What I’ve Learned from Humanizing Online STEM

About three years ago, I received a phenomenal opportunity to partner with a team of six colleagues across four institutions and two systems of public higher education in California to humanize online STEM courses. With the support of a $1.3 million California Education Learning Lab grant administered by Foothill-DeAnza Community College District, my Co-PIs and I leaned into the challenge of honing a model of humanized online teaching, developing a professional development program in support of humanizing online STEM courses, and conducting research to help us examine the impact of humanizing on equity gaps in STEM. If you know me, you know I have always believed that online classes are a huge opportunity to increase access to higher education and when they’re intentionally designed and taught to center inclusivity, they will transform.

In our first year of the project, my two faculty development co-PIs – Mike Smedshammer of Modesto Junior College, and Kim Vincent-Layton, of Cal Poly Humboldt – and I wrote an article, Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education. Writing the article was a perfect opportunity to leverage the practices of the grassroots humanizing online teaching community (see #HumanizeOL), which has been fueled by faculty in in the California Community College system, California State University, and beyond through several courses I’ve developed (first at CSU Channel Islands around 2014 and then in the California Community College system through the Online Network of Educators (@ONE) around 2018. While that article was published during the throes of COVID, we wrote it before a whisper of the virus had surfaced.

Recognizing Scholars of Color

Writing the article illuminated a few things to me. As I look back, I recognize now that it was when I began to see the interconnections between the practices embraced in humanizing and the research of scholars of color, most noteworthy to me at that point was Laura Rendón’s validation theory (1994), which centers positive educator-student relationships as the foundation for success for culturally diverse students. As we recognized the palpable link between humanized online teaching and Rendón’s work, we also began to recognize the lack of literature in higher education seeking to identify the factors that influence success for underserved student populations in online courses. By the end of 2020, the model of humanized online teaching shared in the article had developed into this infographic, which includes eight elements of humanized online teaching fueled by culturally responsive “warm demander” pedagogy (Kleinfeld, 1975) and a more expansive bibliography, again deeply informed by scholars of color and culturally responsive pedagogy. This is the model that our project team used as the framework to develop a six week, asynchronous professional development program, The Humanizing Online STEM Academy. The Academy served as the intervention in our research study.

Researching Equitable Teaching Practices

As we set out to plan our research study, which was led by Di Xu at UC Irvine and included an amazing team of graduate students and post-docs, our plan was to look at student record data to see how humanized online teaching impacts success rates in undergraduate STEM courses in the California Community College (CCC) and California State University (CSU) systems with a particular interest in looking at its impact on racial/ethnic equity gaps. But as the world went online in 2020, our pre- post- research design was foiled. Amidst our biggest and most abrupt paradigm shift ever in higher education, we could not isolate humanizing and make a case that it was the intervention that led to a specific change. That felt extremely frustrating to me at first, but now that I look back at it, I believe this project is stronger for that change. It has provided the opportunity to ask different questions and, as a result, our project is discovering some powerful findings about professional development that guides equity.

I am more aware now than ever of the thirst for evidence-based teaching strategies in higher education and a desire to see the evidence before adopting the practices. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked, “So are you seeing an increase in success rates?” after introducing our project. I agree that our goal is to see positive changes in student data as we make changes in our teaching and I agree that data needs to be disaggregated to look at how changes are affecting disproportionately impacted student groups. But when the changes we need to make require deep-seated mindshifts in faculty, I believe we miss an important step if we jump straight to looking at student data.

Seeing White Dominant Culture

Professor identity is a cultural construct that both sustains and constructs the “status quo,” which I now understand is smoke and mirrors for “White dominant culture.” Changing the way a professor teaches requires an identity shift and that’s a tall order for professional development.

Culture is often likened to the water in which a fish swims. When you’re a fish swimming with the flow (as opposed to upstream), you are unaware of the water. Professional development, professional learning, faculty development, educator development – whatever we wish to call it – is a critical vehicle for initiating change in higher education. And to make cultural changes, a faculty member must begin to see those cultural forces at play. For those whose identities intersect with dominant identities – White, male, cisgender, heterosexual, physically abled, neurotypical – seeing these cultural forces is extremely difficult. Especially when you’ve been influenced by them through decades of schooling. And in the United States, engaging White academics in the extremely difficult and lifelong process of becoming racially literate is the hardest nut to crack. I know. Because if there is one thing I’m an expert in, it’s being White. I see so much racism and discrimination now that I didn’t see three years ago. My lens has been transformed (and I know I still have much to learn). I am leaning into this hard work.

Faculty developers have called out self-awareness and empathy as foundational elements for inclusive teaching. We need more research on professional development to better understand the factors that influence these types of identity shifts. And in order for that to happen, faculty developers (who, by the way, are primarily White cisgender women, like me) also need to interrogate educational development for racism and colonization. As we seek out evidence-based practices, we must recognize that those very practices are likely to leave out culturally diverse students.

Online Courses Matter

In our quest to serve our culturally diverse students, we cannot leave asynchronous online courses out of this effort. In fact, this is a time when institutions, particularly those committed to access, should be doubling down on equitable, effective asynchronous online courses. Yet, while I bet you could easily curate a rich collection of articles and emails from campus leaders positioning getting back to campus as the litmus test for a successful institution, I also bet you’d be hard pressed to identify a single institutional effort to invest more heavily in improving online courses (and outsourcing is not an investment).

