Diversity and Online Learning

by Sharon B. Buchbinder, RN, PhD

Author Sharon Buchbinder

Diversity and inclusion are two words we are incorporating in our face to face teaching at all levels of higher education. From the early concepts of race and ethnicity, dimensions of diversity have blossomed into a myriad of identifiers—and self-identifiers. The following list of dimensions of diversity is by no means exhaustive, but is meant to be a conversation starter.

  • Culture of Origin: Race/Ethnicity/Language(s)
  • Gender: Roles/Sexual Orientation
  • Age: Decade/Generation/Generational Touchstones
  • Learning Styles: Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic
  • Formal Education: None/Elementary/HS/College
  • Social Class: The 1%/Upper/Middle/Lower
  • Home: Own/Rent/Lease/Homeless
  • Employment Status: Employed vs Unemployed/Retired/SSDI
  • Physical: Health Status/Fitness Level/Ability/Disability
  • Family Origin: Biological/Adopted/IVF/Surrogacy Procreation
  • Marital Status: Single/Married/Unmarried, Living with a Partner/Separated/ Divorced/Widowed/Widower
  • Belief System: Spiritual/Religious/Political Party/Area 51
  • Geography: Country/State/Region/Zip Code
  • Occupation: Career/ Stage of Career/Role in Organization/Military/Civilian

Diversity = Differences

“Diversity issues such as language differences, religious differences, cultural differences, gender, race and ethnic differences are not disparities in and of themselves. They are just differences.” (Hobby & Dreachslin, 2007, p. 6). The authors go on, “When these differences are not understood, valued and appreciated for their impact on the delivery of healthcare [education] and communication/trust, they become contributors to disparities and unequal medical [educational] outcomes” (Hobby and Dreachslin 2007, p. 6). [words in brackets my additions]

Whether by nature or nurture, we are wired to recognize differences, and we all have “implicit automatic bias.” Using photographs, Drs. Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard & Anthony Greenwald of University of Washington created a web-based assessment of automatic preferences for one group over another. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ The authors found: 88% of White and 48% of Black respondents were biased against Blacks; Latino and Asian respondents also show a pro-White bias. 68% of non-Arab non-Muslim respondents and 36% of Arab Muslim respondents were biased against Arab Muslims (Dreachslin, 2008, Slides 31-32).

Why does diversity matter in an online class?

Unless faculty and students post photos or videos of themselves, one could argue faculty and students are “invisible.” Yet each person comes to the classroom with their identity kit, which includes their name. As the saying goes, “What’s in a name?” The answer is:  “Everything!”

In 2003, Bertrand and Mullainathan found names and addresses mattered to potential employers who never saw the applicants. The researchers randomly assigned names that sounded White or African American to resumes. They also varied the quality of the resumes, i.e., level of education, certifications, work history, foreign language skills and awards and honors to these names. Lower and higher quality resumes were submitted to employment ads over a large range of jobs, from “clerical work in a mailroom to office and sales management positions” (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2003, p. 2). The authors found discrimination on the basis of White versus African American sounding names was clear and consistent, regardless of occupation and industry. Sadly, they also found employers who listed Equal Opportunity Employer in their ads were just as likely to discriminate.

The Not So Invisible Wo/Man

Even in the absence of VISIBLE identifiers, the following speak volumes about our students and their backgrounds and evoke automatic responses in our minds:

  • Introductions and writing style/ability.
  • Communications with other students and faculty.
  • Approaches to group work.
  • Attitudes toward using others’ work without attribution.
  • Generational differences and touchstones.

The last bullet is one which has received a lot of press—and concern, especially in academia. You’ve seen the articles and heard the sound bites:

  • Millennials (ages 16-34) want instant gratification, to go to work whenever they feel like it, and to earn big bucks—or good grades without working too hard.
  • Gen-X (ages 35-40) are entrepreneurs, believe they’re equal to everyone else—and have little respect for their elders.
  • Baby Boomers (ages 50-69) are workaholic team players who devote their lives to their jobs at the risk of ignoring their families.
  • The Silent Generation (age 70 and over) is hard-working, respects authority, and is individualistic.

