A global pandemic is a global disaster. It disrupts the status-quo. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the routines of students and instructors and caused an unprecedented shift to online teaching and learning. This article argues that the shift to online classrooms can advance equity, diversity, and inclusion among learners and instructors. The argument is based on my teaching experience as a racialized professor. I compare my lived-experience when I taught in-person classes before the pandemic, and when I taught online classes during the pandemic. I also compare my observations of my students’ learning experience in in-person class settings before the pandemic, and their learning experience in online classes during the pandemic. In online classrooms, my academic authority was more acknowledged and respected than in in-person classrooms. Also, there was an increase in the interactions among students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) and non-BIPOC students. As more higher education institutions embrace online courses and course sections, not as an exception due to the pandemic, but as fixtures of the institutions, then the future classrooms will likely be equitable and inclusive.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada, the pandemic waves crashed on educational activities across the country. The lockdown orders by the government led to shifting most on-campus learning activities to online platforms. Some instructors, and learners perceived the shift as an inconvenience (Chen et al., 2022). Nonetheless, it was imperative that all educational institutions abide by the government’s decisions. As a result, higher institutions were closed to in-person learning. Students no longer needed to commute between their homes and the campus. They did not have to be in close proximity to the instructor before attending classes. During the pandemic lockdowns, teaching and learning in most higher institutions was facilitated online.
In this article, I apply a reflexivity method to examine my teaching experience during the pandemic and draw insights about the future of tomorrow’s classrooms. At the time of the first wave of the pandemic, I was an instructor at a college in Ontario, Canada. I was teaching post-graduate diploma courses to local and international students. According to Fook (1999, p. 12), reflexivity focuses on the influence of certain aspects of one’s life and the context which influences one’s observations of actions and events. The use of the reflexivity method allows me to critically observe how I was situated in the classroom before the start of the pandemic and during the pandemic. It also allows me to consider the students’ interaction, not only from the perspective of an instructor, but also from the perspective of my racialized background. I compare my lived-experience when I taught in-person classes before the pandemic, and when I taught online classes during the pandemic. I also compare my observations of my students’ learning experience in in-person class settings before the pandemic, and their learning experience in online classes during the pandemic. Based on these observations, I draw insights on what the classroom of the future would be for people from BIPOC backgrounds, and argue that online classrooms will advance equity, diversity, and inclusion between instructors and learners, and among learners.
The next section of the article discusses the different changes that occurred across many higher institutions at the onset of the pandemic. It identifies the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives that were introduced in some higher institutions and highlights the experience of BIPOC instructors in classrooms. After this, I present the detail of the observations and my location and positioning within this. The last section concludes the article. It discusses the importance of supporting online classrooms, increasing access to online classrooms for BIPOC students, and enabling them to choose their preferred mode of learning. It also notes that increased support from higher institutions is needed, so that the students’ choice will not become detrimental to their learning and hinder them from the academic success they require for job success.
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Classrooms
At the wake of the of the Black Lives Matter movement (Szetela, 2022) there was an emergence of reckoning in higher institutions, about the opportunities that are available to individuals from BIPOC backgrounds. For example, a Canadian college embarked on a new initiative that sought to investigate the level of representation in the workforce, at faculty level and department levels. The college aimed to build an “equitable (institution), free from racism and bias” (Seneca, 2022). Also, a Canadian university introduced a new management position for confronting discrimination head-on (University of Toronto, 2022). While the results of these interventions will be revealed over time, the level of attention dedicated to EDI cannot be denied (Tamtik and Guenter, 2019). In many institutions, the EDI interventions brought to light the inequalities and inequities that exists. They gave insights into the challenges that BIPOC instructors and students face in classrooms. EDI showed how BIPOC instructors (especially females) experience disregard for their position, disrespect for their qualifications, and poor student evaluations (Bavishi et al., 2010; Cramer & Alexitch, 2000). They also highlighted how BIPOC students go through institutions, sometimes navigating the pangs of exclusions, rejections, and unfair penalties incited by their backgrounds (Hussain, 2022;
There is still a long way to go before attaining equality and equity for all in academic and career pursuits, as well as in eliminating barriers to academic and career success. However, the changes made to the classroom settings due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, predominantly, a shift to online classrooms, seem to enable improved EDI. It is also likely that the EDI gains will not only remain in classrooms but will be carried on to the workplaces.
In the next section, I discuss the EDI gains that I observed in my online classroom.
Reduced Emotional Labour
The online classroom created a space where I encountered less physical scrutiny. The students were aware that I was teaching from a dedicated workspace in my home, where I live with my family members, whom I love and cherish. Facing the students from this space allowed them to humanize me. Therefore, I exerted less emotional labour of coping with untoward mannerisms and acts of malignity. I taught more and thought less about how to manage students’ acceptance of my ethnicity and my accent. Whereas in in-person teaching, instructors have to be in-front of the class, an online classroom is void of this physical ‘sacred’ space for knowledge experts. Online classrooms allow the instructors to be a part of the class.