I believe we are standing at the threshold of the grandest opportunity ever to equitize higher education because online classes provide more than a stable backbone for instruction. They remove the barriers of place and time (when they are asynchronous) that prevent so many students from achieving upward social mobility for themselves and their future generations. And, at this moment, we are all engaged to some degree in online education.

The link between online courses and access is why community colleges have led the nation in online enrollments for decades (something rarely acknowledged because reports hardly ever disaggregate the data by institution-type). Forty-four percent of the nation’s undergraduate students attend a community college. While Black students are underrepresented in 4-year public universities, Black students comprise 13% of community college enrollments, which is right on par with their the percentage of the U.S. population. In California Community Colleges, the largest higher education system in the nation that serves 1.8 million students (down from 2.1 million pre-COVID), the largest racial/ethnic group served are Hispanic students (46%). Community colleges are the home base for students of color pursuing a college degree. And if we had access to the data for other minoritized student groups (LGBTIQ students, students with physical disabilities, and those who are neurodiverse and/or linguistically diverse) we would see even greater diversity in the community college student population. A 2019 survey of 40,000 California Community College students showed that 50% of those who responded reported being food insecure in the past 30 days, 60% were housing insecure in the previous year, and 19% were homeless in the past year. Groups that are more likely to be at risk for these basic needs include African American or Black, Indigenous, transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, formerly in foster care, have served in the military, formerly incarcerated, and have students who have ADHD.

As a community college educator, these are the students I stand up for. And with that context in mind, when we hear leaders say that face-to-face is the gold standard for higher education, we must ask ourselves who is being served and who is being left out? Online classes provide flexibility for students who need to work and whose collectivist, as opposed to individualistic, cultural values center family responsibilities. College and universities originated in the United States with the intent to privilege White, heterosexual, wealthy men and exclude women and people of color, as well as those who are differently abled, and linguistically diverse. Today, hundreds of years later, Black and Hispanic adults living in the United States are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than Whites and Asians. Blacks and Hispanics are also more likely to rely on a smartphone to access the internet. And in the U.S. 66% of Science and Engineering professionals are White or Asian men. If we include White and Asian women in that data, the number increases to 88%. In recent decades, more women and students of color enter STEM majors but they also leave STEM majors in greater numbers than their White and Asian peers.

Diversity is an Asset

This isn’t just a social justice issue. Research that is now well over ten years old shows that the diversity of a team of people solving a problem is more important than their intellectual ability. The homogeneity of our STEM workforce is preventing the United States from identifying solutions to wicked problems, like global warming, that affect each and every one of us. Professional development is equity infrastructure that requires institutional investment, particularly when it supports the intentional design of mobile-friendly online courses that are taught with culturally responsive pedagogy.

Increasing access to equitable, effective teaching and learning for more students should be our number one goal. And if it were, we’d be having much different conversations about online courses. All students can learn online. Online courses can be engaging. They can subvert traditional power hierarchies. They can open new opportunities for assessment. They can be transformative. And they can be enriching experiences for all students and the faculty who choose to teach them. Deficit based thinking about students and online courses prevent us from seeing these opportunities. Trying to replicate online what we do in a classroom prevents us from seeing these opportunities.

What does the data show?

Our qualitative research study looks at the impacts of the Humanizing Online STEM Academy on STEM faculty and the students in their humanized online classes. We collected surveys from 53 faculty (from 2-year and 4-year institutions), surveys from 599 online students, and examined a deep dive sample of ten faculty who participated in three longitudinal interviews and we conducted focus groups with students enrolled in their humanized online courses. The complete findings will be available in the fall but preliminary research findings are now available on our new Humanizing Online STEM website (request the free Toolkit for a PDF of the findings) and will be presenting the findings on Wednesday, May 4, 2022 at the Humanizing Online STEM Summit, which is free and open to the public.

2 Comments to “What I’ve Learned from Humanizing Online STEM”

  1. Kevin R. Guidry

    I don’t think that “I also bet you’d be hard pressed to identify a single institutional effort to invest more heavily in improving online courses” is an accurate statement. For example, there has been a massive boom in the hiring of instructional designers throughout the pandemic. A fair number of those positions were explicitly advertised as limited-term and I expect that high turnover and competition will also lead some of those positions to be eliminated as we transition out of the pandemic. But I also expect – hope! – that other institutions are planning to retain those new colleagues as they’ve (very belatedly) realized the potential of online education even for very traditional, highly residential campuses. That is certainly the case at my university and I imagine it will be the case for many colleges and universities who have the financial resources and political freedom to do this.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kevin. It would certainly be a positive outcome to see an increase in instructional design staff pr-e- compared to post-pandemic. That would be a very interesting study. If it were conducted, I would hope that the data is disaggregated by institution type. From my experiences working with community colleges, ID staffing ratios were so poor pre-pandemic that it’s hard to look at recent hires as an effort to bolster staffing to support additional growth in online courses. I’d say most community colleges in my state would agree they’re fortunate if they have a single ID, despite having a significant percentage of enrollments come through online courses before COVID.

      I’d love to hear from others about this topic. Thanks for the dialogue.


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