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This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com. 

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Online classrooms offer little information about a person’s background and it can be hard to get to know students. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about ways to naturally build diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, into the classroom structure. Learn about the importance of psychological safety, the concept of unconditional positive regard, and being aware of “ingroups” and “outgroups” and more.

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This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the podcast today. We’ll be talking about D.E.I. in online higher education classrooms. D.E.I. means diversity, equity and inclusion. And at different educational institutions, it may be phrased differently. For example, one that I’m most familiar with calls it E.D.I., which is equity, diversity and inclusion and it’s really the same idea, that all people are important. Everyone matters. They need to be able to have psychological safety in the climate, and be themselves, and understand that they will be accepted and valued and included fully just as everyone in the group.

Why is DEI So Important in Higher Education?

So D.E.I. is an important topic in pretty much any industry that you’re in. But especially in higher education, where we are educating others interacting, and we need to be open, able to relate to the material, feel safe to explore, take risks, and experiment, and find relevance in what we’re learning.

In higher education, this is especially important, we cannot overstate this. So many of our students come from varied backgrounds, with which we ourselves may not be familiar. And online, this is not readily apparent. We don’t see people online and immediately know their whole background. We don’t know all about their cultural makeup or their orientation, or where they’ve come from, or who they are. And so, getting to know them, and also designing learning experiences for them that they will benefit from, those are both very important things.

Today, we’re going to talk about creating some psychological safety for diversity, equity and inclusion in your online classroom. We will also talk about what this requires from us, and how we can be kind and compassionate to ourselves along the way. After all, if we’re going to create an environment where students can take risks, and learn and be themselves, we also need to give ourselves a little compassion when we’re not perfect at this. But we need to keep trying and keep learning about what’s going to be helpful to others. And what will help them to value what they’re getting out of their education, and to have those things included that would be most beneficial to the learners. So, to start with, I will talk about psychological safety, and what that is, and why it’s part of thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Why is Psychological Safety Needed in the Online Classroom?

Psychological safety is the basic sense that you belong, that you are okay, that you can learn and you can take risks in the process. When you have a climate of psychological safety, everyone in the group feels that they can contribute. You understand that the examples and stories you might share with the group will be heard and not severely judged. No one’s going to stop participating with you because of what you have said or what your experiences are.

As an online educator, creating a climate of psychological safety involves a lot of different aspects that we can think about and we can discuss. One of those things is proactive, positive and helpful communication. Whenever an online educator gives the communication upfront that a student can benefit from, guiding them into how to engage in a discussion, for example, this invites the student into the discussion.

If there are some standards for the way you’d like your students to engage and you tell them this ahead of time before they start participating in that discussion, they’re much more likely to feel safe when they see those guidelines, and they follow them. And if they don’t follow them, you can use those guidelines as a reinforcement for your feedback, and you can help redirect your students. There’s a lot of comfort in having clear expectations that were communicated to you as a student. And again, that creates a sense of psychological safety.

Unconditional Positive Regard

Something else I really think contributes to psychological safety, especially in the online classroom is this thing called unconditional positive regard. This is a phrase that comes from the 1950s from a man named Carl Rogers. It’s known in the therapy world, and it’s basically this concept that we’re going to accept another person, even if they have attitudes, beliefs, or experiences and feelings that we might not normally like. We accept their experiences as all valid, we don’t need to judge that or criticize that or correct that. We’re just taking in the person and giving them our positive acceptance.

Unconditional positive regard can be cultivated. And that’s something we can do for our students to learn more and more about our students, without blocking ourselves to the people we’re with by judging it. It doesn’t mean that everyone gets an “A” all the time just by showing up, you still have your standards for what you’re doing in that classroom. But you also can accommodate the backgrounds and experiences of your students. And when you have a lot of adult learners in your classroom online, they really want to be seen for who they are, what they have experienced, and what they know. So, the more you can give them that unconditional positive regard and accept them and validate their experiences, the more they can apply the learning to their life, and it becomes real and alive and vibrant for them.

