punchline. This approach puts my students in a more relaxed atmosphere when we start class.
4. I encourage the community. As a person with follicular problems, I jokingly created a classy “community” called the Bald Club. The The powerful impact of developing groups and activities that foster a sense of belonging, even under seemingly wacky headlines, was highlighted when a student told the class that she was undergoing chemotherapy and wanted to be. recognized as belonging to the bald club. This gesture brought tears to my eyes and to others in the classroom. But there were smiles and laughter in the midst of those tears.
5. I make sure my online learning environment is accessible to people with disabilities. I take proactive steps to build strong relationships with students with disabilities, contacting them directly and introducing myself to let them know they can contact me with any questions or concerns. When a deaf academic was taking online classes with a communication facilitator who turned discussions into writing, I made sure to speak directly to the facilitator so that she too would feel welcome and encouraged to ask questions or to ask that I speak more clearly.
It may all seem like small gestures, but when undertaken with authenticity, they support an online learning environment that makes everyone feel invited and recognized. Students want meaning links with their teachers and their peers. So when opportunities to form such relationships are offered, students are much more likely to stay engaged in the classroom.
As I enter my 25th year of teaching, I know the best learning happens when everyone feels seen, heard and recognized for their unique contribution to the classroom. If we dare to prioritize the needs and wants of our academics, our universities will always have strong and inclusive student populations.
Willie Wilborn is Senior Professor at DeVry University.