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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
(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).
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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.
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Baker, R., Dee, T.S., Evans,
B. and John, J. (2018) ‘Race and gender biases appear in online education’.
Benjamin, R. (2019) Race
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and Higher Education: Closing the Degree Awarding Gap’ on OpenLearn. Available
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Crenshaw, K. (1989)
‘Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of
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S. M. and Willis, E. M. (2002) ‘Power, language, and identity: Voices from an
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