Consistency is Key

Psychological safety has to do with the way we communicate, and this unconditional positive regard. And it also has to do with the consistency that we demonstrate as human beings. That means that the way we communicate with our students, the timing, the speed, the attitude that we convey in all of our communications, and who we are as a person, those are all congruent. We aren’t super nice all the time and suddenly negative and angry and blowing up at a student that misunderstands. That consistency in our interactions with students across the online environment, gives them additional sense of safety. And they can trust us because they get to know us, and they get to know who we are. And then we get to know who they are as well, as they feel more and more comfortable participating.

Psychological safety is probably the most core thing to our diversity, equity and inclusion approach. Because we cannot really know our students well, or get to know our students well, if they don’t feel safe. That’s a bunch of negative terms there, right? So, students who feel safe, are more likely to allow us to get to know them. And the more we get to know our students, the more we can meet their needs. Now, I want you to think about a time where you felt as if you did not belong. I mean, a really confusing experience you had where you were what we would call in the out group.

Experiencing Being in the “Out Group”

I had one of those experiences. Just to tell you a little bit about my background. I grew up in California, I was born in San Jose, California. And this was a long time ago before the Silicon Valley was a real hopping place. It became more and more developed as I was growing up.

But, when I first was growing up in this area, there were fields everywhere, there was a lot of space. It wasn’t the crowded, citified place it became over time. And in this location, there were people of a lot of different cultures, national origins, backgrounds. And much later I found myself in another country with my husband. It was a professional conference and we were in Brazil. And again, I want you to go back to that time where you might have felt that you were in the out group. What was that? Like? What was your experience? How did you feel when that happened? What did you do in the moment that you felt that? And how does that inform your online teaching?

This moment I’d like to share with you comes from my trip to Brazil to present at an International Music Educators Conference. So, my husband and I were in Brazil, and he spoke Brazilian Portuguese. My husband went to Brazil when he was really young, 20, I think, on a church mission. And then after that trip, he took the time to continue learning the language even better. And 20 years later, he was very good at speaking Brazilian Portuguese. He practiced it regularly and even spoke to people in Brazil and kept up that study. When we went to this conference, I felt very confident I was in good hands. My husband spoke the language, he knew the culture. And I was not going to have any trouble navigating this country that I was not very familiar with at all.

And we rode the city buses all over town confidently, he was comfortable paying, getting on the bus, doing all of that stuff and I just stayed with him everywhere we went. And as I mentioned, he spoke the language fluently, and could solve the problems that we might face being in a country where English was not a common language at all.

We had this experience where we were riding the bus, and we got on the bus. And I’m taking for granted that my husband is managing the money and the admission to the bus, the bus fare. And you get on a bus in Brazil and you it starts going and as the bus starts going down the road, people are still going through the turnstile to put their money in and go to the back of the bus for their seat.

And there’s this little section at the front of the bus for pregnant women, obese people, senior citizens and handicapped people. And there’s a sticker on the window that illustrates these four conditions. I saw this sticker on one occasion and thought, “Oh my goodness, I am one of those people.” I was a large, obese woman with a very large body weight. And I saw myself in the picture and thought, “I hope I can still sit with my husband.” And everywhere we went on the bus, I was fine. I just kept going with him and wasn’t worried about it.

One particular occasion, we got on the bus and we’re walking through, and he put in the bus fare for both of us and walked through the turnstile. And the driver locked the turnstile and would not let me pass through. And instead, he pointed to this section for the disabled senior citizens, pregnant women and obese people and indicated that I was to stay there. I was very worried because my husband had passed through and was in the far back of the bus. And everyone around me spoke Brazilian Portuguese.

And I did not. I didn’t even know the first thing about speaking Brazilian Portuguese. And so, I went ahead to the front of the bus and sat down. And I felt in that moment completely alone on the planet. I felt like I did not understand, I did not speak. And I did not have any hope of navigating this language or this culture. And I could not see my husband at the back of the bus because it was very, very crowded during rush hour. And I wouldn’t know if he got off the bus or not. I was actually quite terrified in this moment.

