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How Academic Technologists Can Bring Anti-Racism into Our Work

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Everyone can play a part in fighting bias and discrimination. Find out what one group of academic technologists learned when they asked how they could bring anti-racism into their work.

How Academic Technologists Can Bring Anti-Racism into Our Work
Credit: Bogdan Sonjachnyj / Shutterstock.com © 2022

We are members of a learning and working group of academic technologists at the University of Minnesota (UMN) that formed in the summer of 2020. That summer, as the Twin Cities rose up in protest after the murder of George Floyd, academic technologists at UMN gathered for our annual SHAREcase, an event that brings together staff in the academic technology community. Academic technologists (also known as instructional designers or education specialists) help faculty with course design, classroom and online teaching strategies, and the technology used in teaching and learning.

During this event a small group of us, caught up in the renewed sense of urgency around social justice being lived out in our city, expressed an interest in exploring what anti-racism might mean at our institution and in our roles. How could we foster more diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism in the teaching, learning, and technology at our university?

We came to recognize that anti-racism is not just a personal responsibility but also a professional one. Instead of waiting for central administration to lead the conversation, we wanted to explore what we could do in our professional roles to confront racism. We realized that while our professional roles may not often give us the status to directly institute anti-racist policies, we do exert influence in our various capacities and can advocate for the changes needed in higher education.

Although we—a primarily White group—wanted to see quick changes at our institution, we were advised to begin our anti-racist work with internal exploration and reflection. We decided to form a learning and working group, convening every third Friday to discuss anti-racism. We needed to create a brave space together where we could do the difficult work of examining our assumptions and paradigms and where we could be vulnerable in admitting the ways in which we had been ignorant of racism in our work. Furthermore, as we read about these issues and discussed our roles, we saw that the norms and practices of our profession do not guarantee the inclusion or success of all instructors or students and should be examined from an anti-racist perspective. Our Friday sessions uncovered various types of influence we do have and provided examples of specific anti-racist approaches to academic technology.

Beginning with Our Foundations

In our work as academic technologists, we draw on educational research, pedagogical theories, and usability and accessibility guidelines, all of which often have built-in assumptions and biases that we don't see. We also rely on our practical experiences and learned expertise, and we each bring our own privilege and implicit biases to our work. Essential to doing anti-racism work is examining these professional and personal structures to uncover the ways in which they create and sustain obstacles for some users. We need to learn new ways of thinking about academic technology—for example, by centering race in our recommendations and practices.

And we need to include anti-racism in our professional development.

Ongoing education and critical examination are especially necessary for those of us who make change through influence rather than power or authority. In our work, opportunities to act often come up in conversation or in response to simple, everyday requests for support. A key to success in our work is preparedness: in interactions large and small, we use our expertise in academic technology to offer the solutions that we believe fit the situation best. Our anti-racist work involves a similar process: we must prepare ourselves with the understanding we need to identify opportunities, explain the issues, and offer solutions.

Finding Opportunities in Our Roles

Employees at a higher education institution have opportunities to hold the institution responsible for participating in racism (historically or currently). We can, for example, encourage equitable and inclusive hiring practices as well as equitable and welcoming work environments, and we can involve ourselves in institutional initiatives to improve educational access for students, require training about racism, develop transparent bias-reporting systems, or form partnerships with local businesses owned by people of color.

As academic technologists, we interact with many different spaces and people across the institution. When we discussed how we could incorporate anti-racism into our roles to benefit students, we identified this list of specific examples:

  • Recommend and implement robust, inclusive technology at all levels.
  • Create faculty and instructor professional development that addresses racism.
  • Design courses and course sites with principles from inclusive design or design justice.
  • Create course standards that formalize inclusive, anti-racist practices.
  • Recommend pedagogical practices that improve racial equity.
  • Apply anti-racist pedagogical practices when designing student resources.
  • Open conversations with instructors about pedagogical practices that may reinforce racism.
  • Coach instructors on how to discuss anti-racist thinking and moderate difficult conversations with students.
  • Emphasize that anti-racism is part of our role.

Furthermore, within the academic technology community of our institution, we can discuss challenging experiences and gather new approaches. We also have many opportunities to share our knowledge and can advocate to incorporate successful anti-racist practices into institution-wide processes and policies.

Examples of Our Impact

As our group explored what anti-racism could mean in academic technology, we shared practices we had tried in our own departments. Here are three examples of how academic technologists can influence teaching and learning.

Designing Assessments Inclusively

Academic technologists sometimes help instructors design assessments. This support might be to ensure that an assessment evaluates what the instructor intends or that the technology meets the learning needs. But equally important is providing recommendations to improve equitable outcomes. After all, how valuable is an assessment that marginalizes certain students by its very design? In assisting an instructor with rubric design for an assignment, one member of our group ended up discussing issues of equity in the instructor's assessment practices:

While working with an instructor on a rubric for a reflection paper, the instructor and I discussed how points should be weighted. The instructor preferred to assign a lot of points to the grammar and mechanics section of the rubric. This led to a discussion about whether grammar and mechanics—and academic English—were important for this particular paper. It then opened up into a discussion of how important these measures are for the course as a whole and its outcomes, which in turn led us to discuss our ideas of "academic preparedness." In this case, the instructor decided that grammar and mechanics were not as important as they had originally seemed. The instructor realized they had made an assumption about student preparedness: that students had received an education in the U.S. or another English-speaking country and had benefited from an educational privilege that is more common with white, middle-class students.

In this particular case, the purpose of the reflective paper was to demonstrate understanding of course concepts rather than mastery of academic writing conventions. The instructor's preference to assign so many points to grammar and mechanics did not align with the purpose of the assignment. But even more problematic, the original rubric disadvantaged students whose previous education didn't include academic writing conventions and students who were non-native speakers of English. When students see that an assessment marginalizes them by design, it affects their academic confidence, their sense of security, and their overall well-being. Therefore, it is important that we provide recommendations that encourage equitable outcomes.

Other ways to adjust assessments to be more equitable include frequent, low-stakes assessments, which can decrease anxiety among students. High-stakes assessments, such as comprehensive final exams, may contribute to student anxiety, not just because the impact of failure can mean a poor final grade but also because students might fear confirming stereotypes associated with their identities.Footnote1 This can cause them to underperform, a situation referred to as "stereotype threat." To help decrease these anxieties, instructors can replace high-stakes exams with shorter, low-stakes assessments that build on each other and are less likely to swing a grade dramatically. An instructor might also diversify the type of assessment (e.g., tests, papers, presentations) and their modalities (e.g., written, recorded, creative) to enable students to demonstrate mastery in ways that match their strengths. Other recommendations could address structuring, sequencing, and scaffolding assessments; providing options to improve relevance and autonomy; and allowing low-immediacy/low-bandwidth tools for completing these assessments.Footnote2

Addressing Inequity in the Digital Ecosystem

The anti-racist work of academic technologists does not exist in a vacuum. Our work intersects with that of a wide community of technology staff, which is why it is so important to continue challenging our underlying assumptions and those embedded within our institutions. One member of our group recognized a long-held assumption—that all members of the technology staff would behave equitably:

During the first semester of the pandemic, I received an email from a professor with a student who was not able to access the Canvas course site. This professor hadn't used Canvas previously and was learning it herself as she adjusted to remote teaching. The professor and I had spoken many times about how to support students of color who had made it clear to her in many ways that they felt they didn't belong at the university. Although I could have helped the student access the Canvas site, I thought it best for the student to work with the help desk. I recommended a walk-in appointment or phone call rather than email because sometimes there can be a disconnect between the people who request help and help desk staff, and it's easier to sort things out through a conversation. In hindsight, I realized that my recommendation rested on the assumption that my colleagues at the help desk would welcome this student in a walk-in setting.

Helping a student develop the habit of contacting the technology help desk allows students to speak directly to knowledgeable staff and releases instructors from doing tech support. More importantly, by interacting with the help desk, students learn to use resources on campus that will help them navigate complex digital ecosystems, one of the keys to their academic success. So argues Joanna Goode, whose research on the digital divide reaches beyond hardware and software to define access in terms of the development of "technology identities."Footnote3 Students' technology identities consist of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that shape their uses of technology, their attitudes about it, and their confidence in using it. Technology identities are stratified and form along lines of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, which means that some of our students may need help adjusting to technological systems on campus.

But what happens when students ask for help and receive racism instead? Just this past year, a Black student who wanted to check out a laptop from a collegiate technology service at UMN was denied service and told "you don't look like a U of M student," even after showing his university ID card. How can we ensure that students who are learning how to access technology help do not encounter microaggressions, hostility, or refusal of service?

Although academic technologists do not have direct control over the technology help desk and the training provided to help desk staff, we can promote awareness of the digital divide and various forms of racism that shape students' experiences as they navigate digital ecosystems. We can ask students about their experiences and what changes they would like to see. We cannot determine how other departments will behave, but we can hold them accountable in our interactions with them.

"Can We Do That?" Talking about Racism with Instructors

Many of our colleagues in academic technology may not consider discussing race and racism to be part of their jobs, but it is. To help change our work environment, we must communicate our values and advertise the ways in which we are able to support instructors in anti-racist work.

Beyond that, we need to cultivate an environment in which instructors feel both able and encouraged to raise questions, express concerns, and learn about racism. At institutions where discussions of race and racism are uncommon and difficult to begin, a brave space or a brave work environment can encourage instructors' exploration of content that pushes their comfort level and challenges their assumptions.Footnote4 Academic technologists can help create this brave space in the questions we ask in our consultations, in the standards we create for courses, and in the training and professional development we offer. For example, one of our members saw a change in their work environment after a series of professional development workshops on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI):

In the spring of 2021, my team held two professional development opportunities for our department's instructors as part of a renewed commitment to DEI. These opportunities, along with one or two other initiatives, seem to have changed our work environment so that instructors are willing to contact us with new types of questions. In the first of these sessions, we facilitated a general conversation around what inclusivity and equity can mean in an instructional setting. The second session was a formal training about instructional practices that can improve equitable outcomes and promote inclusive environments. In the latter, we analyzed common scenarios and helped the instructors unpack the equity and inclusion issues present in each and how someone could begin to address them.

We received positive feedback about both opportunities; however, the greatest impact that we saw was a new willingness among the instructors to reach out to us for resources, support, and conversations related to these issues in the classroom. I can think of two instructors, for example, who wanted to incorporate course content about race but felt pressure to be a "sage on the stage." Other instructors told us about questions and concerns that their students had raised. Our goal with these opportunities was to present ourselves not as experts but as resources and support, and it allowed us to hear questions and concerns that we had not previously been privy to.

In this example, the department made it apparent that it valued diversity, equity, and inclusion. It also demonstrated its commitment by helping faculty learn how to identify, analyze, and discuss DEI issues in their courses. By starting with a conversation about these issues, the department was able to create an environment in which instructors could be vulnerable enough to approach the support staff with their questions and experiences. A key factor in creating this space was demonstrating empathy for the instructors as well as for the students. It appeared to the staff member that as a result of that empathy, instructors were more willing to ask questions, contact their team for support, and engage in conversation.

Academic technologists in this example invited instructors to a brave space where everyone could discuss anti-racist teaching. So if our colleagues ask, "Can we do that?" we will say yes, we can and we should.

Conclusion

In our anti-racist learning and working group, we have discussed dozens of ways that we have brought anti-racism into our roles, and some of these ways have been more productive than others. However, every attempt has been valuable. The first step toward action may simply be talking with a colleague or an instructor—we don't have to wait for others at our institutions to start the conversation. And for the many institutions engaged in broader, ongoing discussions about race and racism in instructional technology and design, such as issues with facial recognition software in e-proctoring or technology access, staff should be a part of the conversation.

Being part of our anti-racist learning and working group has helped us increase our involvement in these discussions and take action within our own departments. The space for vulnerability, self-interrogation, and calling one another into conversations about racism has been valuable for our ongoing education, and the mutual support and encouragement from group members have helped us challenge the paradigms and practices within our units. We recognize that this process is only just beginning. Our learning and working group can help us move forward, stay committed, and keep us accountable as obstacles present themselves.

As academic technologists, we invite others who are in roles like ours to join these conversations, to learn more about race and racism in our field, to uncover and acknowledge how we may perpetuate problematic systems, and to use our roles to confront racism at our institutions. And we encourage other academic technologists to create a community as we have, one that supports our well-being, our learning, our growth, and our action.

Notes

  1. Alysa Malespina and Chandralekha Singh, "Gender Differences in Test Anxiety and Self-Efficacy: Why Instructors Should Emphasize Low-Stakes Formative Assessments in Physics Courses," European Journal of Physics 43, no. 3 (March 2022). Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Daniel Stanford, "Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All," iddblog (blog), March 16, 2020. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Joanna Goode, "Mind the Gap: The Digital Dimension of College Access," The Journal of Higher Education 81, no. 5 (2010): 583–618. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, "From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue around Diversity and Social Justice," in The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, first edition, ed. Lisa M. Landreman (Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2013), 135–150. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.

Louise Delagran is retired, former Director of the Learning Resources Group, Center for Spirituality & Healing, at the University of Minnesota.

Cristina Lopez is Assistant Dean, Virtual Learning Support Services, at IES Abroad.

Asa Olson is Academic Technologist, Center for Spirituality & Healing, at the University of Minnesota.

Sara Schoen is Instructional Designer, Academic Technology Support Services, at the University of Minnesota.

Tracy Thomas Wilson is Instructional Designer, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, at the University of Minnesota.

© 2022 Louise Delagran, Cristina Lopez, Asa Olson, Sara Schoen, and Tracy Thomas Wilson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 International License.