Chapter 7 – Fostering Healthy, Equitable, and Inclusive Digital Communities
For adults, “learner” is just one of multiple competing roles for an individual. Learning cannot be isolated from learners’ lived experiences. This chapter addresses the social–emotional aspects of learning, including the importance of building relationships and healthy, equitable, and inclusive digital communities. Additionally, this chapter explores the concept of digital citizenship and its role in adult education.
Healthy, equitable, and inclusive communities are precursors to deep learning and developing meaningful relationships in online spaces. Cultivating a positive, safe, and supportive classroom community can be challenging and requires effort—it doesn’t just “happen.” Educators must be intentional about creating conditions that actively support learners, especially in a digital learning environment. Considerations for classroom community-building include:
- Find ways to build relationships between learners and their peers beyond the academic content being covered. This might be as simple as a daily greeting or include “fun” activities like themed video conferencing sessions.
- Provide opportunities for learners to collaborate with each other in a supportive manner—whether through informal “tips and tricks” tech shares or more formal collaborative project-based learning activities.
- Use the classroom as an opportunity to practice positive digital communication and learn what it means to be a digital citizen through active participation in class activities.
VOICES FROM THE FIELD
I always invite students into the spaces that I’m in. The mural you see behind me? That was done by a student. I also try to find out from teachers what their gifts and interests are.
In Santa Ana, there’s a mural that was done to commemorate veterans from Santa Ana, and apparently there was graffiti on the mural and the whole community came together to advocate for the artist, and they supported the work to fix the mural. I wanted to introduce the students to the mural—elevating the community, exploring what the mural means, and connecting it to the history of Santa Ana. We did a big project connected to the mural with our Academic ESL pathway. I talked to the teachers about the project, and as we’re having this conversation, one teacher shared that she has a degree in art. So, she volunteered to introduce our Academic ESL students to art, and she took the lesson in a different direction, our Academic ESL students did their own mural, what you see behind me. Each student did a little square within a bigger mural; some of the students had never held a paint brush before, which proved an excellent interdisciplinary experience. We invited the muralist to present at our Academic ESL Student Project Presentation and had a big conversation about art, history, and the significance of the mural to the community.
Through all the steps of this community-based project, the students are using technology. They’re using it to research art, culture, and history. They’re creating Google Slides and PowerPoint presentations to explain what the art experience meant to them, or what the mural means to them. They’re presenting what they experienced and what they learned. We invited all the different college classes and the broader community to come and listen to our ESL students give presentations. So, it is a language class, but you see the language in context. You see art and technology and the community coming together. The goal of the lesson might be having them find the letters on the keyboard—but they’re also learning so much more and developing skills beyond what they could have imagined.
Learning is a social experience. Social and emotional learning skills are foundational to successful participation in learning, life, and work. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) includes the ability to:
- set and achieve positive goals;
- feel and show empathy for others;
- establish and maintain positive relationships;
- make responsible decisions; and
- understand and manage emotions.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning created a framework with five core SEL competencies:
- Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize and identify emotions and how they influence behavior across contexts; the ability to recognize one’s strengths and areas for growth
- Self-Management: The ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different contexts to achieve personal goals
- Social Awareness: The ability to understand and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts
- Relationship Skills: The ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships with others
- Responsible Decision-Making: The ability to make constructive personal decisions and act accordingly
Integrating SEL into the classroom learning environment, whether digital or physical, helps learners to feel accepted and supported as individuals. However, if learners are anxious, fearful, or stressed, those negative emotions can impact a learner’s ability to focus their attention, follow instructions, or engage with learning activities. While there are broader, systemic economic and social inequities that adult learners might face—schools are not powerless to address social–emotional needs. Institutions can connect learners to resources and create a safe and supportive learning environment with the classroom setting (whether in-person or online). This may be challenging with some adult learners who experienced difficult or discouraging educational experiences in the past or are experiencing the negative effects of chronic stress or long-term trauma.
Building positive, safe, and supportive relationships with learners is an essential component of SEL and the learning experience. Strategies to foster positive relationships among educators and learners:
- Educators engage in self-reflection about their own beliefs, biases, and values.