And I realized that I had very few experiences in my lifetime, where I really felt like I was in the out group or did not understand anything about the cultural group in which I was living at the time. And in this moment, I felt like I was getting that experience and wasn’t really sure how to navigate it.

Fortunately, a few stops later, we had talked ahead of time, and I was pretty sure I knew where we were going. And I went ahead and got off where I thought we were going and my husband also got off the bus and we were able to connect with each other again.

But, in that experience, I had the thought, “this is what some of my students have felt in the past.” I had taught some students in live classes back when I was a band director in central California. And I had some students that came from Mexico having not learned any English yet. And they joined my band, and I needed to learn to communicate with them. And I thought in the moment on that bus in Brazil that I could somewhat relate in that moment, that I wasn’t really sure where I was or what I would do either.

And I appreciate the positive efforts that all of my students have made in the past regardless of their background, their cultural group, their learning preferences or differences and many other things that we bring that make us all unique. I’m so pleased that students I have worked with have just kept trying to navigate challenging things and doing their best. And as I tell my story about having been in Brazil, and having that rough experience on the bus, I wonder what comes to your mind?

What kind of experiences have you had as an educator? Or even before you were an educator in your previous parts of your life? When did you ever feel like an outsider? And how can you grab those experiences, and bring them into your teaching to inform what you’d like to do to help your students?

I know, in my case, I like to define even basic terms that I might use, assuming students all know what they mean, I want to illustrate concepts, I want to give some visual, I want to give a video walkthrough. And I also want to ask students about themselves and really learn who’s in my online class, I’d like to welcome them, and reassure them, and encourage them, and give them plenty of opportunities to try things and fail, and still be able to continue learning and succeeding along their time in this class, whatever will help me reach my students better.

That’s going to open up the space for diversity, equity and inclusion, I also have to check myself and ask what biases I might be bringing into those experiences. That’s especially difficult because as educators, and as human beings, really, we all have biases, we just have them, they’re kind of assumptions we have in our minds. And we’re not always aware of what our biases might be, we might assume certain students can do things or should know things. And that might not be true.

We might also need to branch out to include content that still teaches the concepts we’re teaching, but includes a lot more diverse perspectives, and a lot more cultural backgrounds, whatever it will take to help our students have the experience they need to have in that class. If we include those things, it will invite their success and invite people to join in the discussion, participate more fully and belong. Pychological safety sets that up and then our own experiences of a moment or many times where we might have felt like an outsider, in a group, those things can inform us further.

Now, when we think about focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in distance learning, or in online education, we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be experts at this concept. We can keep growing, we can just start focusing on it and incorporate more and more approaches that welcome our students and shift the focus off the instructor-led teaching and toward the student-centered learning.

The more we focus on our students, reaching them and teaching them and inviting them in, the more we’re satisfying the goals of a D.E.I. approach. And pretty soon, it will be very natural, if it’s not yet already, and we’ll be able to really invite students of any background, of any preference and be able to meet their needs all the more.

Student-Centered Online Education

Now, one thing that I just mentioned that a D.E.I. approach or D.E.I. focus in our online education requires of us is that we do focus on students and not just our teaching. Shifting to student-centered online education means that everything about our approach in that online classroom is focused on the learner experience.

What kinds of things do they already bring to this experience that we can tap into? And what do they need to experience to learn what they need to learn in this subject matter or in the concept area? The more we do this, the more we will be asking questions. And we will be connecting with our students and continue learning and growing along the way.

Now, as we close our podcast today focused on D.E.I. in the higher education online classroom, I want to encourage you. As you keep developing these skills, as we all continue to focus in this area, we don’t have to be perfect, we’re going to make mistakes. And that psychological safety we’re building for students applies to us too.

So, give yourself a little bit of space to try. Risk a little bit, potentially fail and just keep trying. As you learn these ideas and strategies, they will be more and more comfortable. And you will feel that you are reaching your students as you hear from them as you connect with them, and as you focus on what they need most.

Thank you for being with me today to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion in the higher education online classroom. And I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

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