Managing Multiple Generations

At this time we have four generations in the workplace—and in our classrooms. How should we deal with these differences as educators? Here are a few tips gleaned from the literature.

DON’T OVERGENERALIZE: Not every Millennial needs instant gratification and not every Baby Boomer is a team player. Be aware of the generational differences, but treat each student as an individual.

DO: “Focus on goals and set clear expectations…Clear goals and expectations puts each generation on an even playing field. No need for micro managing just set the goal and expectation” (Rodriguez, 2015, p.4)

DO: “Encourage each generation/students to mentor each other. They each provide different strengths, experiences and knowledge of today’s technology. Peer learning is as important as learning from faculty—sometimes more important” (Rodriguez, 2015, p.4).

DO: Take suggestions and use them. It can be challenging to faculty to accept the students may have a better way to do something. If there is a better way to do something, take the suggestion—and acknowledge the contribution of the student(s) to the teaching/learning experience. (Rodriguez, 2015, p.4).

DO: Encourage career planning and help students to envision how the work they are doing in your class fits into that career. “People tend to work harder…if they understand how it leads them on a path to their professional goals” (Rodriguez, 2015, p.4).

“Encourage balance. Employees [and students] of all ages place a high value on balancing their work and personal lives” (Rodriguez, 2015, p.4). Our students are working adults with families who sometimes need to be reminded that it’s okay to take time off when their lives are out of balance.

What’s It All About, Alfie?*

While each institution will vary, the majority of university faculty in the United States are White (US DOE, 2015). The average age of full and part-time faculty is 48 years old—and aging. Our students are multigenerational and multicultural. As the number of traditional college age students shrinks, the age of our students rises. The majority of our students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are working adults with multiple demands on their time—just like the faculty.

The bottom line:

  • Watch your assumptions and be aware of your own biases.
  • Be informed about diversity and generational differences—but don’t assume each person fits in that box.
  • Be respectful, set goals, have standards and establish clear expectations.
  • Clarify when needed and acknowledge student contributions.
  • Above all, have a sense of humor. You will need it!

*If you know what this refers to, you are NOT a Millennial.

Sharon B. Buchbinder, RN, PhD

Sharon Buchbinder is Professor and Program Coordinator for the MS in Healthcare Management at Stevenson University in the Graduate and Professional School and former chair of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration (AUPHA). She is also the author of three books from Jones & Bartlett: Introduction to Health Care Management (3E), Cases in Health Care Management, and Career Opportunities in Health Care Management.

Here are some references if you are interested in this topic:

Bertrand, M. & Mullainathan, S. (2003, July). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field Experiment on labor market discrimination. NBER Working Paper No. 9873. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w9873

Dreachslin, J. (2008). Diversity & disparities: Parallel challenges for 21st century healthcare. Institute for Diversity in Health Management Conference, June 19-20, 2008, Westin Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX. (Slides 7, 31-32). Retrieved from http://cchc-conference.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/J_Dreachslin_CCHCC_Org_Cultural_Competence_Ok_to_Post_9-29-11.317160606.pdf

Hobby, F., and Dreachslin, J.L. (2007). Diversity and disparities: Parallel challenges for 21st century health  care. Bridges 13 (3): 5-6.

Kelly, D. (2016, Jan. 28). Challenger disaster a generational touchstone. Retrieved from http://www.readingeagle.com/news/article/challenger-disaster-a-generational-touchstone

Lederman, D. (2014, February 28). The enrollment slow down. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/02/28/us-projects-college-enrollment-grow-14-through-2022

U.S. Department of Education (DOE), National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016-144), Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty.

Rodriguez, M. (2015, May 21). Five strategies for managing generational differences, p. 4. PDF retrieved from http://www.bsci21.org/five-strategies-for-managing-generational-differences/

Zumbran, J. (2014, Nov. 27). How to tell if a ‘fact’ about Millennials isn’t actually a fact. The Wall Street Journal, para 6. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2014/11/27/how-to-tell-if-a-fact-about-millennials-isnt-actually-a-fact/

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