Online learning offers some tantalizing possibilities for solving the nation’s dropout crisis. It can help students gain high-quality teaching that would otherwise be unavailable to them. It also offers the possibilities of credit recovery for high school students who have some strong academic ability to get through school, but have struggled because of other issues. And for the vast majority of dropouts and students who have suffered through educational malpractice, online learning can even help them get up to speed on reading, math and science over time. But it will take high-quality instruction to make it a reality.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Andrew Miller of the Buck Institute for Education looks at another aspect of improving online instruction: Dealing with cultural relevance. While your editor has some skeptical thoughts on this matter, Miller offers a compelling argument for being concerned about its role in spurring the nation’s education crisis. Read, consider and offer your own thoughts.

When Susan Sawyers wrote an article for USA Today showcasing how some students are using online course to graduate on time and avoid dropping out, it highlighted one of the important benefits of online education: Providing equity in and access to high quality education.  A diverse population of students can take classes in order to retrieve credit for classes they may have failed in the past without dealing with the barriers that led them astray in the first place.

At the same time, there are potential pitfalls. As Sedef Uzuner wrote recently, online and distance  learning environments as as prone to aggravating cultural differences as traditional classrooms because students are removed from native cultures and interacting with students from different ones. So teachers in the online space need to be as thoughtful about race, ethnicity, gender, religion and even socioeconomic status and land of birth as those in their counterparts in old-school classrooms.

So we need teachers in the online space to be culturally responsive in their instruction. What do I mean by that? Culturally Responsive Online Teachers identify and utilize cultural strengths and resiliencies through aligned online teaching best practices, while utilizing diverse discourse structures and curriculum. These resiliencies vary across culture and experience.

As an example, many of our students have the resiliency to be highly adaptive and agile. They can look at a subway system many and easily navigate from place to place in a variety of ways. Many of our students have the resiliency to communicate across cultures. The common language at school might be English, while Tagalog is spoken at home. Even online students have a culture that they live in. They access a different language. They navigate and evaluate data constantly. Why shouldn’t we utilize these resiliencies?

Geneva Gay recently printed a new edition of her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Research, Theory and Practice, and it explains the many of the dispositions and practices teachers need to have. The next step is to ensure this sort of practice occurs consistent in online course instruction. Learning Management systems and the online structures need to be just as diverse as the cultures they serve. The typical paradigm of “reading and doing” that many online courses have needs to change. We are in danger of replicating a system for the online world that has not served all students in the brick and mortar world. Structures need to be examined and built to allow for diverse discourses that align with online teaching best practices.

We need to ensure we train our online educators with the tools and skills it takes to interact with students of diverse populations, especially as more students begin taking more courses online. All students have cultural strengths and resiliencies; we need to ensure we are using all these strengths, including the culture of online learners.