We Don’t Have to Sacrifice Cultural Relevancy While Learning Online

Blog Post
March 25, 2020

As nearly every student, educator, principal, and family in the U.S. is tackling the transition from school to home, everyone is scrambling to find and share resources for online learning. The good news is there are lots of digital instructional materials available, many free, that can be downloaded or accessed instantly. The bad news is finding resources that are high-quality and culturally relevant is proving difficult. Already, some have taken to social media to lament that the resources being circulated and recommended for at-home learning fail to honor and reflect the diversity of today's students.

Even before the shift to online learning, teachers have struggled to find instructional materials that are both rigorous and reflect the broad diversity of students. Textbooks, in particular, often center content and narratives unrepresentative of the students using them. And as we learned from a recent New York Times analysis of history textbooks, the content a student sees may look very different depending on the state in which that student lives. For example, the Times found that textbooks produced by the same commercial publishers for two different states—California and Texas—present vastly different information based upon what authorities in those states have deemed to be most important, with the cultural relevance to today’s students sidelined or ignored entirely.

Proprietary textbooks are adopted for use by states roughly every six to ten years. Often, these textbooks originate from the same author but are reviewed by adoption committees at the state level who work directly with publishers to modify content to suit their needs (and often their ideologies and values). This process does not always authentically involve K-12 teachers or students, and it does not always involve a pronounced effort to integrate nonwhite authors or texts that reflect the cultural, racial, and gender diversity of America’s students.

What’s more, because of limited budgets and lengthy adoption processes, some schools and districts use the same textbooks for years on end, meaning students’ current textbooks may be more than a decade old. The problem with outdated textbooks is clear when we think about how quickly our understanding and articulation of social issues evolve.

The New York Times analysis offers several great examples of these gaps and biases. Students in California have access to information about the contributions of specific immigrant groups. Texas students do not. California students have access to information about the contributions of LGBTQ Americans. Texas students do not. California students have access to information about the artistic contributions of Black Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, while Texas students are asked to question the quality of literature by these artists.

The online resources that teachers use to supplement their curricula—which may include but are not limited to online textbooks—do not seem to be significantly better. A recent analysis by the Fordham Institute found that a mere 2 percent of resources on popular lesson-sharing sites (such as Teachers Pay Teachers) included texts by authors of color or culturally relevant topics.

Variations in content between textbooks are not simply innocuous differences in framing and presentation; they show real representation gaps and biases that may affect students’ understanding and motivation to learn.

Luckily, these challenges don’t have to be duplicated in online learning. Open educational resources (OER) are among the tools that can help to address the challenges involved in representing diverse groups of voices and perspectives in curricular materials while ensuring content is up-to-date. And because these resources are typically digital, they are ideal for this moment in which educators are trying to move lessons online.

OER is openly licensed, which means that educators and students can use these materials for free and—importantly—customize the content to reflect a variety of perspectives, contributions, and experiences. OER can be particularly useful for incorporating narratives and perspectives that are often left out of traditional textbooks and other curricular resources. For example, history teachers whose state-chosen textbook glosses over Black and indigenous perspectives could supplement instruction with OER to provide a variety of narratives.

Though culturally relevant materials are still relatively few, the potential OER holds for creating more relevancy and inclusion is becoming apparent. One prime example—that families anywhere could start using now—is Washington’s Since Time Immemorial curriculum. These resources were developed following passage of a 2015 bill in Washington state to embed the history of indigenous tribes in the pacific northwest into K-12 history curriculum. These open resources now include K-12 curricula, videos, implementation plans, and frameworks for tribal partnerships. Because they’re openly licensed, students, teachers, and families anywhere can access, use, adapt, or share these resources. And, with many families given more agency in guiding their student’s online learning, resources like Washington’s may be increasingly useful.

Aside from Washington’s resources, other state-created resources, such as EngageNY, which has ELA and math lessons for each grade, may be useful to families across the country. Additionally, open education publishers, such as Great Minds, which provide K-12 materials in math and ELA, may be useful for families and educators alike. A list of repositories and resources can be found at New America’s OER in Practice site.

Now more than ever, teachers and families are looking for better ways to access online content and adapt it to their students. OER offers a prime opportunity to deliver the types of resources needed today, without sacrificing quality or cultural relevance. Despite the urgent need to jump into at-home learning, it’s worthwhile to ensure the resources being used aren’t simply bringing the inequities students face in traditional classrooms into the digital space.

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Related Topics
Culturally Responsive Education Digital Media and Learning Open Educational Resources