- Educators are culturally competent and strive to learn about, understand, and empathize with learners from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and experiences.
- Educators are encouraging and positive in their communication with learners.
- Educators have high expectations, but support learners as needed to achieve their personal learning goals.
- Educators utilize adult learning theories to address the unique needs of adult learners.
- Educators involve learners in the learning process by helping them to set goals and discussing strategies for self-monitoring and self-regulation.
- Educators are intentional about building a healthy, equitable, and inclusive learning environment, whether in-person or online.
- Educators provide learners with opportunities for building relationships with their peers, through both casual and academically focused collaborative learning activities.
Cultivating Educator Well-Being
Educator SEL is also important for several reasons:
- Educators’ SEL competencies influence their ability to build relationships with their learners. When educators are calm and positive, they are better equipped to respond in a caring and supportive manner to learners’ needs and any challenges that might arise in the classroom.
- Educators’ SEL competencies influence classroom management and help to cultivate a healthy, equitable, and inclusive classroom community, whether in-person or online.
- Educators model SEL skills for their learners, including how to handle conflict, respond to challenges, and interact with others.
Educators are not solely responsible for their well-being. Institutional policies and strategies can foster well-being in their staff:
- Gather data from staff to identify current SEL needs and areas for support.
- Provide staff space and time to build relationships and problem solve challenges.
- Be mindful of the demands of different digital learning models and how they might impact various individuals.
- Provide support for staff in developing a self-care plan.
- Ensure access to mental health support.
- Include SEL and well-being activities or goals in professional development plans.
- Offer in-person and virtual opportunities for cultivating well-being (e.g., mindfulness exercises; journaling/self-reflection prompts).
- Check-in and communicate with staff on a regular basis.
See appendix A for more resources related to cultivating educator and staff well-being.
As our world becomes more and more digital, it is critical to consider what it means to be a citizen in a digital world. The concept of digital citizenship can help educators and learners to take a proactive approach to interacting with others in digital spaces. The classroom provides a safe, supportive environment for developing as a positive digital citizen and model for others.
The Profile of a Lifelong Learner from ISTE’s SkillRise Initiative includes a Digital Citizen Feature that looks specifically at digital citizenship from the perspective of adult learners. The profile defines a digital citizen as someone who is “inclusive, equitable, and culturally aware as they live, learn, and work in an interconnected world,” and includes three supporting practices:
- Practice 3a: Digital citizens expand their perspectives, develop greater empathy, and support more inclusive and equitable workplaces using digital tools and resources.
- Practice 3b: Digital citizens use technology in a safe, legal, ethical, and culturally mindful manner in order to advance inclusion and equity in local and global communities.
- Practice 3c: Digital citizens are willing to challenge systems, procedures, and technologies that promote biases or perpetuate racism and inequity.
The DigCitCommit program from ISTE focuses on K–12 learners, but the DigCitCommit Competencies can be broadly applied to adult learners as well. The competencies take a proactive approach to digital citizenship, shifting the conversation from “don’ts’’ to “do’s”:
- Inclusive—I am open to hearing and respectfully recognizing multiple viewpoints, and I engage with others online with respect and empathy.
- Informed—I evaluate the accuracy, perspective, and validity of digital media and social posts.
- Engaged—I use technology and digital channels for civic engagement, to solve problems, and be a force for good in both physical and virtual communities.
- Balanced—I make informed decisions about how to prioritize my time and activities online and off.
- Alert—I am aware of my online actions and know how to be safe and create safe spaces for others online.
VOICES FROM THE FIELD
I created a Facebook page for my class so that students could share what they were learning with their family and friends. It became a really great way for students to share, either photos or videos, and helped them stay connected with family and friends—especially those from different countries. Of course, participation is optional and only for students who feel comfortable sharing.
For my students who like making videos, some of them post their videos on YouTube to share with others. With both Facebook and YouTube, I do have conversations with my students about being aware of what they are posting— staying mindful of what’s in the background, or what they’re sharing beyond just the content. But it’s been great, even some of my friends are learning more about what I teach! We have a better reach now than we ever have because of social media.