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Tackling the “Super Wicked” Problem of white privilege in online education

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This blogpost was written to accompany a short presentation for the Future of Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning @ The OU (Online) Conference in June 2022. It considers whether small group learning might support better achievement for our students, and might help us close our awarding gap for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students. It concludes that pro-active inclusive forum moderation, if resourced through training and workload allocation, could provide support for all our students and particularly for those from groups who experience specific barriers in engagement with peer students online.

An understanding of discrimination and the disadvantages faced by those from global majority backgrounds was sharply brought into focus in Black Lives Matter and during the pandemic, when it became clear some communities lacked access to resources which others hardly think of as a 'privilege'. At the same time, the pandemic brought online learning front and centre stage as a means of supporting education.

Drawing on academic literature about how racism is experienced online (Noxolo, 2022; Noble, 2018), and a small review of literature about issues of race politics in online learning, this short talk will sketch out some of the issues faced by our global majority students.

During the pandemic, it became clearly evident that Black, Asian and minority ethnic  communities and families lack access to resources which others hardly think of as a ‘privilege’. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent publicity given to local acts of discrimination and abuse in the UK also made evident the systemic nature of racism in our society and institutions. DiAngelo (2018) had written previously about the insidious ways in which that systemic racism continues to institute a privilege which global minority people often take for granted, and the ways global minority people sometimes refuse to acknowledge that the ease with which they move in society compared to global majority people is other than a norm for everybody, or a natural state of existence in which they should be allowed to continue without change. Writers like Noble (2018), Benjamin (2019) and Noxolo (2022) show how that systemic racism instituted through privilege is also instituted online. Picower (see my blogpost here) describes the particular struggles for liberal-minded (school) educators to comprehend systemic racism.

It has become apparent in Higher Education, that being able to achieve to your full potential is one of those ‘privileges’ often taken for granted. Here at the Open University, as at other Higher Education Institutions, we have an ‘awarding gap’ for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students (Awan, 2020). The size of the gap varies between different courses of study. It is more substantial for Black students, and greater for some groups of Asian students than for others. It is clear that we are not providing all students with the same level of opportunity to gain the class of degree they deserve. For this reason, we choose to call this the ‘awarding gap’ – putting the responsibility for this failure on our institution, rather than an ‘achievement gap’ – which suggests that responsibility rests with individual students (Choak, 2022). We know that individual Black, and some groups of Asian students, are not getting a ‘level playing field’ in their studies at the Open University.

Using Learning Analytics, Nguyen, Rienties and Richardson (2020) discovered that BME students at the OU were 19%–79% less likely to complete, pass or achieve an excellent grade compared to White students. Yet their data also showed that BME students were studying for 4%–12% more time than White students.

These findings are echoed in other studies (not very many!) about race and online and distance learning (based in the United States). There is a shift in these studies from a qualitative approach (De Montes et al, 2002 and I’m going to include Triesman, 1992), to a quantitative approach (as can be seen in Nguyen, Rienties and Richardson’s 2020 study). 

Some studies are about registration rather than an ‘awarding gap’. They explore race and ethnicity together with other demographic factors (not as ‘intersectional’ identity - Crenshaw, 1989, simply as a set of groups who potentially experience disadvantage in Higher Education). They find that similar proportions of ethnic minority students apply to study online as to study on campus (Goodman et al, 2019; Doyle, 2009), although Wladis et al (2015) find that Black and Hispanic students are significantly under-represented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) courses online. 

Athens (2013) offers a more in-depth exploration of ethnicity, achievement and retention than other quantitative studies. In a similar finding to that of Nguyen, Rienties and Richardson, she found that young ethnic minority men were more engaged in their studies than other groups of student, yet got lower grades and were less likely to continue their studies (retention gap).

Athens’ study defines ‘engagement with studies’ as both engagement with course materials and interaction with peers. However an earlier study separates these kinds of engagement. In a study on calculus students, Triesman (1992 and see discussion in Steele, 2010) found that African-American students spent longer working with course materials, but did not ask for support not only from classmates (key in the success of other ethnic groups’ success) – even from class assistants and lecturers. Their achievement was significantly lower than both white students (casual chat about studies) and Asian-American students (regularly working in study groups in the library).  This suggests a possible explanation for the puzzling finding by Nguyen, Rienties and Richardson. BME students at the Open University may be spending more time studying: but in isolation. Triesman’s findings suggest that peer group study chat could be a factor in student grades. (This hypothesis is supported by a large body of literature on small group chat in online education.)

