Special issue CFP: Decolonizing Digital Learning: Equity Through Intentional Course Design

Below is a call for proposals for a special issue of Distance Education on the topic of Decolonizing Digital Learning: Equity Through Intentional Course Design. If you’re interesting in this area, you may also be interested in the special issue on Higher Education Futures at the intersection of justice, hope, and educational technology my colleagues and I are co-editing (submissions due by the end of October).

Decolonizing Digital Learning: Equity Through Intentional Course Design

Krystle Phirangee, University of Toronto, krystle.phirangee@utoronto.ca;

Lorne Foster, York University, lfoster@yorku.ca

What’s the purpose of lived experience in assessments? How do we even grade lived experience? These were some of the questions asked by faculty during a departmental presentation focusing on assessment and course design in the ChatGPT era. It got us thinking about the digital divide and how much of the literature focuses on unequal access to digital technology and skills. Whereas the divide seems to go beyond access to impact what counts as knowledge and how it is represented and reshaped by power in distance learning modes.

When COVID-19 hit, many educational institutions pivoted to emergency remote teaching (ERT), which allowed learners to learn from anywhere at any time; making open, flexible, and distance learning models even more necessary in the education system. However, ERT amplified the digital divide and inequities among learners during the pandemic. Some governments tried to address this gap within their jurisdictions by giving devices to students who needed them but the lack of access to the appropriate supports (i.e., high-speed internet) and quality use of the technology (i.e., knowing how to navigate the technology) still caused disadvantages for students in completing their online work or attending online classes, thus limiting them from sharing their lived experience. In addition, the digital divide is now prevalent in online exam proctoring software, with the software disproportionately targeting marginalized students. There is also a need for caution when selecting and using online meeting tools, such as Zoom, since personal data from users were sent to Facebook and some classes were hacked by trolls posting offensive and hateful content (Peters et al., 2020). These realities highlight that technologies are not neutral in their development and deployment and as a result could cause unexpected disruptions and inequities in education.

Nevertheless, how these technologies are used in open, flexible, and distance learning in terms of course design and engaging students can make a difference (Dron, 2022), and has proven to be vital in minimizing such inequities. During the pandemic, many educators experimented with instructional strategies and assessments in open, flexible, and distance learning to further support learning, which also helped to inform new learning models. Research has shown that although many like open, flexible, and distance learning due to its convenience of learning from anywhere at any time, the distance between peers and the instructor has contributed to feelings of isolation and disconnection (Chan & Lee, 2010; Rush, 2015; Mbukusa et al., 2017)  In addition, identity incongruence, which refers to when a student’s identity clashes with or does not fit in with the group, has also been shown to be another contributing factor to such feelings among students (Hughes, 2007; Phirangee & Malec, 2017). Whereas identity congruence exists when students have a strong sense of community (SoC) that is a feeling of belonging and being accepted; having a strong SoC motivates students to participate more in their courses and thus lowers feelings of isolation and disconnection. This highlights the importance of using an equity lens in course design to minimize disengagement.

Others have harnessed the digital landscape to revitalize and preserve a culture to teach and pass on to the next generation. Many Indigenous communities have harnessed the digital landscape to revitalize and preserve their ways of knowing, languages, music, and stories through cellphone recordings, websites, an open language archived community and much more since resources to learn Indigenous languages continue to be limited due to the lack of trained teachers and materials that follow external standards and Western pedagogies (Meighan, 2021). There is now digital content created by and for Indigenous peoples, which has contributed to the ongoing decolonization of the digital landscape (Meighan, 2021). Therefore, by “addressing the inequities that may be affecting the learning of students in our classrooms, we can choose to design courses that make learning more accessible and obtainable to all students” (Woodford, 2022, p. 11).

Despite the digital divide needing improvements for both physical and non-physical access and equitable representation in knowledge, it is beginning to narrow, with the decolonizing of the digital landscape (Meighan, 2021). Decolonizing pedagogy requires that we critically wonder about knowledge and how we approach knowledge in ways that reinforce the “monolithic, monocultural, mono-epistemological academic traditions” (Biermann, 2011, p.386). This approach is concerned with what counts as knowledge and how it is represented and reshaped by power. As Kanu (2006) noted, we must decolonize the space of education, but to do this, we must decolonize the mind; in other words, we must be open to negotiating our own biases to develop a shared understanding. Digital learning and its associated pedagogies, “can help to realize higher education as an entry into new spaces and cultures of reasoning and understanding. They call, though, not just for a rare imagination on the part of the teacher but a preparedness to recede into the background and to tolerate a heightened level of pedagogical risk” (Peters et al., 2020, p.14).

This special issue aims to identify and examine specific decolonizing instructional strategies and intentional course design approaches used to create a more equitable open, flexible, and distance learning environment to minimize the inequities caused by the digital divide. The themes of the special issue will include, but are not limited to:

  • Uses of technology or its features to enhance learner’s sense of belonging;
  • Instructional strategies to foster identity congruence;
  • Culturally responsive teaching;
  • The role of lived experiences in assessments;
  • Using an equity lens to design online courses;
  • Leveraging universal design for learning principles;
  • Using educational technology platforms within distance learning to decolonize(dis)ability;
  • Indigenous knowledge and reclaiming diverse non-western centric epistemologies in distance learning;
  • Adopting a blended learning approach (i.e., blended, hyflex, and hybrid) to address student disconnection and inequities;


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1 Comment

  1. Tracie

    This is definitely my something we strive to incorporate in all our courses but have definitely fell short in some areas. Continuing to learn and grow is a must. Thank you for this.

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