As online teachers, we must have an open mind. We must be sensitive to the needs of all our students. That doesn’t mean we sacrifice our high expectations for great work; we just have to scaffold for every student. That means we celebrate the individuality that each student brings. And not that phony façade we see the first couple weeks of school sometimes, but every positive characteristic that we can get each student to exude. Our curriculum must be inviting, though, so that students are willing to ask honest questions during the inquiry process. Regardless how trivialized each student might feel his or her story is in comparison to one another, we must design our curriculum so that it is empowering and not exposing weaknesses. As a former camp counselor, I recall having campers who were wealthy mixed with students who were poor and broken. Both types of students, when presented with the same, rewarding environment took away different intrinsic experiences, but both were positive and life-altering. Our camp curriculum was designed to not praise any one individual over another. That is key.
Diversity in students means diversity in needs. With such diverse needs, we should avoid explicit, mechanistic teaching and invite the students to do the thinking by asking authentic questions. For students who come to us broken, who might not have the best understanding of group norms or language skills, or those who are resistant to putting forth genuine effort, it is a challenge that we, as some of their only allies, must take on willingly. For us to be able to elicit the tacit knowledge that our students bring to the classroom and to get them to express that in their online collectives is the first step in getting their buy-in to life-long learning. As John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas (2011) say, students should “experiment with what they already know how to do and modify it to meet new challenges or contexts” (Brown & Thomas, 2011, p. 76). No student should ever be ashamed of their story, but should use it as empowerment for forging his or her own voice in the context of online collectives. And we teachers must consider those stories and seize every opportunity to teach digital citizenship. Some students might try to test just how free their individual expressions are allowed to be, but we have an ethical responsibility to protect them from harming themselves, especially online. By not having a structured, safe, and focused learning environment for our students, we are doing them a disservice. Respectful collaboration and diligence must be exemplified for our students; the last thing we want is for a damaging website to be created, using the tools and platforms we have taught our students to use, as was the case with a Missouri public school teen (Kemerer & Sansom, 2013, p. 234). Those sorts of things aren’t easily removable from the Internet and can be haunting for life.
I think many teachers forget to teach every student with dignity, and not wear the authoritative hat all the time. Students of all backgrounds respond well to teachers who really listen and talk with their students. If you think of your favorite teachers growing up, there’s a good chance they showed how much they really cared for the students. When we take the time to get to know every student for who he or she really is, to build that positive rapport, I think we learn to naturally scaffold for each one. We can always demand excellence from our students, though, and that should never be forsaken. And for those who have issues with accessing the technology tools at home, we must advocate for those students. Again, we might be the only resources for those students to turn to in fighting for equity.
So, in planning our online curriculum, we teachers have much to consider. In essence, we must fight for equity and access, academic freedom, citizenship, creativity, innovation, as well as celebrate all the diverse needs that each student brings to the classroom collective. Once that has been accomplished, we won’t need to reach the students; they will be reaching alongside us as cohabitants of the new, emerging culture of change.
Thomas, D & Brown, J.S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Lexington: CreateSpace.
Kemerer, F & Sansom, P. (2013). California School Law (3rd ed.). Stanford University Press.