At the Open University, the main formal way students are supported to chat about their studies is through online fora. However, there may be good reason why global majority students would eschew forum discussions.

A small informal account of forum posting in support of study by Baker et al (2018) shows that while students would respond at similar levels to posts from other students with names suggesting diverse ethnic/gender identities, tutors were twice as likely to respond to a student with a white male sounding name than to other demographics of student. An earlier qualitative study on forum posting by De Montes et al (2002) found problematic exchanges between “Anglo”, “Hispanic” and “Navajo” students. Tutor intervention – in spite of efforts to be neutral and even-handed, made matters worse. Using a constructivist ontology with symbolic interactionism and critical theory, the authors identified how “Anglo” students exert privilege online. They found that when a tutor tried to intervene in a neutral even-handed way this further instituted white privilege. 

“Computers are not culturally neutral, they amplify the dominant culture” (Bowers, 2000, cited in De Montes et al, 2002, p.268). Like Google algorithms (Noble, 2018), online education is designed and run by (white) humans. These two studies begin to show how white privilege can be continually re-inscribed into online learning. This makes group learning opportunities uncomfortable and sometimes even hostile spaces for global majority students.

At the Open University, there are usually two, sometimes three, kinds of fora provided on each module:

  • a forum for a group of 12-25 students run by their own tutor (Tutor Group Forum),
  • a forum for the ‘cluster’ run by tutors who are in a team, usually teaching across a geographic region (Cluster Forum),
  • a ‘Module Forum’, on which the Module Team or Associate Lecturers employed on separate contracts, will engage with students from across the module as a whole.

The amount of time Associate Lecturers spend moderating their own and the Cluster Forum varies considerably according to personal teaching preferences. (While some invest time in group forum moderation, others prefer to offer synchronous one to one tutor-student interaction.) Associate Lecturers can voluntarily sign up for training in forum moderation. The training, provided by Peer Associate Lecturer Support and Associate Lecturer Staff and Professional Development teams, is of a high quality however it is unpaid and busy ALs are unlikely to prioritise it.

The human support provided by tutors, with touches of humour and with sympathy or empathy in difficult situations, is highly valued, especially by under-confident students who need reassurance to fully engage with their studies. Moderating fora, and particularly doing so through pro-actively inclusive exercises, is a technical skill. It can be a time-consuming and emotional labour. Engaged and open-minded forum discussion could support all of our students to achieve better. Providing this effectively requires resource investment in training and workload allocation for our teaching staff.

What can I do?

Central academic staff: explore whether forum exercises are part of the module materials. Can these be designed to be more inclusive of global majority students. Is there scope to allocate teaching hours to bring Associate Lecturers together for team discussion about how to manage forum moderation, and perhaps also for workshops on inclusive teaching practice and forum moderation skills.

Staff Tutors: discuss with your team of Associate Lecturers whether there are ways to manage forum moderation so that it is more consistent and more inclusive (if paid time is available on the module for this discussion work). Many cluster forums are run on a rota basis, with the moderator changing every couple of weeks to a different tutor from the cluster: this leads to inconsistent forum support. On some cluster forums, one tutor or a team of tutors, can use teaching hours to undertake the forum moderation, with other tutors choosing to do more teaching via cluster tutorials. Consider which approach would best support students in your cluster. Can teaching time also be utilised to allow the tutor moderators to undertake training.

Associate Lecturers: inclusive education teaching is often additional work which should be part of your paid hours. (If some of us undertake additional work voluntarily, while others stick to core contractual teaching tasks, it will not be possible to support a fully inclusive environment at the university.) If you have got scope in your paid teaching duties to develop inclusive teaching as part of forum moderation, you might like to consider:

  • Putting up a thread at key dates (see blogpost);
  • Highlighting material in the module which allows students to have a discussion about equalities;
  • Putting up material about topical events or other items about equalities, which are also of relevant interest for the students on that module, for moderated discussion.


Athens, W. (2018) ‘Perceptions of the persistent: Engagement and learning community in underrepresented populations’, Online Learning Journal, 22(2), pp. 27–58.

Awan, R. (2020). ‘The awarding gap at The Open University’ on OpenLearn. Available at: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education-development/the-awarding-gap-the-open-university (accessed 17/06/2022).

Baker, R., Dee, T.S., Evans, B. and John, J. (2018) ‘Race and gender biases appear in online education’. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/04/27/race-and-gender-biases-appear-in-online-education/ (Accessed: 11/072020).

