As we build new digital learning spaces, let’s leave behind the racism of the old

Now is the time for universities to interrogate the inequities of traditional classroom settings to ensure they aren’t repeated online, says Jessica Rowland Williams 

July 3, 2020
Student on a laptop

Higher education has been forced to reckon with two compounding crises this year: the Covid-19 pandemic and racism in America. Both have caused tremendous pain, trauma and loss for many within the higher education community and beyond, and obliged us to confront the systemic inequities that have plagued our most highly regarded educational institutions since their founding. Unfortunately, neither crisis has an end in sight.

Until very recently, many of us have enjoyed the privilege of turning a blind eye to the long and dark history of racism in American higher education. In recent weeks, however, as black students and their allies demanded that campus buildings and other monuments to participants in racial violence be renamed or removed, the lived experiences of institutional racism have been elevated. We can no longer look away from the violence and oppression that have denied black students their fair share of the benefits of higher education for much of this country’s history.

Many of America’s oldest and most illustrious colleges and universities financially benefitted from slavery, either via the slave trade or the forced labour economy it supplied – in some cases, both. During the time of slavery, nearly all colleges and universities’ curricula promoted the inferiority of black Americans, and sanctioned unethical research on enslaved Africans.

After the Civil War and emancipation of enslaved people, new systems of state-sanctioned anti-black racism, known as Jim Crow laws, ensured that segregation was quickly implemented to perpetuate existing barriers that excluded black students from attending most colleges and universities.

The legacy of centuries of racism within higher education is still evident today. Brookings reports that black students make up just 4 per cent of undergraduate enrollees in the nation’s top tier four-year colleges. By contrast, 26 per cent of students in the bottom tier of colleges are black. In addition, graduation rates for black students are reported to be 24 points lower than white students and 20 points lower than students overall.

Aa a sector, US higher education must make 2020 the year that it not only confronted a historic pandemic, but  the year it confronted the racism permeating its policies, practices and campuses.

At this point in time, history is calling on us to critically evaluate and change the systemic inequities that were built into our teaching and learning practices to reinforce a status quo that has prioritised whiteness. We have an opportunity to dismantle the systems that have created racial disparities in academic success that have, in turn, only served to feed negative and untrue stereotypes regarding the abilities of black and other minority students.

A large body of research indicates that the traditional college classroom experience subjects minority students to a range of discriminatory practices. As we respond to Covid-19 and the radical change it requires in the delivery of higher education, we must do more than just digitise the existing discriminatory experiences of learning. We must find a way to utilise the profound disruption caused by the pandemic to build an equitable system of higher education.

The time is now to redesign the learning experience, with minority students at the centre for the first time in our country’s history. We can reinvent higher education to truly be a vehicle for social justice and social mobility – and technology can serve as an accelerant.

At Every Learner Everywhere, the non-profit organisation where I am director, we imagine an anti-racist future that no longer perpetuates the grave inequities of our past and present. We envision a future in which high-quality digital learning tools are an integral part of learning environments that provide equal and fair opportunities for every student. To realise this vision, it is imperative that we all commit to interrogate systems of privilege and power and how they influence our learning spaces.

“Anti-racism”, as defined by the NAC International Perspectives: Women and Global Solidarity, is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organisational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably.

At ELE we do this by engaging in a process of exploration around existing inequities. This interrogation should also be central to the work universities are doing to shift their teaching and learning environments online.

1. Elevate past and present inequities, stereotyping and discrimination in traditional classroom settings and how they translate into digital learning environments

2. Understand the economic, structural, and historical roots of inequity in digital learning

3. Identify how implicit bias can influence all learning environments even under circumstances where you cannot see students

4. Acknowledge the realities, lived experiences and human consequences of racism, inequity, and discrimination in student learning

We must see anti-racist equity work as both an outcome and a process in the development of digital learning tools and practices. Additionally, we must regularly challenge ourselves to evaluate how we are engaging; who we are listening to; how we are processing; and who we are bringing to the table.

As educators, our rising to this challenge is long overdue. The time is now.

Jessica Rowland Williams is director of Every Learner Everywhere.


Jessica will be presenting “A discussion of anti-racist practices for digital and online learning” at the REMOTE summit on 14 July. Learn more and sign up

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Reader's comments (3)

Fix problems not blame. In removing any percieved bias against 'black' students, ensure that it is replaced by something that is equally fair to all students irrespective of the colour of their skins.
Would be nice to have some perspective from the UK. As it stands, the article seems remote to anyone outside the US. Also, I do not know as an Engineering academic what the bias is when I deliver my lectures to a group of students from many countries and backgrounds. To the best of my knowledge, the UK has not had "black" and "white" universities. Working in an institution that dates from the 60s without a large endowment, there seems to be a scant direct link to slavery too. None of us choose the circumstances of our birth and may experience misfortune whatever our race. Looking at the department where I work, there is much diversity and also a surprisingly good gender balance extending to senior positions.
Extremely well written, thoughtful, and true. This is a relevant reality for minority communities within Higher Education. Thankfully universities are waking up to their success that has literally been built on the backs of slaves and on the names of racist leaders. The writer truly lifts up the inequality but gives practical and informative ways to make real change for the better. Well written and well needed.

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