How Is Diversity Supported In Online Learning

A woman told me that when she first started taking online classes through a university, she was criticized for “never being from the ground up” and “refusing to assimilate.” The students who attacked her were Asian students.

Last week, during a conversation I had with Lisa Resnick, director of social impact and innovation at Microsoft, she asked me, “What’s your favorite online learning program?” My answer was, of course, Udacity’s free Coursera program. I wasn’t as excited to hear her next sentence, as, “And why are online learning programs important?”

I’m curious about the importance of online learning to marginalized groups in our society and whether it brings along with it other elements of diversity. Resnick explained to me that many companies are beginning to pay attention to these kinds of programs because they are embracing non-traditional employees and because millennials, from everyone I’ve spoken to in this space, are “insatiable learners.”

“They have very strong, diverse interests,” she said. “They really want to learn.” My understanding is that many of these “innovative” students are minorities. Clearly, reaching out to the underrepresented groups is the logical step in supporting and encouraging this demographic interest in online learning.

If that is the case, what might this online learning program for minorities look like? What’s most necessary? What can the providers do to bring people of color into the fold? What obstacles do the communities face that might be conducive to learning?

What if my study (part of an online learning platform) focused on African-American men? Could they access information that better explains their challenges, coupled with resources that empower their potential? What resources or tools does Udacity offer for underserved groups that might need support?

Perhaps one reason that I, a former educator and a female professor, is interested in supporting and offering access to this type of learning program is because I’ve witnessed firsthand a lack of truly diverse educational experiences — ones that provide an opportunity for women and men of color to learn from each other. This is a conversation that has been going on for many years.

When I was a graduate student in the United States Studies program at UT Chattanooga, I worked with a group of students from historically black colleges who wanted to learn about local leadership and volunteer opportunities in Knoxville. This group taught me how to teach. Their passion for these areas was infectious, and their enthusiasm for learning and collaboration with diverse colleagues inspired me, as they started a magazine for women, LEAD magazine, which has since been transformed into a nonprofit organization and became a source of inspiration.

When I had the opportunity to come back to this same university and teach a variety of classes this past semester, all of my students were women. Three of the five courses I taught centered on my own personal experience as a black woman, which represented the diversity of the country. I think this is important because while there are many factors that bring students to school, I wanted my students to see that not only were women and people of color included in the college experience, but there was also research to support their classroom performance and what to do in order to succeed.

I’m getting ready to teach a course based on Thoreau’s Walden. The course is a follow-up to my initial exploration of this classic novel, including journal entries, anecdotes, and diaries from his time at Walden Pond. My students will be the first study group to interview Thoreau directly about his experiences at Walden. They will have access to videos, audio archives, audiobooks, biographies, interviews, and a library of more than 400 letters and journal entries.

I am excited about starting a conversation about pursuing these kinds of courses with Udacity’s Marketplace: Personal and Professional Growth, which can be built upon as a new learning network. I’d like to invite readers of The Rainbow Times to join the conversation.

Maryanne Roller is the president of Straight Up Communications and the award-winning author of Parenting Without Rules: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Happy, Confident, and Responsible Kids. She hosts episodes of Pod Save America and Boomerang It on Pandora and the Black Star Podcast. Maryanne resides in Houston with her husband and three school-age children. You can follow her on Twitter: @MaryanneJRock.

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