Minorities and the Online Classroom – Challenges and Benefits

Minorities and the Online Classroom – Challenges and Benefits

The demographic make-up of the United States population is changing. A Pew Research Center report concluded that “racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 91.7 percent of the nation’s population growth over the past 10 years.” As a result of this general population shift, there will also be an equivalent change in the nature of students in college classes. Online schools already have a diverse mix of students because courses are designed to meet the needs of non-traditional students, including students who may not have access to traditional higher education opportunities. However, are online schools the best choice for minority students and how are these institutions accommodating the needs of a diverse student population?

Online Schools & Minorities

Minorities in online classes represent approximately 40 percent of the total student base. This is in contrast to traditional on-ground schools that have an average of 28 percent minority student population. The annual Minorities in Higher Education report, produced by the American Council on Education, reminds institutions that “although greater access to higher education for students of color is an absolute imperative, it is only part of the equation,” and that “ensuring their academic success and readiness to thrive in an interconnected world remains the ultimate goal.” Minority students generally have a lower graduation rate than non-minority students, which means that providing access to college degree programs is not enough.

Online schools, especially those in the for-profit industry, have been questioned about their ability to provide a quality education that encourages successful completion by minority students. In For-Profit Colleges Draw Minorities, Stir Murky Debate On Student Success it was noted that “the demographic makeup of such colleges has taken center stage in a year-long debate over how to protect students from low-quality schools that don’t provide the promised training for careers, and how to protect taxpayers from growing federal student loan defaults.” This article further indicates that “in a classic case of skillful messaging in Washington, both the student advocacy groups that criticize the industry and the for-profit college lobby have taken up the cause of low-income, minority students in efforts to sway public opinion.” Regardless of the outcome, an important step is being taken to address the needs of diverse students.

The Challenges

Curriculum Design: Dr. Michael Genzuk, Associate Professor at University of Southern California, discusses a common problem found with the curriculum of many schools. In Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English for Language Minority Students, Genzuk states that “instructional programs based on models that subscribe to the notion that students share the same cultural background, speak the same language, and have the same academic preparation are not meeting the needs of today’s students.” While this applies to higher education in general, I understand the perspective being shared. Often an online instructor is provided with a pre-developed curriculum that provides a uniform approach to course materials and learning activities – addressing students as a whole rather than as individuals.

Educational Achievement: The issue of curriculum design is closely related to another challenge in higher education, educational achievement. At present there is a gap between minority and non-minority students, as reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In Race and Ethnicity in the College Classroom, it was noted that “one of the most persistent features of the educational system in the United States is the achievement gap between minority students and non-minority students,” and more specifically, “African-American, Latino, and Native-American students have substantially lower test scores, grades, high school completion rates, college attendance rates, and college graduation rates than non-minority students.”

A contributing factor for this problem is students’ cultural background. It is believed that achievement gaps are the result of socio-economic factors such as “resources available to poor versus wealthy children,” and as an example, “being raised in a low-income family, for example, often means having fewer educational resources at home.” An achievement gap means that students are not academically prepared for the rigors of a college degree program, and this is especially applicable for minority students as there are a “large number of minority students who are concentrated in high-poverty schools that lack academic and financial resources.” Online instructors are not usually provided with demographic information. The only indicator I have about your background occurs through the personal introduction posted during the first week of class.

College Readiness: While I cannot make a general assessment about the academic preparedness of minority students I can confirm that students who have not had access to academic resources prior to starting their online degree program often start with a disadvantage. The online class proceeds at an accelerated rate and if you are struggling with language challenges or cultural differences, you need to seek assistance right away. And while there are orientation classes or workshops to help prepare you, those activities are often designed to provide a cursory overview of school resources rather than assess your individual cultural preparedness. Often it isn’t until you start a class that your realize what your specific learning needs may be and this is the time to work with your instructor.

The Benefits

Relevant and Meaningful Learning: In order for online instructors to address the achievement gap from an instructional level, it is important that students find current sources that bring the course materials and theories to life. Within a Harvard publication, Teaching in Racially Diverse College Classrooms, instructors are reminded that they should “never make assumptions about an individual based on the racial, ethnic, or cultural groups to which he or she appears to belong,” and to “treat each student first and foremost as an individual – get to know each student individually.” I hope that your online instructors take the time to get to know more about you through class discussions and other academic interactions. I encourage you to share your background as it relates to the course topics, especially as you develop new ideas, seek knowledge, and participate in the learning process.

Connecting with Other Classmates: K. Brock Enger, Associate Professor of Education/Educational Leadership and General Education at Northcentral University, provides a perspective of minority students and the manner in which an online classroom is of benefit to them in Minorities and Online Higher Education: “Students from minority cultures are particularly vulnerable to feeling isolated from the majority culture on many campuses. Online education has the potential for mitigating this problem, however.” Enger continues, “the students I teach online do not leave their communities to participate in higher education. For the most part, cultural adjustments are unnecessary.” This is a very good point because online students have an ability to connect with one another while still remaining in their local surroundings. This often introduces them to a new worldview as they interact with classmates and gain new perspectives about the world around them.

If you are a minority student in the online classroom environment, take this opportunity to share your diverse views with the class as a means of enriching the learning experience. Should you find that you are not keeping up with the class for any reason, talk to your instructor. Many schools offer resources that can assist you, from workshops to tutoring services – and this will help you bridge the achievement gap and successfully complete the academic goals you’ve created.

Share your view of a diverse online classroom via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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