"Digital Equity in Online-enhanced Political Science Classes"
Vincent K. Pollard
"Computers are a luxury for some of us." The female student who made that statement--and not President Clinton--reminded me that the digital divide runs right through our institutions.
This presentation suggests some ways of conceptualizing and responding proactively to different dimensions of the "digital divides."
Teaching equitably in "online-enhanced" courses that otherwise meet regularly within four-walls, physical classrooms will continue to be challenging. Why? First, such courses are not usually advertised as online courses. Second, according to the US Department of Commerce, the "digital divide" between haves and have-nots is growing. And, third, students need explicit socialization to norms of equitable conduct in semester-long virtual communities.
My presentation shares concerns and inferences arising from experience teaching online-enhanced (or "Internet-augmented) introductory and advanced political science courses and a senior project tutorial as a lecturer on two-year and four-year campuses in the University of Hawai'i System and as adjunct faculty at a private junior college affiliate of a Japanese university.
While teaching on those four campuses during 1997-2000, I observed expected and unanticipated teaching-learning benefits derived from requiring every student to be subscribed to a closed e-mail discussion list. In my view, we have to take the initiative in making training in such technologies available to our students. I certainly appreciate the professor who had our class go to lab session for an Internet orientation seven and a half years ago so that we could submit our comments on Vax Notes, a distant predecessor of WebCt.
However, until all community colleges everywhere require that students own computers or until they are given to students or until 24-hour computer labs are the norm on every campus, educators in online-enhanced classes should be sensitive to the "digital divide" and its impact on our students. Otherwise, we run the risk of exacerbating existing social inequities. I have suggestions for mitigating this obstacle to teaching equitably.
Teaching equitably is a theme properly attracting attention from educators at all levels, including in the community colleges. More specifically, equitable teaching provides a window into every type of online teaching. Depending on one's view, the notion of teaching equitably also provides a way of assessing whether online teaching treats all students fairly.
In thinking about online teaching, one may start with the maxim that the new telecommunications technologies should be utilized whenever they further the achievement of one's teaching-learning goals. The same is true of older technologies.)
But that claim barely begins a dialogue. One the one hand, a small but growing and respectable amount of research has begun to scrutinize dimensions of educational outcomes in fully online courses. On the other hand, "online-enhanced" four-walls courses (probably more common) pose challenges to equitable teaching for three reasons: 1) they are not advertised as "online courses" or even as "Internet-augmented courses"; 2) the "digital divide" between haves and have-nots; and 3) the need to socialize students to norms of equitable conduct for our semester-long virtual communities.
Most of my concerns and inferences arise from experiences teaching introductory and advanced political science courses and a senior project tutorial as a lecturer on two-year and four-year campuses in the University of Hawai'i System and at a private two-year college affiliate of a Japanese university on O'ahu, Hawai'i. All of these courses have been "online-enhanced" to varying degrees.
While teaching on those four campuses during 1997-2000, I observed expected and unexpected teaching-learning benefits derived from requiring every student to be subscribed to a closed e-mail discussion list. Students who may seem a bit diffident or shy in a large or small group derive several benefits from participating in e-mail discussion lists.
In the language posted on my website, these benefits are summarized as follows:
1. "Considering what you are going to say without being interrupted"
2. "Continuing your in-class discussions after the scheduled class period'
3. "Developing & refining community- and job-related cybernetic social skills"
4. "Pre-discussing assigned readings by answering assigned "early response questions"
Students who answered assigned questions before class seemed somewhat better prepared for discussions that presumed discussion of the assigned questions. Since students had the option of commenting on one another's responses, I noticed that the degree of care, relevance and focus in their online writing sometimes exceeded that in their assignments written as hard copies. This led me to specify the audience more precisely in those assignments. Errors that manifested themselves in online discussions sometimes required my teaching or reteaching material that I had thought was well understood.
The main downside is the time consuming nature of this activity for the instructor. One solution that gives the students more leeway and that reduces the time commitment is to restrain oneself and restrict the length of one's online public responses.
Whether your experiences provide you with a basis for agreeing, questioning or challenging my enthusiasm, please share those findings and insights with us.
By the same token, I am increasingly concerned that we take anticipatory steps to minimize or otherwise "bridge the digital divide." The phrase is that of Jonathan Alter in the 29 September 1999 Newsweek . Alter's article documents class and racial dimensions of non-access to the Internet. He speaks of "cyber class warfare" and "the tech haves against the have-nots." Indeed, according to a 1999 US Department of Commerce report "Falling Through the Net," the measurable gap in Internet access is growing in the United States <http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fy2001/>.
This presentation began with a quotation from a former student of mine. Responding to her comment, I recently administered a nine-question survey to students of mine. Question 6 asked, "Are the KCC computer labs your only way of connecting to the Internet?" In three sections of the "Introduction to Political Science" course I am teaching, students answering "Yes" to that question constituted 20%, 30% and 36% of their respective classes.
Until all community colleges require computers or give them to students or until 24-hour computer labs are the norm on every campus, educators in online-enhanced classes need to be sensitive to the "digital divide" and its impact on students in our courses. We have to be proactive. I suggest using a questionnaire or other survey instrument to find out exactly what students access is. And until computer literacy courses are required on your campus, let me further suggest that you incorporate whatever basic training sessions are needed right into your course syllabus.
Otherwise, we run the risk of exacerbating existing social inequities. I have suggestions for ways of "working around" or mitigating this obstacle to teaching equitably. "Digital Divides open everywhere before us--among peoples, technologies and procedures," said Dr. Lawrence T. Rase, Executive Director, Research Division of Cognitive and Instructional Science, Educational Testing Service (interviewed by Robert C. Schenk, "A Vision of education for the 21st Century," T.H.E. Journal, vol. 27, no. 6 (January 2000), p. 47).
These concerns will not disappear overnight. I look forward to learning from participants' reactions, comments and suggestions. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration!
Vincent Kelly Pollard, Ph.D.
TCC Online Conferences