Encourage students’ identities to flourish, says Galway academic

Learning technology conference keynote explores student, and scholarly, online presence

September 7, 2014

Students who already feel marginalised before they attend university are being further alienated because of the divides that exist within institutions, a conference has heard.

According to Catherine Cronin, academic coordinator of online IT programmes and lecturer in IT at the National University of Ireland, Galway, many students feel that they “cannot breathe” at university because their individual identities are not taken into account.

“Our institutions are stratified by gender and race, and that’s evident if we look at who is and who is not employed, at what level, and under what terms,” she told the Association for Learning Technology Conference at the University of Warwick on 2 September.

“Society has many struggles against multiple forms of oppression – gender, race, sexual orientation, class, imperialism – [and] the veneer of academia doesn’t erase these, so we must recognise that these are in our classrooms, online and offline.”

She said that many aspects of the way universities operate, including standardised curriculum, grading systems and even architecture, “reinforce the power of the educator over the student”.

“If students are already marginalised in some way, that can [make it] more acute, and students may well feel that they can’t breathe,” she said.

Ms Cronin told the conference that she had “experienced sexism and silencing” while in academia, and said that acknowledging students’ identities and creating “welcoming, safe spaces” should be a key consideration for the sector.

The “open online space” was one area where scholars in particular can help students to develop their “civic and learner identities”, she continued – although she warned that many online educational approaches ignore the importance of students’ individuality.

“Many online education systems are designed for the roaming autodidact – this ‘identity-less’ person,” she said. “We don’t have identity-less students and learners; we must encourage students to come in with their identities. Learners need to practise and experiment with different ways of enacting their identities.”

Elsewhere in her keynote talk, Ms Cronin defended “open” scholars who are active online, and who believe in transparent cooperation. She said that she had encountered criticism from “less open” academics who told her it was “great that you have the time to tweet and blog and do all that stuff, you’ve really built a brand for yourself”.

“I realised that some people may think of openness as a form of hubris – ‘you think you’re great so you put things out there’. This is contrary to my perception,” she continued, adding that she subscribed to the belief that openness and sharing was more “a form of humility”.

“We can’t know who, where or how someone will use the resources we share. There will be…criticism that we don’t anticipate, but it’s only by taking that risk and putting our work out there that we can find out – stretch ourselves and encounter wonder at the unanticipated things that happen.”


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