Benjamin, R. (2019) Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Choak, C. (2022). ‘Decolonisation and Higher Education: Closing the Degree Awarding Gap’ on OpenLearn. Available at: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education-development/decolonisation-and-higher-education-closing-the-degree-awarding-gap (accessed 17/06/2022).

Crenshaw, K. (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics’. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 139, 139–167.’, University of Chicago Legal Forum. 

De Montes, L. E. S., Oran, S. M. and Willis, E. M. (2002) ‘Power, language, and identity: Voices from an online course’, Computers and Composition, 19(3), pp. 251–271.

DiAngelo, R. (2018) White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Allen Lane.

Doyle, W. R. (2009) ‘Online Education: The Revolution That Wasn’t’, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. Informa UK Limited, 41(3), pp. 56–58.

Goodman, J., Melkers, J. and Pallais, A. (2019) ‘Can Online Delivery Increase Access to Education?’, Journal of Labor Economics. University of Chicago Press, 37(1), pp. 1–34.

Nguyen, Q., Rienties, B. and Richardson, J. T. E. (2020) ‘Learning analytics to uncover inequality in behavioural engagement and academic attainment in a distance learning setting’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(4), pp. 594–606. doi: 10.1080/02602938.2019.1679088.

Noble, S. U. (2018) Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.

Noxolo, P. (2022). ‘Dreading the Map’. Talk given at the Royal Geographical Society, on 28 Apr 2021. Details: https://www.rgs.org/geography/news/dreading-the-map/ (Accessed 17/06/2022).

Steele, C. (2010) Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do. New York: W.W. Norton. 

Treisman, U. (1992) ‘Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College’. The College Mathematics Journal Vol. 23, No. 5 (Nov., 1992), pp. 362-372. 

Wladis, C., Hachey, A. C. and Conway, K. (2015) ‘Which STEM majors enroll in online courses, and why should we care? The impact of ethnicity, gender, and non-traditional student characteristics’, Computers and Education. Elsevier Ltd, 87, pp. 285–308.

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light skinned mixed heritage woman writing letters.

What a lot of rubbish!

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 30 Apr 2018, 19:09

The Science and Technology people at the Open University are hosting a 2nd Waste and Resource Management Conference, and calling for submissions from anyone who would like to present. Some of our DD102 and DD103 students over here in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences might consider giving it a go, as both modules include ground-breaking material on waste management - as well as supporting study skill development towards academic writing and presentations approve

I planned this blogpost a while back, to coincide with DD102's week of study on 'Throwaway society? Waste and recycling'. I belong to a Litter Action group on Facebook and, partly inspired by DD102 materials, I thought I would write about litter as art.

(Look! wide eyes what I found on the beach. And when walking in the woods one day, I came across a discarded ladder.)

Driftwood, scrunched up orange and blue plastic fishing line and a blue and orange plastic eyeball   Green woodland with a ladder leaning up against a tree

What if famous artists picked up litter and made it into art pieces? What if we all started to make our own art pieces out of litter and rubbish? Would litter become precious? Would we see it differently and no longer throw it away? I thought writing this up might help show how relevant the module materials on our Level 1 Social Science teaching are.

They didn't need any help! In the last couple of weeks, so many things happened that were relevant to DD102 and DD103 that I could hardly keep up.

People often look puzzled and even disbelieving when academics talk about research. It can sound so blue skies that it has gone round the moon and become loony. However, ten years later you can see how the research has mapped out events which have unfolded in the meantime - except that people have usually forgotten we academics were blathering on about it back then, and we are onto something new now.

The modules at the Open University are informed by this kind of research so that during the eight year lifespan in which they teach out, events often unfold which are uncannily relevant to our studies.

A big example has been the sudden upsurge of interest in rubbish and litter. Not only did DD102 start teaching about this back in 2014 when it was first written. DD103 materials had a whole section devoted to the life of David Attenborough, and his contribution to what we call a developing 'environmental imagination'. We have an exclusive interview with him - made three years before Blue Planet came out and we all suddenly started refusing to use plastic straws (warning - this can give you a serious moustache when drinking an iced frappé).

Screenshot of module webpage with exclusive interview with David Attenborough

Another example: as the injustice towards the Windrush Generation unfolds, we are reading on DD103 about the ways in which political campaigns in 2013 created a hostile environment towards immigration, and towards black British people.

Screenshot of module webpage entitled 'Go Home': public communication about immigration.

