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Promoting Cultural Diversity in the Online Classroom

November 24, 2020

Online education has grown in popularity in recent years. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning has become especially important as alternatives to traditional classrooms. As more instruction takes place online, it’s critical teachers find ways to shape online environments that create a sense of community and positive learning experiences for all students. That effort includes considering how to promote cultural diversity in virtual classrooms.

Promoting cultural diversity in the online classroom enriches virtual learning significantly. However, finding ways to effectively promote cultural diversity in nontraditional learning environments can be challenging. That’s why educators need expertise in culturally responsive teaching. A solid understanding of the priorities of culturally responsive teaching equips and motivates educators to innovate to ensure their online classrooms embrace cultural diversity.

The Importance of Cultural Diversity in the Classroom

Cultural diversity in the classroom encompasses more than just celebrating different races and ethnicities. It also involves recognizing how they, along with gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and socio-economic status, affect individuals and influence how they learn and see the world. Promoting cultural diversity offers valuable benefits to all students.

Fostering Student Growth and Awareness

Discussing the struggles, experiences, and perspectives of others creates opportunities for students to examine their preconceptions. New information about what others experience might cause students to question ingrained ideas and opinions. They might consider how they would respond in similar circumstances or wonder if they have unfairly criticized others because of their race or sexual orientation. This process gives students a chance to reevaluate how they form ideas and opinions, as well as to develop awareness and empathy for others.

Creating Safe and Productive Learning Environments

Creating learning environments that embrace diversity gives all students the chance to succeed. It helps students from various backgrounds feel included and sends a message to the class that everyone belongs. Fostering a safe environment helps students build healthy relationships with one another. When students see their differences appreciated, they often become more confident. Additionally, classrooms designed to meet the needs of students from diverse backgrounds make education more accessible and equitable. This can play an important role in addressing racial disparities in student achievement.

Culturally Responsive Classrooms: The Methods Teachers Use

What exactly does promoting cultural diversity mean in the context of education? The practice involves culturally responsive teaching, which aims to improve understanding between teachers and students. Teachers need to recognize how differences in backgrounds can cause breakdowns in communication that harm students and prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Developing Self-Awareness

An important step in creating a culturally responsive classroom involves recognizing one’s own potential biases and how one’s personal identification influences their perceptions. Teachers can then consider how such things affect their communication or shape their expectations of different students. With greater awareness, teachers can root out implicit biases that may inhibit their ability to communicate with parents or cause them to overlook opportunities to include more representative instructional materials.

Representing Diverse Voices

Culturally responsive classrooms seek out ways to integrate student voices and experiences. This can involve designing a curriculum that tells the stories of diverse communities or inviting students to share their unique experiences and interests. For example, the study of literature, music, science, math, and art should include the accomplishments of people of color. This gives students who are often underrepresented the opportunity to identify with great achievements in these fields. Teachers might also plan projects that allow students to champion causes or topics important to them.

Teaching in Response to Different Learning Styles

Beyond tying content to the cultural backgrounds of diverse communities, culturally responsive teaching involves understanding diverse learning styles and teaching in ways that are responsive to students’ individual cultural learning processes. For example, in some cultures, knowledge is transferred orally and through activity. As such, teachers can organize learning around games or stories.

Overcoming Challenges to Creating Culturally Diverse Online Classrooms

Online classrooms offer valuable alternatives to traditional classrooms, especially when face-to-face learning isn’t an option, but they also present challenges. Teachers must find ways to combat feelings of isolation among students and help them stay motivated in distracting home environments. Additionally, teachers managing online classrooms must overcome any barriers that may block culturally responsive teaching.

Challenges in Communication

The way teachers and students communicate is one of the biggest differences between online and traditional classrooms. Teachers need to carefully consider how to translate culturally responsive communication into the online classroom.

Written exchanges often make up the bulk of communication in online classrooms. For many students, however, this can limit their ability to understand others and express themselves. English language learners in particular may find this shift burdensome. Finding tools that enable a wider range of communication methods can offer a much more inclusive online learning environment. For example, using communication technology tools such as Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate can give students additional opportunities to express themselves and listen to others. Teachers may also find live chats, audio recordings, and video-recorded lessons useful tools to promote culturally responsive communication.

Challenges in Interpretation

Communication barriers can also lead to interpretation issues. Online classrooms pose unique challenges to students from different backgrounds because they can easily interpret materials differently. Therefore, teachers need to consider the design of their online classrooms. To help promote cultural diversity in the online classroom, teachers should:

  • Pay attention to the amount of material that appears on a page
  • Embed instructions and learning objectives throughout the online learning environment
  • Use captioned videos and images with alt text to describe images to the visually impaired

Additionally, teachers can design online materials that take into consideration people’s tendency to scan webpages when reading online. The aesthetics of online classrooms can also affect how accessible they are to a range of students. For example, students from different backgrounds can interpret images, symbols, and even colors differently. With this in mind, teachers should thoughtfully select graphics and images that consider different cultural perceptions.

Teachers trying to build culturally diverse online classrooms should consider:

  • How students from different backgrounds might interpret images, videos, and art
  • If the media selected reflects cultural diversity
  • If the online classroom offers different types of engagement and allows students to express themselves in different ways

Cultivate Your Expertise in Culturally Responsive Teaching

Equitable education calls for thoughtful discussions about how to support cultural diversity in the online classroom and in traditional learning environments as well. Understanding culture’s role in shaping how students learn, communicate, and thrive requires developing the right skills and knowledge. An advanced degree in education can teach educators strategies and practices that ensure all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic background or learning challenges, receive an equitable education.

Learn more about how American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching and online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership equip teachers and education leaders to address classroom challenges and achieve better student outcomes.