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Diversity and the Online Classroom

One of the potential benefits, and sometimes challenges, of being in an online class is joining a diverse community of learners. In many online courses, you many never "see" all of the diversity that exists. But having an understanding and awareness that it is there can be powerful as you interact with instructors and other students throughout the term.

Defining and Describing Diversity

Most definitions for diversity are somewhat vague, like this one from "variety; multiformity; a point of difference."

A 2010 survey conducted by the University of North Carolina's School of Global Public Health asked students: "How would you define diversity?" The responses [PDF] illustrate the many ways in which diversity exists. A sample of the differences perceived by this group includes: 

Race | Socioeconomic Status | Gender | Religion | Political Views | Sexual Orientation | Age | Life Experiences | Language | Interests | Skills | Heritage | Geographic Location | Perspective | Culture | Ethnicity | Education Level | Lifestyle | Personal Background | Goals | Professional Experience | Philosophy | Abilities

And as one student so clearly stated, diversity is "anything that sets one individual apart from another." So, what does this diversity mean for online learning?

Online education has been described as an "equalizer" due to the delivery format that allows students to share only what they choose to share about themselves. This can be beneficial to students who, for example, may not want to disclose a disability to the other students in their course (although letting the instructor know can be confidential and helpful if accommodations are needed). The flexibility of online education also makes learning available to a larger group of potential students. The University of Maryland's University College, which is primarily online, is just one school that is working with military students located around the world. Students who have families and work full-time are also able to enroll and participate online. This results in courses and programs that may in many ways be more diverse than traditional classrooms.  


EDUCAUSE reported on the U.S. Department of Education's recent guidance regarding emerging technology requirements at all levels of education. Emerging technology includes "online courses, course content, and services" among other products and situations. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 work to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities. This protection extends to online education and requires "accommodations or modifications that permit [disabled students] to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner." A recent example is the arrival of the eReader (i.e. Kindle, iPad) in higher education. Accessibility challenges, related to both hardware and software, are faced by schools that are integrating eBooks and eReaders with visually disabled students.

Universal Design concepts are also being used to prepare online courses for learners of varying abilities. To assist with accessibility and usability for all students, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock presents ten considerations for online learning environments. These considerations focus on content presentation, file formats, and navigation. Formal evaluation and testing of online education products are also recommended.


Students become more than just a list of names on the screen, and begin to build relationships that encompass the ways in which they are both similar and different, through the interactions that take place within a course. Educators who have posted advice on The Chronicle of Higher Education's discussion forum thread on Diversity in Online Classes recommend several assignments for student introductions, including personal web pages and self-introduction discussion forums. There is some debate in this forum about asking students to post photos; some think that this will raise concerns such as potential for discrimination, while others find that photos help with community building within a course.


Communication in an online course can take place in numerous ways ranging from posted announcements and email to threaded discussions and real-time seminars. Research conducted with online students at an Australian university found that cultural differences did "have an impact on participant satisfaction," particularly with "organizational and technological issues." The students in this study also "reported lack of peer engagement and intercultural communication." There is a strong need for open and steady communication among all course participants, including the instructor, to share perspectives and to address questions and concerns as quickly as possible.


Carnegie Mellon University provides a checklist of general principles for responding to student diversity that begins with, "treat students as individuals whose identities are complex and unique." This may be particularly important in online courses where student and instructor online identities and profiles may not include all of the ways in which they are different from one another.

Course participants should anticipate differences of opinion, perspective, and approach, as well as language, prior experience, and abilities. These differences may all play roles throughout the course and it is helpful to be prepared to respond accordingly. While there are occasions of inappropriate behavior in online courses, establishing a supportive climate will go a long way in encouraging students to be tolerant with each other and receptive to views and perspectives other than their own.

Embracing Opportunity and Meeting Challenges

Online learning can be an isolating experience and each of us comes to a new course with our own collection of characteristics, beliefs, opinions, and knowledge. Embracing the diversity that we represent as a group and welcoming the opportunity to learn from and with these other perspectives is part of the overall process. There's a lot to be gained from this experience, in addition to progress toward our academic goals, as part of our education and preparation for an increasingly connected world.

August 12th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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