We are not supposed to admit that we teach Economics on DD103, in case it frightens the horses. However, the horses need not be alarmed. The Economics we teach is not Economics as we know it, Jim wink. A couple of years ago, I saw an article in the FT Weekend describing how Economics students at traditional universities had engineered a revolution. Fed up of being taught Old Guard Economics in a style which the failure to predict the enormous financial crisis in banking had made clear was irrelevant to our daily lives, these students were demanding an Economics about ordinary people. I wondered if any of this new cool Economics might be brought into our teaching to support the bits of Economics we are doing. As I read, I realised we had already started teaching the whole module on this basis. London School of Economics, eat your heart out wink

Open University module design is mobile, light-weight and responsive to intellectual change - even at the level of paradigm shift. It's done by teams who draw on the latest expertise in the field. 'Bricks-and-mortar' university teaching is often designed by individual junior academics. (Senior academics 'buy' themselves out of teaching to undertake funded research projects.) At the Open University, we use material from the internet and online media: TED talks and clips from the BBC to stay in touch with the zeitgeist. This model allows us to stay ahead of the game and deliver the most relevant learning to our students.

I'm not sure the students realise what a good deal they are getting, especially given that they are paying a fraction of the fee that they would pay at a traditional university. That's OK. We want to give them an edge in life, which most of them have never dreamed of having - coming from the back of the educational queue as our students often do. Because our students have been disadvantaged in their previous education, it's good that we can level the playing field by providing them with cutting edge learning later on.

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The Story of a Module - a tutor's part

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Wednesday, 11 Apr 2018, 08:30

Claire Kotecki has written up how a module is designed and written at the Open University. An OU module gets 'taught' by a whole team, whereas at traditional universities it's in the hands of only one lecturer. I thought I'd write about my role in the team, as an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. I rely on many other people to support my teaching, hopefully they can write up their roles too.

I teach at Level 1 Social Sciences, and I therefore induct many students for whom not only online/distance learning - but university learning at all is a new experience. Under my guidance, they discover the precise joys of referencing (no, really! referencing can be fun approve), the excitement of putting concepts and evidence together, the many frustrations at barriers to learning and how to overcome these.

At the Open University we offer blended learning. Students access a diversity of materials, organised via an online Study Calendar. Week by week, students progress through tips on reading a textbook chapter, video and audio material, study skills exercises and academic guidance. These build up to one of five Tutor Marked Assignments and a short online assessment - each of the TMAs supports the student towards the writing of the final End of Module Assessment piece of work.

Screenshot of DD102 study calendar at Week 10

This is a radically different way of teaching to lecturing, where students take notes on dictated academic knowledge and have to develop their own writing skills in order to present only one or two pieces of work. In the Open University the tutor (that's me wide eyes) provides continuous supportive guidance to build students' academic skills as well as knowledge throughout the module. Not only do the TMAs gradually introduce the opportunities to develop new skills, I individually tailor feedback to the student so as to make sure they focus on the areas they need to work on.

Long before the fashion for the 'flipped' classroom, we were providing rich contemporary materials which students could work their way through before they attended workshop-style tutorials to support their intellectual engagement. Ahead of every assignment, my students have the opportunity to come to a face to face or an online tutorial and chat with each other - and me, about their learning. I design some slides and exercises to encourage us to think through topics and study skills issues (always reminding students of the importance of referencing wink).

Powerpoint slide about the use of evidence, with joking picture of the 'credible hulk'.

I prepare the slides and tutorial exercises differently each year, based on generic feedback I want to provide out of the group of assignments I just marked and the study skills needed for the upcoming assignment. My job also involves pulling the tables into a better formation, encouraging small group discussion, tidying up at the end - and I usually bake a cake for us tongueout

This year I've started strongly encouraging students to come to face to face tutorials, as year after year I see the students who do come do better. Meeting fellow students helps them realise that everyone is learning, they are just as smart as the others. Chatting about their studies embeds the knowledge. Last year I only had one student for this tutorial. We did enjoy our chats about social sciences! however it's better this year, with seven or eight for the same tutorial event; they can get good group discussion going with each other.

One woman sitting smiling by a laptop showing tutorial slides Several people sitting round tables chatting

(Student permission to take and publicly use photos given.)

We experience high rates of attrition at the Open University. I personally provide pro-active care to increase my levels of retention. Students can be diffident about getting in touch after a poor experience of education and/or the benefits system, so if it looks like someone might be falling behind I start emailing and phoning them. I might refer them to Student Support advisors who have specialist knowledge about grants and loans, or about what support is available for specific additional learning needs.