Also, in the online classrooms, the reliance on digital link instead of physical contact shielded me from unspoken demonstrations of displeasure towards me. It was possible for me to focus more on the course’s topics and the students’ understanding of what I was teaching, since I couldn’t easily see the very few students who may be rudely rolling their eyes or turning to their phones. As such, I was not constantly haggling within me whilst teaching, whether to respond to the students’ uncouth behavior or not. Also, I did not have to deliberate on what I could do to prevent the experience of discrimination and racism. The diminished emotional labour allowed more focus on students’ understanding of the topics and their performance in the course assessments.
Increased interactions with BIPOC students
Canada’s multiculturality reflects in higher institutions that are situated in urban locations. In my classrooms, there are students from diverse backgrounds. Despite the cultural diversity among the student population, I observed limited interactions between students from different cultural backgrounds. Oftentimes, the students who are from a specific cultural background would sit together and choose to work together. In the online classrooms, I observed a different approach. Students related cross-culturally. Ideas were shared more readily. Importantly, BIPOC students were not isolated and ignored.
Cultural-based group formations in the classrooms and the workplace keep people in ‘silos’. They learn nothing about others, and do not update what they know about the world. Of what use will be multiculturality, if it does not result in building synergies, by drawing lessons from other cultures to close knowledge gaps, and help in making informed decisions? When students relate more easily with people from other backgrounds, it is likely that this practice will diffuse to the workplace. BIPOC employees will more likely receive warm smiles from colleagues, be more readily included in conversations, and enabled to thrive in their roles.
Increased cultural competence and emotional intelligence
As discussed above, there was increased interactions with the students from BIPOC background, in the online classes. The cultural conclaves that had dominated most of the in-person classes were swapped for multicultural groups. With the increased interactions among students from diverse cultural backgrounds, it is likely that the students learnt about different cultures from their peers or became more open to learn about other cultures. When we learn about differing culture, we have a better understanding of their ways of life, appreciate alternate and/or unfamiliar stories, and act with compassion towards others.
In relations to the workplace, employees seek employees with cultural competence and emotional intelligence. While intelligence quotient may aid the ability of a candidate to secure a job, emotional intelligence will be required to sustain the position. According to Clark and Polesello (2017), developing cultural competence and demonstrated emotional intelligence enhances leadership capabilities. As such, a culturally competent and emotionally intelligent workforce will likely result in a workplace with increased employee retention and job productivity.
It is known that online classrooms are not new. However, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a halt to most in-person classes. This made online classes to be the dominant instruction mode during the pandemic. This article aimed to present the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion benefits that I observed in my online classes. As a racialized instructor, I observed that there was more regard for my qualification and job position, which helped to reduce emotional labour. Also, BIPOC students increased their participation in the classes and students from other backgrounds interacted more with BIPOC students. The article notes that this increased interactions among students from diverse backgrounds will increase the students’ cultural competency. It also suggests that the increased cultural competency will benefit workplaces.
If the campus of tomorrow would be mostly situated online, we must ensure that BIPOC students are not left behind. There should be provisions for internet access and the relevant technology devices for students to participate in their classes and other campus activities. Institutions that constrain all courses to have only in-person classrooms may be doing a disservice to some students. In the classroom of the future, students should be allowed to choose their preferred mode of learning, whether in-person, online, or hybrid. This will enable students to learn how to make informed decisions at school and at work.
This article does not disregard the challenges that BIPOC students face in the process of completing their higher education. Instead, it brings them to the fore. While doing so, it highlights the possibilities for change and identifies online interactions as a possible tool for addressing EDI in the classes and in the workplace.
- Adam Szetela (2020). Black Lives Matter at five: Limits and possibilities. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 43(8), 1358-1383.
- Bavishi, A.; Madera, J.M. and Hebl, M.R. (2010). The effect of professor ethnicity and gender on student evaluations: Judged before met. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 3(4),
- Chen, W., Brenes, D. and Bergerson, A.A. (2022). Teaching online and caring for students and colleagues. In: A.A Bergerson and S.R. Coon (Eds.) Understanding Individual Experiences of COVID-19 to Inform Policy and Practice in Higher Education, Routledge, New York.
- Clark, J.M. and Polesello, D. (2017), Emotional and cultural intelligence in diverse workplaces: Getting out of the box. Industrial and Commercial Training 49(7/8), 337-349.
- Cramer K. M. and Alexitch L. R. (2000). Student evaluations of college professors: Identifying sources of bias. Canadian Journal of Higher Education 30(2), 143–164.
- Fook, J. (1999). Reflexivity as Method. Annual Review of Health Social Science 9(1), 11-20.
- Hussain, M. M. (2022). The policy efforts to address racism and discrimination in higher education institutions: The case of Canada. Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal
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- Seneca, 2022. Seneca Au Large. https://www.senecacollege.ca/about/aularge.html Accessed July 30, 2022.
- Tamtik, M. and Guenter,M. (2019). Policy analysis of equity, diversity and inclusion strategies in Canadian universities – How far have we come? Canadian Journal of Higher Education 49(3), 41-56.
- University of Toronto, 2022. Creating a culture of belonging: Jodie Glean appointed Executive Director, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. https://people.utoronto.ca/news/jodie-glean-appointed-executive-director-equity-diversity-inclusion/ Accessed July 30, 2022.