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tipsDiversity in the Classroom: Bridging Difference and Distance Through Computer-Mediated Communication

By Leslie Harris, Instructional Technology Facilitator, SUNY–Plattsburgh

Statistics reveal that too many colleges and universities are still racially homogeneous; too many of our classrooms are all-white or predominantly white. In 33 out of 50 states in the U.S., minority students make up 20 percent or less of the college population. In 14 states, minority enrollment is less than 10 percent. Promoting the study of diversity under such circumstances is a special challenge.

Professors can teach about the many cultures that have contributed to American history and society, but frequently their students have little sense of cultures markedly different from their own. Asking the few minority students in our classes to "enlighten" their classmates and act as "spokespeople" for people of color places upon them an unfair and unrealistic burden. Race is only one factor that contributes to personal identity, and no one individual can be a spokesperson for his/her entire group. Furthermore, by focusing on race in the classroom and on the minority status of a few individuals, we may increase the alienation students of color often feel in racially homogeneous classes.

Many researchers in the field of computers and writing have discussed the liberating effect of "computer conferencing" on student participation, especially for women and students of color who may feel disempowered in face-to-face classroom environments. Computer mediation alleviates the panoptic pressure of oral discourse and reduces the struggle to monopolize the discourse space. Students no longer have to take turns to speak; all can participate simultaneously, as they type their responses via the computer conferencing system. Students can have a greater sense of safety and students in general and students of color in particular may assert their ideas more forcefully and directly.

Technology also offers new ways of diversifying the classroom itself. The broad reach of the Internet makes it possible to pair racially homogeneous classes with more diverse classes at other institutions. White students who have had little contact with students of color can discuss issues of race with those minority students--over e-mail and during real-time class meetings via the Internet.

In an English Composition class I taught on "Families Across Cultures," an all-white class at Susquehanna University was paired with a more racially diverse class at George Washington University (GWU), and another all-white class at West Virginia Northern Community College was paired with a second class at GWU. Students discussed on-line such topics as mainstream and alternative family structures; family patterns in African American, Latino, Native American, and European American cultural settings; and more general issues of racism, discrimination, affirmative action, and immigration. Inter-class dialogues about such issues can be difficult, but also provide valuable learning opportunities not available in traditional classrooms at predominantly white institutions.

The liberating effect of the computer- mediated-communication (CMC) environment can lead to more forthright exchanges, although instructors also need to be aware of the potentially inflammatory nature of the discussions. Conflict can and often does arise as students confront issues that--and people whom--they have consciously or unconsciously tried to avoid. This conflict can be highly productive, however, in revealing prejudice and mistaken assumptions that underlie some of our students' beliefs. By challenging ignorance and stereotypes as part of a more overarching curriculum in the study of diversity, we can promote greater racial understanding and open-mindedness among our students, and perhaps even a new interest in learning from people different from themselves.

For additional information about using CMC or about setting up cross-institutional collaborations, contact Leslie Harris at leslie.harris@plattsburgh.edu.

The Chronicle of Higher Education: Almanac 43 (1).

communications tips

The media and the public are interested in new applications of technology and classroom applications that bring together diverse populations. There may be news value if a class on your campus is computer conferencing with students in another state--or especially another country. Consider inviting a reporter to observe, or having a student write an op-ed about the experience.

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