Fostering Equity in the Online Learning Space

by Stephanie Thurrott

Centered around the premise that God created a diverse world, Azusa Pacific University has a long-standing commitment to striving for equity in education. U.S. News & World Report ranked APU among its top 25 schools for ethnic and economic diversity for 2019, and APU students bring with them a wide range of cultures, experiences, and personalities.

With the switch to online learning for fall 2020, educators and administrators are taking steps to ensure that, like the in-person experience, the remote-hybrid learning experience is equitable for all students.

“In higher education, equity refers to ensuring that each student receives what they need to be successful through the intentional design of systems, practices, and processes that impact the student experience,” said Keith E. Hall, Ed.D., vice president of diversity and inclusion at APU.

While students will face unique challenges as they transition to online learning during the pandemic, they’ll also encounter new possibilities in their classes.

“As professors, we see the remote learning environment as an opportunity to design curriculum in a way that’s meaningful, engaging, and represents the APU ethos, including our extraordinary level of care and high-quality educational experience,” said Shawna L. Lafreniere, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at APU.

Creating an Environment Based on Equity

“The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified issues surrounding digital equity and access for students across education in general and higher education in particular,” said Mike Truong, Ph.D., executive director and digital learning architect for the Office of Innovative Teaching and Technology.

For example, all students may not have access to reliable computers and internet service. “APU student support units like Student Affairs, Financial Aid, and the Academic Success Center are partnering with students who need help securing these technologies so that they can have the best chance for success,” Truong said.

In designing this equitable educational experience, APU is considering the diverse backgrounds and experiences of:

  • Students of color.
  • Former foster youth.
  • Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • Students with disabilities.
  • First-generation college students.

Preparing Faculty to Help Diverse Students Thrive

Hall and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion created a webinar for faculty called “5 Equity-Based Strategies to Amplify Learning and Engagement in the Online Environment” to share strategies they can use in light of the transition to remote learning and engagement.

Those strategies encourage faculty and staff to:

  1. Be proactive.
  2. Be authentic and relational.
  3. Be diversity-focused.
  4. Be culturally relevant.
  5. Build community.

To help diverse learners thrive during the pandemic, faculty might assess students’ experience with online learning, facilitate synchronous sessions, assess progress with developmental paradigms, and intervene quickly and efficiently.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion also partnered with APU’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment to provide a session on equity-based strategies during a recent faculty development day, and it continues to partner with the Office of the Provost to share resources that will benefit faculty and students.

Fostering Connection and Engagement

Lafreniere noted that the remote-hybrid approach to teaching and learning will enable faculty to continue to maintain strong relationships, and she is committed to offering students a virtual classroom space that includes hospitality and connection.

“At the heart of who we are as professors, we deeply care about the connection with our students, especially the personal connection that APU affords us as Christian educators. We recognize that this pandemic has created potential barriers to learning for our students,” she said. “I believe that teaching is a sacred trust, and with that comes my responsibility to ensure that I create the conditions for my students to have the best deeply-engaged learning experience that I can possibly provide for them, regardless of the teaching and learning modality.”

Learn more about APU’s efforts to support the engagement and success of its diverse student body through the Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence and the Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity.