How Online Learning Can Strengthen Our Democracy

On March 4th, my organization sponsored a webinar with the Chronicle of Higher Education focused on teaching diversity online. It included national leaders in online education like Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University and Suzanne Gibbs Howard of IDEO U. (Check it out for yourself – it’s excellent).

Nearly 1500 people signed up. Frankly, if we were doing the call today, with huge segments of higher education moving entirely online due to the Covid-19 crisis, the numbers might have been triple that.  

The mission statement of virtually every college in the United States says something about preparing students for leadership in a diverse world. The idea is simple: engaging diversity positively and productively is part of the definition of being an educated person, an effective citizen, and an excellent professional.  

For this to happen, students should know something about the contributions of different identity groups to American (and human) civilization. They should understand the history of identity and diversity in the United States, the inspiring parts and the ugly parts. They should have opportunities to listen to and work with people from different identity groups. (IFYC has created an online course for interfaith leadership and engaging religious diversity to support this aim; check it out).

Residential colleges have the benefit of being able to put people from diverse backgrounds into the same intense 24/7 environment full of required courses, leadership opportunities, and behavioral nudges towards building community amidst diversity.  

IFYC has spent the last twenty years working almost entirely within residential higher education. We are very familiar with – and have deep love for – the kind of environments where students laugh over a meal in a dining hall, argue over a text in a humanities course, sing faith songs in a religious student group, and go see an interfaith panel presentation, all in a single day. In fact our IDEALS research underlines just how key these experiences are to student development.

Yet, I am increasingly learning that online education has a certain set of advantages when it comes to teaching about diversity, too.  One third of American college students purposefully take some of their courses online. One sixth of graduates received their degree almost entirely online. And now, because of Covid-19, almost every college student in the United States will be doing some of their higher education online.  

So if engaging diversity positively is part of the future of our democracy, and online learning is part of the future (and current) of higher education, where do the two meet?   Through online learning experiences that engage diversity positively in ways that are organic and indigenous to the online environment.  

No, you can’t replicate the dining hall to humanities class to religious student group to interfaith panel experience that I mentioned above. But you can have students from all over the world in your class (something that is much harder to accomplish in many residential environments). You can figure out ways to get them to talk about identity with one another without the identities associated with visual appearance getting the most attention from the start. And you can find projects that require people from different identities to explicitly engage diversity.  

Online education is especially geared towards developing student skills for success in the workforce, and the workforce is where many Americans say they encounter diversity most intensely. The data on this is actually quite striking. According to a PRRI / Atlantic report, only about half of Americans say that they have racially, religiously or ideologically diverse friends or classmates - but near three-quarters say that they encounter racial, religious and political diversity in the workplace.

Employers are increasingly reporting that the skills to engage diversity productively are amongst the most important qualities they are looking for in employees. 

We have all heard the laments about higher education being forced to focus too much on preparation for the workplace. But the data above highlight that the workplace is a space full of people with different views and identities and that people who are going to be successful there need creativity, emotional intelligence, the ability to collaborate across difference, and the skills to communicate well.  

In other words, many of the same skills we highlight when we talk about being an educated person and an effective citizen, qualities often nurtured by the humanities.    

American higher education has long viewed itself as a laboratory for our diverse democracy. As online education expands its reach, it is inspiring to know that it will be not only a partner, but also a leader in this crucial endeavor.  

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.