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Student Identity Matters — Online, Too

In higher education, we pay attention to who students are — to how they show up on our campuses and how they engage the university. But often that doesn't happen enough in online learning environments.

college students

Questions of race, identity, equity and inclusion are at the forefront of a national conversation underway on college campuses and around the country. But that isn't always true of higher learning in the online setting. Even as more and more students take classes remotely, particularly during the pandemic, the perception persists among many practitioners that student identity doesn't matter online.

That needs to change.

If we've been paying attention at all to current events, we know that racial identity matters in this country. Socioeconomic identity matters. Who students are isn't something we can ignore — whether in person or online.

As online practitioners, we need to make an extra effort to center our student's identities. Just because we can't see their faces in person or onscreen doesn't mean they aren't affected by what's going on in the world around them. On a Monday morning after police kill an unarmed Black woman, for example, or after major legislation passes restricting the rights of transgender people, it's critical that faculty and other university administrators are cognizant of how these events may impact students. That means knowing students better — and also being attuned to identity in a more fundamental way. When we are thoughtful about identity, we don't have to know everything about a person to say, "Hey, this may be impacting you," or "Hey, this is impacting me — and I want to create space to dialogue about it."

To those worried about bringing politics into the classroom or conversations with students, I say it is less about your political identity and much more about your humanistic identity: who you are, what you care about, your values and ideals. There's no discipline that's beyond identity work. In the STEM fields, for example, we know there are significant inequities in who has access to courses at the high school and college levels and who works in those fields. Even if there are only a few students from diverse backgrounds in a class, it's our responsibility to nurture those students.

Here are a few ways to center identity online:

Get beyond the introductory post. Often that first "tell us about yourself" exercise or assignment is the only time identity shows up in a class. It's important that faculty be intentional about identifying and engaging students beyond the introductory assignment. That doesn't necessarily mean calling out a student and asking them to share their experiences. Faculty can assign course materials from a diverse range of scholars and authors, give students opportunities to bring their identity and lived experiences into course discussions and assignments, and help connect students with faculty, scholars, mentors and professionals from similar backgrounds.

Review curriculum, policies and procedures. Faculty need to look at their curriculum to make sure their assignments, group work and examples are equitable and diverse and don't marginalize students further. Being more intentional about the diversity of the authors of readings and coursework is a way to center a student's identity, so they can see themselves in the scholars from whom they are attempting to learn.

Administrators should make sure programs, policies and procedures are inclusive and just — for example, whether participation requires a fee that may be prohibitive to some students.  

Be cognizant of what's going on in the world. Faculty and administrators need to be aware of current events and how they might affect students. If a student lives in the path of a hurricane and you have a no-extension policy and don't realize that half the eastern seaboard is without power — that's the kind of thing that really matters.

Recognize, respond and refer. Online, it can be hard to recognize when a student needs support. Faculty and administrators need to be on alert for signs such as a student who is typically active and engaged suddenly disappearing without explanation. If you don't know how to support a student, make a referral. But also engage the student and offer some type of response. It's important also to take time to recognize our students' humanity and empathize with them, even if that takes an extra step.

Faculty, advisers and student affairs administrators are understandably focused now more than ever on making sure students are showing up, keeping them from failing or dropping out, and getting them to learn course material or access services. I encourage all of us who work with students to go a step further and to take responsibility for ensuring that those students are cared for as well, so that they can learn, grow and develop.

About the Author

Ashley A. Adams, Ph.D., is senior director of student affairs for Penn State World Campus, which recently hired an associate director of equity, inclusion and advocacy to provide diversity and inclusion-related events for students online and to provide advocacy and support to students in crisis or in need, regardless of their identity.

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