December 2, 2020

Diverse Representation: Learner Impacts and Strategies in Online Courses

By: Ji Su Lee and Eli Fogle, Coursera Teaching and Learning team

Many learners are new to online learning. It can be an isolating environment without the in-person opportunities to connect with the instructor and other learners.  Creating an environment where learners can succeed includes many factors, and key among them is for students to feel comfortable, safe and well-represented.

Specifically, it is important to represent diverse populations in your course content, as our learners come from a wide range of backgrounds. For example, the population in the United States is nearly 40 percent non-white [PBS]. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2055, the country will not have one racial or ethnic majority group. In fact, commercial film content featuring casts with 31-40% minority populations report the highest revenues. There is good reason to expect similar success in the educational realm! And of course, Coursera is a global platform with learners worldwide, so international representation is equally important.

Be sure to consider this context as you think about the audience for your course content. Learners will greatly appreciate and benefit from seeing diverse representation in your course and resulting course community.

Why is diverse representation important?

Creating content that is diverse and inclusive is critical to learner success. Research has shown that diverse representation can help close gender and race gaps in education, and can create inclusive and productive course communities for all learners. Thus, educators have an important role to play in creating diverse and inclusive content. 

Here are just a few examples of how learners may benefit from more inclusive content:

  • Research suggests that the racial diversity of the teaching workforce can help to close the achievement gap [US Department of Education]. 
  • Studies show that stereotype threat can adversely affect underrepresented minorities in educational settings. Stereotype threat is the pressure to avoid confirming negative stereotypes of their group. Research summaries in the Annual Review of Psychology report that stereotype threat accounts for 50 to 82% of the gender gap on the SAT-Math test. It also accounts for 25% to 41% of the White/Latino gap and 17%-29% of the White/Black gap on the SAT. Educators have an important role to play in mitigating these risks. Diverse representation and inclusive course engagement can communicate to learners that they are welcomed and supported.
  • Diverse representation in course content will help learners feel like they belong. Seeing one’s own demographic characteristics reflected in content can be a motivating factor for many students [PBS], as they can be strong role models for learners. Research shows that inclusion of successful female examples in STEM and sharing evidence of women gaining ground in these fields improves female performance in those subjects. In fact, these strategies effectively closed the gender gap in controlled academic experiments [Sex Roles].
  • If your course is targeting learners wishing to re-skill or up-skill, your efforts to increase representation can contribute to a greater sense of belonging in the learners’ desired professions and/or industries and increase chances of success.
  • Inclusion of diverse instructors and instructional designers in designing your content can greatly influence how you structure and deliver the content. Similarly, diversity in instructors can bring diverse perspectives to how online content can be delivered and how that content might be consumed.
  • Interaction with diverse groups through course discussion forums or the Coursera Community can help decrease reliance on media stereotypes to formulate one’s ideas about those outside one’s race [Forbes].
  • Increasing representation can help to differentiate your course from other similar courses with less representation, and attract more diverse learners to your course.  

Strategies for diverse representation in course material

Here are a few strategies for including a more diverse population in your course content. They range from early production efforts to assessment design choices that can be implemented with lower lift. We hope that you’ll consider using a few of these strategies as you plan out your course material.

  • Hire diverse instructors as on-air talent. The on-air talents define the first few interactions that a learner has with your material. It is also very likely that video content is the most frequent instructional content type in your course. For the reasons shared above, learners will greatly appreciate seeing their demographic be represented in the on-air talent.
  • As another way to add diversity to your video content, add interview videos with practitioners of a diversity of backgrounds. With practitioner interviews, consider adding personal anecdotes and real-world applications of the content. This strategy can help ground the material, and hiring diverse talents for these videos makes the content more relatable and motivating.

Example videos from Grow with Google’s IT Support Certificate

  • Do avoid generalizing or assuming an individual represents a larger group (e.g. assuming a Black engineer will discuss underrepresented minorities in leadership positions just because they are Black). 
  • If you have a background in your video featuring other students or instructors (for example, for a video on location), make sure that these individuals represent diverse backgrounds. We have conducted studies with the University of Michigan showing that even background representation can affect learner perception of the content (see image below). Your inclusion of diverse populations through various aspects can encourage diverse learners to progress with their coursework and enhance their sense of belonging.
  • For quiz questions or project instructions, be sure to include a wide range of character names that represent those of different races and genders. Additionally, check that these characters are not only conforming to jobs or roles that are stereotypical (e.g. a range of genders taking on leadership roles, and/or underrepresented minorities representing characters in STEM jobs).

Strategies for ensuring successful engagement for a diverse course community

It is equally important to encourage inclusive engagement in your course community. Here are a few strategies for creating an inclusive climate in your course.

  • Add a Reading item about discussion forum etiquette. Remind learners that their peers may not be from countries that speak the same language as them, or they may be learning the course language as a second or third (or even fourth!) language. 
  • Avoid using colloquial language or idioms specific to a region. Region-specific terminology can be misinterpreted by more global audiences.
  • Try to respond to a variety of learners. Do you notice whether your responses tend to be for learners with names similar to your race and gender and/or nationality? 
  • Recruiting mentors and teaching assistants is also a great way to include a variety of demographics in your course content. On Coursera, you can recruit a diverse group of mentors to help moderate discussion forums and support learners to reach their learning goals.
  • Leverage and/or create online communities. At Coursera, we have the Coursera community where we encourage learners to participate in our global forum of learners. Here, they can exchange information about course recommendations, career outcomes, educational goals, as well as resources and tips for reaching those objectives.
  • Make sure that your content is accessible to learners of varying levels of cognitive, motor, and sensory abilities. Creating accessible content will allow more learners to spend time fully engaging with content and actively participating in discussion forums. For example, not including alternative captions may prevent some learners from understanding the visual example in a discussion prompt.

For more online and blended learning resources, visit the new Coursera Teaching Center.

The post Diverse Representation: Learner Impacts and Strategies in Online Courses appeared first on Coursera Blog.

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