The myths of online education: Inclusion, fairness & bias

Mary Farmer is a consultant, academic, and thought leader in the field of organizational behavior. A former Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Philips, Mary has worked with many of the world's largest multinationals on leadership, diversity and inclusion, gender balance, organizational health, engagement, and retention. In this article, Mary discusses the great benefits of online, asynchronous education, and how it fosters fairer, more inclusive learning environments for students.

In short

The myths of online education

Myth #1: Asynchronous learning is not inclusive

As instructor, my role is to facilitate learning. Assuming technological barriers are not present, the asynchronous online learning environment is one of the most inclusive – and free of bias – in education.

(Asynchronous learning is a general term used to describe forms of education, instruction, and learning that do not occur in the same place or at the same time. It uses resources that facilitate information sharing outside the constraints of time and place among a network of people.)

One of the reasons I have always loved teaching online is that it makes me a fairer person. I have struggled, as have many of my peers, to curb the enthusiasm of the more vocal, extrovert, native speaker (frequently male) students in the real-time classroom. Online this almost ceases to be an issue. Unlike in the real-time Zoom environment, no one can dominate the discussion – including me. 

Myth #2: Asynchronous learning does not serve all types of learners

Learners who have English as an additional language, reflective learners, introvert learners, and learners with different abilities, can take their time drafting, framing, and revising their input before posting online. In a classroom setting, these students often feel they are not heard or are pushed out of rapidly-flowing discussions which favor different types of communicators. As an instructor, achieving this balance and being able to offer the same opportunity for all students to contribute, challenge, reflect, and learn in their own preferred fashion has been very rewarding.

This inclusion extends to all. The exuberant extrovert is also very free to write as often and lengthily as they wish. They are not perceived as interrupting or as being disruptive, as they might have been in the brick-and-mortar classroom, but are much more likely to be perceived as adding value. The extrovert student may not be the best listener, but asynchronous learning allows them to revisit and reread the work of their peers, deepening their own grasp of the material. They also benefit from the feedback of their peers, something for which there may not be time in traditional learning.

Myth #3: Asynchronous learning promotes unfairness and bias

How does asynchronous learning make one fairer as an instructor? I don’t see the students. My ideal is when I know very little about them demographically (age, ethnicity, gender, abilities) – I prefer not to even see a picture. I want to judge all on their work, on their merits, on their own lived experiences, not by a knee-jerk and largely unconscious reaction on my part to what they seem to represent. Is this student shy or ill-prepared? Is that student curious or bored? Does that one communicate like the uncle I disliked so much in my own childhood? Does this one remind me of a younger version of myself?

In my field of Organizational Behavior, I have studied the systemic impact of implicit bias for 15 years. This research, and my own experience over a period of almost 20 years with teaching distance/online education for many institutions, tells me that online education can be a liberating, empowering, and, ultimately, fair learning experience for students – and their instructors.

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