School may be just one of the many responsibilities of a minority student. In fact, with less than one in four Black Americans living in non-family households, more than a quarter of Asian Americans living in multigenerational homes, and Hispanic Americans spending 1.4 times as much time caring for family than white Americans, family responsibilities can often conflict with class schedules, study groups, or lab work — something that online learning helps counter.
“There may have been increased flexibility in some online courses that have created opportunities for students of color to prioritize other aspects of their lives,” Pope says, “like family, work or the community”.
Minority students aren’t the only marginalized group that can benefit from online learning. The transition to virtual classrooms has also had an impact on students with disabilities.
Nicholas Gelbar, associate research professor at the University of Connecticut and psychologist at Educational Testing and Consulting, describes the traditionally turbulent scene at the end of the first class of an in-person class. “There’s this rush of people coming up to me, and everyone knows what it’s like. They’re all here about to hand me the letter that says, “I have these accommodations, can we determine what it is?”
For this reason, despite the invisible nature of some disabilities, these students are effectively revealed for all to see. This process of identification and separation can have detrimental effects, affecting a student’s social life and mental and emotional well-being. Virtual learning, however, has changed this dynamic.
“With COVID, everything was automated in many places, so students didn’t have to come to me to get the housing. The institution reached out and said, ‘Here it is,'” Gelbar says. Online, that conversation is a private conversation, and I think that’s helpful.”
Virtual access has also proven beneficial for students with disabilities beyond the classroom. At the University of Connecticut, students can turn in all their paperwork and even meet people from the Office of Disability Services online — a change students want to keep.
“Students are kind of like, ‘This is awesome!'” Gelbar says. “’I don’t have to walk across campus to meet my person at the Disability Services office. I can meet them online. They hope it continues, because it makes it easier for them to do everything else they do.
READ MORE: Understanding the Digital Equity Gap and Bridging the Digital Divide in Higher Education.
Virtual classrooms are not beneficial for everyone
Marginalized students in higher education are far from homogeneous. What is beneficial for one student is not necessarily beneficial for all students, and online learning is no exception.
“Being away from campus provided fewer opportunities to engage with other students of color, benefit from these community events, and find a family or support system on campus,” Pope says.
Likewise, the shift to online learning has made some students with disabilities realize just how big the gap between in-person and online accommodations can be.
“For some students with disabilities, it was a really difficult transition,” says Gelbar. “And I think they found they preferred the in-person route and found that now that most classes are available in-person, they have a better experience of it.”
Gelbar also says the self-paced nature of online teaching can be a barrier for some students. Setting and maintaining your own schedule requires you to be self-motivated, and it can be difficult to stay engaged through a screen.
“Students can kind of hide and be less engaged online than in person because we don’t take attendance as regularly,” says Gelbar. “It’s asynchronous. So we have to make sure that we monitor that and make sure that students are engaged.
Pope agrees. “Online learning offers opportunities for increased flexibility and accessibility, which has its benefits, but it’s also a space where many students may feel disengaged or disconnected,” she says. “Since students of color frequently report disconnection or disengagement, online spaces may underscore or amplify these feelings.”
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Cultivating Safe Online Learning Environments in Higher Education
The racism and ableism that plague physical college classrooms won’t magically disappear in online classrooms. Although marginalized students may be further removed from the delinquents, the actions will persist throughout the course until the instructors and the school itself take ownership of the learning environment.
“Institutions need to be thoughtful and intentional in designing and implementing online spaces and courses,” says Pope. “Simply moving content from a course to an online space is not enough.”
Gelbar agrees. “We should design education in such a way that it is accessible to as many people as possible, including people with disabilities and people who have cultural and linguistic differences,” he says. “We should consider all of this when designing abstract instructions from the start.”
However, creating a safe environment requires more than accessible courses. It requires accessible people – open-minded and respectful instructors and students. Without them, marginalized students may be reluctant to access available resources.
“I think it puts the students to shame. I think that leads to students not wanting to access things that they are legally entitled to access. We know that of all the students with disabilities who graduate from high school, of those who go to university, only 50% of them seek services.
Training can go a long way in fostering the safe online learning environment that every student deserves.