Dr. Adam Foley
Director- Diversity Education, Assessment, & Outreach
It’s easy to assert that we have transitioned to a “new normal”. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, written it in emails, and uttered it over Zoom calls. I know I have! However, it’s a bit of a misnomer when you stop to think about it. In reality, there is nothing normal about this period in history. We are collectively experiencing a period in our lives that will define a generation and shape our working and living spaces on a much more permanent basis. At the same time, or experiences vary greatly based on identity, and highlight many underlying privileges we may have yet to realize.
One of the biggest changes we have all experienced in varying ways is the shift to an increased reliance on online communication. In some ways, this seems a bit like overkill. We’ve been sending email and using webcams consistently for well over a decade, right? It would be easy to say that our online environment is nothing new, and that we’ve simply upped our usage numbers. That doesn’t accurately reflect the shift in reliance, however. We are experiencing a state of being where physical contact has been taken away not by our choice, but by necessity. The result is a transition to an online environment unlike any we have experienced before. For many, working from home is no longer the relaxing gift on an irregular basis that it once was.
It is thus more important now than ever that we consider the importance of inclusivity as we operate within our online environments. This is not simply a conversation about diversity (broadly defined as the state of difference) but looks to each and every one of our practices as opportunities to consider and implement equitable and inclusive ideas, actions, policies, and relationships.
Although we continue to work towards actualizing full equity and inclusivity in the physical world, our current moment in time offers us a unique opportunity to more fully consider inclusivity in an online environment. Even after we return to campus, many of the online working and learning practices we are currently familiarizing ourselves with will become much more common. With that forward-thinking in mind, I offer some considerations for more fully embracing equity in an online environment.
We can consider the classic journalism questions- Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These questions apply to your working and learning environment, regardless of your job or area of study.
Who is currently involved in the conversation and planning? Who is not represented? Who’s voice is not being heard? Who is responsible for making decisions?
The “Who” is all about identifying, creating, and supporting a broad, inclusive community. We often invite folks to the table simply to feel good about representation, without actually considering which voices need to be heard in order to ensure an equitable and inclusive end product. In an online environment, this question becomes even more important as we consider access to communication channels, and the various ways people may or may not be able to communicate. These considerations have implications for scheduling, frequency, and content as well.
Where do I start?
- Consider adopting a trauma-informed approach to understanding and addressing a new online environment. We can’t not acknowledge that the impact of this pandemic has been substantial from a physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological perspective.
- Be sure to check in regularly with folks in an equitable manner. It’s easy to take for granted the brief drop-in conversations we have regularly until they are taken from us.
What are we discussing? Which problems are we attempting to address? Are we offering examples of diverse content and acknowledging different ways of processing information? Is the language we are using keeping some people away from the conversation, whether intentionally or not?
The “What” is ultimately about deciding who gets to prioritize the work we do, identify needs, and how to communicate. On a broad level, this means considering all aspects of accessibility and adopting an equitable and inclusive UDL (universal design for learning) approach to all of our work. In an online environment, this means not only considering access to translation services, captioning, but also differences in technology that may inhibit a persons’ ability to access information.
Where do I start?
- Utilizing caption and transcription services such as https://www.rev.com/.
- Don’t forget that we can still use email. We’ve quickly shifted to a Zoom-centric lifestyle, but sometimes a simple email will do the trick, and cut down on Zoom-fatigue as well.
- Consider new ways to visualize your work and collaborate, utilizing tools such as Mural, Trello, and Asana.
- Be cognizant of representation when choosing images and readings. This is a wonderful chance to familiarize yourself with some new authors!
What are our work hours? When do we schedule meetings? What impact do other responsibilities have on our time while at home?
This question goes beyond whether or not someone is a morning or an evening person (although, I will 100% always decline an 8AM meeting request, regardless of whether it is face-to-face or over Zoom!). Our concept of time and the “work day” has changed drastically as we have all pivoted in various ways to account for additional responsibilities at home and with our families. Shifting to a focus on thinking about our work as project-based, and thus more dependent on how much time something takes as opposed to when it should be done, can make all the difference. Consider a variety of scheduling tools to allow you to more easily manage your time. More importantly, remember that a 9-5 mindset doesn’t necessarily work well in an online environment (although it certainly does for some folks).
Where do I start?
- Look for opportunities to build trust with those you are working with virtually. This will make the conversations about timing and other commitments much easier and also give you insight into the lives of those you are interacting with daily.
- Consider multiple forms of participation during online meetings and classes.
Location. Location. Location. It’s an adage not just for real estate agents! How are we creating welcoming spaces in an online environment? How are we thinking about access to online environments and the tools for doing so?
Our online “office” looks very different, depending on various other aspects of our lives and identities. We need to consider things like the timing of meetings and classes, as well as expectations about video use and microphone use, when establishing safe, equitable, and inclusive online environments. It’s also important to think about how information is shared and posted. Web accessibility is crucial now more than ever.
Where do I start?
- Think about how you can effectively develop community in an online space.
- Consider where you might go in your current location in order to have a sensitive or confidential conversation. Remember that access to this space might be limited and plan meetings and educational time accordingly.
- Socially-just facilitation is key in any online meeting space.
The child in me loves these 3 letters a great deal. Encouraging equity and inclusivity in online environments begins, in many ways, with these 3 letters. Why? Why are we doing things the way we are? Why are we getting the outcomes we are getting? Why are we asking the questions we are asking?
An online environment is not intended as a copy of our campus spaces. Instead, I encourage you to think of the online environment as a reflection. Although similar in terms of goals and influences, it is an altogether different space. Our shift has presented us with a unique opportunity to ask why with regard to situations and structures that we had long since taken for granted as “just the way things are”. This is at the heart of social justice work and essential to crafting an equitable and inclusive online environment.
Where do I start?
- Provide opportunities for folks to reflect on discussions and other projects. Follow-up with individuals separately in order to gather those “why” questions and be transparent when communicating responses.
- When appropriate, share questions and responses for the benefit of the larger community.
You’ll find this question at the intersection of the rubber and the road. All of the other questions are well and good in the abstract, but we often struggle to integrate them into our daily lives. In our eagerness to keep things flowing, it can be easy to move straight from a to z and skip the rest of the alphabet.
What tools do you already have at your disposal to achieve your new goals? What tools do you not have? How can resources be reallocated? What does this changing online environment mean for the previous responsibilities of the individuals on your team? How might you ensure that everyone has equitable input and opportunity to contribute to this new mission or set of goals? This means reconsidering workflow, curriculum design, assessment, and communication.
Where do I start?
- Consider using encrypted messaging services, such as Signal, to ensure privacy. Be sure to ensure folks have access to a VPN as well, and are familiar with how to use it. You may also consider engaging in private browsing via the Tor Browser.
- Now is a good time to set up a password manager, such as LastPass, which is free to use.
- Check out this Leading Groups Online resource for some great suggestions.
There are a wealth of online tools to help you address these 6 questions in order to design a more inclusive online environment. However, none of these tools can take the place of asking these 6 questions with the intention of arriving at concrete answers. The digital divide has become increasingly apparent, and the current pandemic has laid bare many of the shortcomings of our current societal structure. It has also provided us with an opportunity to intentionally consider how to craft an equitable and inclusive online environment at its foundation. Perhaps then we won’t need to demo everything and start over in a few decades. Start crafting your inclusive online environment now! May the 4th be with you!
Did something you read spark a thought? Consider sharing it as part of the Diverse Voices Project!