Reflections on Inclusion and Equity in Digitally Mediated Learning Spaces

measuring tape on a table

by Heather Pleasants, Office of Institutional Effectiveness

After returning from the Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute (DPL)*, writing a post about “Assessing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Digital Classrooms” seemed to make sense. However, I encountered a few challenges right away:

  • Challenge #1: Who wants to read a blog post that starts with “assessing?”  (…crickets)
  • Challenge #2: How exactly does one “assess diversity?” (Crap. That doesn’t really make sense, does it? …Don’t answer that).
  • Challenge #3: Given our current social and cultural context, aren’t all classrooms, in some way, digital — or at least, digitally mediated?

(Crumples virtual first draft, throws over virtual shoulder into virtual recycling box).

So, let’s start with the “small r” reality: all higher education learning spaces are digitally mediated. Whether the course is online, or whether the instructor privileges engagement with digital tools, or whether the instructor is purposefully not building in engagement with digital tools — learning spaces are still formally or informally mediated by the (digital) technologies within and around them.

If you agree with me on that point—and maybe you won’t, so let me know — here are a few reflections (and questions) regarding how inclusion and equity in digitally-mediated learning spaces might be supported, inspired by the Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute, and also by the 2018 Horizon Report: 2018 Higher Education Edition.

Creative Use and Expansion of Open Education Resources

The internet was supposed to be a wonderful space where ideas about all things — including teaching and learning — frolicked about, in happy conversation with each other. …Not sure where that crazy idea came from (but see Blenkler, 2006 and Squires, 2006 for an interesting dialogue about publics and counter-publics).

…BUT…. Educators can share curated information about teaching and learning in higher education through Open Educational Resources (OER), defined by the Hewlett Foundation as “high-quality teaching, learning, and research materials that are free for people everywhere to use and repurpose.”

One tiny issue, though. Can you guess where “diverse learners” were a part of the “sustainable OER ecosystem” proposed by Hewlett? Is it

  1. Development
  2. Distribution
  3. Use
  4. Revision

Congratulations if you guessed number 4. And, in the OER ecosystem, as it’s currently described, diverse learners are still just consumers of our content. Consider this — many of us are already creating equitable and inclusive classrooms by engaging our (diverse) students in dialogue about and the design of learning opportunities that speak to their experiences, needs, and pressing questions. How might we bring these practices into OER in a more prominent and intentional way? Perhaps it might look like one of these:

Let’s create a new “this” at UA, shall we? Or perhaps you already have. In which case perhaps you should be blogging about it on the Teaching Hub?

But I digress.

An open page from Heather Pleasants' notebookTensions Between Fostering Voice, Authentic Learning, and Allowing Students to Control Their Digital Identities

A point that was hit hard and often at the Digital Pedagogy Lab was this: our students (all of us really) should have the right to decide when, and where and how we are made “visible” in the digital world. For all the limitations they may present, Learning Management Systems (LMSs) do provide students with a bit more choice in that regard — consider Blackboard to be a kind of neutral and protected “basecamp,” from which students can choose to go on to explore things in the wider world outside of it.

How do we engage our students in conversations about their digital identities, as we are engaging them in learning that is digitally mediated?

What does it look like for us “hold space” for one another within a digital environment?

How often do we ask students to think about who is in control of the narrative about them?

As educators, what responsibilities do we have to encourage students to ask good questions about how, and why, and when they allow their data to be used?

These questions, and many more, were the focus of Bill Fitzgerald and Chris Gilliard’s course “Access, Privacy, and Practice” at DPL. Deep dives into the purposeful ways that our data is mined is heavy stuff (interspersing cat videos throughout the course seemed to help a bit). The fact that it’s heavy makes it even more important for us to discuss with our students (See Matt Stoller’s 2017 essay on Facebook, Google, and Amazon as threats to American democracy, or Virginia Eubanks’ 214 article on surveillance and poor communities for a glimpse into the topics covered during our four days with Fitzgerald and Gilliard).

And, lastly:

Two wrenches on a table

Inclusive and Equitable Assessment of Student Learning When Courses Involve Digital Tools

You thought I forgot about assessment, didn’t you? Bless your heart. As always, we begin with the end in mind — what do we want students to be able to do when they leave our courses at the end of the semester? Learning outcomes come first — then our consideration of digital work. That said, in thinking about the learning of students in my courses, which tend to include the use of different kinds of digital tools, it was also helpful for me to begin by keeping in mind several initial ideas Jade Davis discussed in her Digital Pedagogy Lab keynote:

  • Simplify.
  • Make it Fun — if it’s not fun for you, it’s probably not going to be fun for your students.
  • Show Relevance — within the classroom and beyond. Students are here to get a job.
  • Remember the Costs. How much will it cost your students and you in: Risk, Equipment, Stigma, Time (REST).

Our students don’t start at the same places, or have the same tools, or the same level of experience as users/producers of digital media, so we need to ask, what do learners already know? What technology, and time, do they/don’t they have? What risks is it reasonable for us to ask them to take?

Students aren’t just experimenting with ideas, they’re experimenting with identities. If we’re going to use digital tools in the classroom, it’s our responsibility to determine what can be done in advance to facilitate advanced digital work, while keeping the REST in mind.

DPL was jam-packed with concepts and tools relevant for critical digital pedagogy. In relation to building courses that are equitable and inclusive, the concept that continues to stay with me is again, one from Jade Davis: it’s the idea that learning spaces are artificial, temporary and do not reflect the whole life of the learner or the teacher — they are spaces of experimentation, and as such, the creation of inclusive and equitable classrooms is experiential learning for us and our students.

* Thanks to the support of Dr. Christine Taylor, the Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at The University of Alabama


Heather Pleasants is Director of Learning in Action and an Associate Director at the Office of Institutional Effectiveness.