Addressing diversity in the online classroom can be challenging. Students’ cultural identities are often hidden behind the electronic screen. However, because Facebook usage is nearly ubiquitous among typical college-aged students, they are usually at ease meeting and working in a virtual environment where their interactions often naturally and quickly reveal personal information. West and West (12) indicate that millennial students “tend to be more open to diversity, differences, and sharing” than previous generations and are strikingly self-revealing, which the Wests say is a double-edged sword because this makes “early communications easier” while also opening the door to a “wide variety of distractions and off-task discussions” (pp. 24-25). One way to minimize off-topic exchanges online is to provide students a venue at the start of the course to share about themselves but then make clear that discussion in the virtual classroom will be about class topics. Providing a virtual “student lounge” as a place for social and off-topic exchanges can help students honor the distinction between class and non-class discussion.
Online students’ “perception of culture” among their classmates and instructor affects their estimation of the class, and sometimes students believe online learning activities do not consider students’ cultural backgrounds (13). While this could also be the case in face-to-face classes, careful wording of the prompts to elicit student thoughts and discussion can help ensure class interchanges which force a consideration of diverse viewpoints, whether the assignment is a group project, threaded discussion, a wiki, or other kinds of collaborative work. Owens’ (14) concept of “practiced empathy” breaks through stereotyping by asking participants to try to perceive magazine ads and photos through the sensibilities of diverse groups, and prompts which require such engagement help students to consider other worldviews in new and impactful ways.
Since students who perceive their views to be minority ones may be hesitant to share those views with their peers, consider ways to make it more likely diverse points of view will enter the class discussions. Create more risk-friendly environments by clarifying with students the ground rules for online discussions and general “netiquette.” Although discussion ground rules are helpful in face-to-face settings, they can be even more important in online environments given the ease with which text-only comments can be misconstrued.
Surfacing diverse points of view can be enabled by allowing students to respond to questions and prompts independently, submitting their own responses before seeing their peers’ responses. You might, for example, have student posts to a course blog be held for moderation by you. Once all the posts have been submitted, you approve them in a batch so that they all appear on the blog at once. This allows students to contribute their unique points of view without being unduly influenced by students who respond to your prompt most quickly. See (15) for more on the importance of independent work to leveraging the diversity of thought and experiences in a group.