Students almost never drop out because they can't cope intellectually with the module materials but their lives are very full, and it's no surprise that many have to defer studies to a less hectic time. I always tell them they have taken the most important step: they have started studying, and the Open University will support them in their studies now for the rest of their learning journey - however long that takes.

One myth being circulated is that the generation of middle aged students for whom the Open University offered a second chance at a degree are being educated out - the expansion of university provision post-1992 means the OU doesn't have a constituency for our kind of distance learning. We should expand into Coursera style digital provision of MOOCs for students from less developed countries.

We increased our recruitment over the last couple of years. My own students come from a range of backgrounds but they all need a more flexible education provider than bricks-and-mortar lecture halls can offer and a more supportive education than MOOCs provide. They need blended learning with a human tutor to guide and advise them. 

While on holiday in Scotland recently, I explained to a young mum how she could still do the degree she wants to study for, with us.

  • Her child is too young for school? She can study from home as and when she can make time.
  • When her child is unwell? She can still study - she doesn't have to continuously attend lectures or tutorials.
  • She left school without any other qualifications? We don't ask for prior qualifications, just willingness to learn.
  • She is on a low income. Grants, loans and a range of financial support (eg to buy a new computer if needed) are widely available. (Phone your local Open University and ask about this - financial support differs in England, N. Ireland, Scotland and Wales but is available in all four nations.)

(Gratuitous holiday pictures)

Brightly coloured cock pheasant Row of plant pots covered in snow

It isn't something we officially record, however I estimate about half my students have young children to care for. This weighs more heavily on women students who are expected to put more time into childcare than on men students. People (including themselves) expect men students to put time into improving their career for their family as well as themselves. (NB Both DD103 and DD102 look at issues of gender and family politics.)

I mediate between the demands of the Study Calendar and the demands of a young family, offering extensions for assignments, advising on catchup strategies and telling women how important their studies are - for their children as well as themselves. When children see their mum or dad getting out their laptop and books to study, they put their own heads down to study harder at school - it's a win/win on social mobility. Mum and Dad get a degree, children achieve in school and can go on to traditional university.

The most important work I do with students is to give them self-confidence. They can sometimes even get a question disastrously wrong because they have become so convinced they are not intelligent. They think if they are finding it easy to answer the question, they must have misunderstood it, so they cleverly give the 'wrong' answer instead of the answer that first comes to their mind. I assure students that they are capable, bright people who have many skills already (if you can figure out whether a 25% off offer in a supermarket is worth it, you can already do statistics - although we do gently teach statistics to make sure you 'get' them).

8/10 cats prefer frisky whiskery biscuits - two cats like steak. (One likes his steak well done, but we should not make any assumptions about him being a lapcat from a gilded background of privilege just because he is a Persian, there is no information about class status in the table thoughtful

Powerpoint slide on statistics showing very simple table

I have taught at Russell Group and post-1992 universities and I was educated myself at King's College, Cambridge so I know the breadth of higher education provision in the UK. Hand on heart, the kind of learning I can offer at the Open University is the best available. Indeed, there is some speculation that frameworks to review and compare teaching were suppressed becauses universities with a more prestigious reputation weren't scoring as well as upstarts like the OU. Yet I sometimes encourage my students to take the 60 credits my courses offer and use those to go to traditional university. It's not just about the fun of the campus lifestyle. An opportunity to be part of a university community offers invaluable resources to young people starting out in life.

Nevertheless, online and distance provision have a key role to play in higher education in the UK. Students don't usually realise what high quality tuition they are getting with the Open University. Some come because they can earn and learn with us. Others need additional support to make learning accessible. 20% of my students are officially registered with additional learning needs. Since I teach new students, more are likely to realise as we progress that they would benefit from an assessment and the considerable support to adjust materials for them which will follow a diagnosis of dyslexia or dyspraxia or other learning needs. Some of my students suffer intense anxiety, others physical mobility issues, some are on the autism spectrum. At the Open University we are constantly working to stay ahead of the curve in supporting their studies. Personalised study support means those who have experienced domestic abuse or who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder can be alerted to materials which may trigger anxiety and block their ability to engage with the learning; I can also talk through with them strategies to make sure they still benefit from skills development which that block of study is designed to support.

As the gap between the richest 1% and the rest of us widens, the Open University provides a vital ladder out of poverty. The widening of participation in Higher Education means more people realise they can and should get the opportunity to learn which they hunger for. If there are additional barriers in the way of them getting to a traditional campus university, we at the Open University offer vibrant engaging materials and friendly human guidance to ensure they also get their chance to hone critical thinking for the knowledge economy, and for a richer cultural and social life.

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