Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Social and Cultural Capital as the Main Problem with Online Learning

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I was reading a (great) article about the problem of othering (which I am using in class and in Equity Unbound this semester) and something in it struck me and created a connection I just had to blog about. Immediately. Although I am so sleepy right now.

So the article talks about how Othering is the institutionalization of bias in ways that harm marginalized groups. One of those ways, as the Jim Crow segregation laws mandated (I just learned democrats made those laws!!! This is horrifying) – which relegated African Americans to lower quality and separate schools, parks, etc.

This made me think of something which I think is really really important. It’s been talked about w respect to MOOCs but I don’t think with online education as a whole.

I do believe online education can be really high quality. I think many online learning experiences can be transformative. I think a LOT can be taught online. But one of the most important things anyone needs in order to survive in the world, economically and socially, is social and cultural capital.

Now I will admit I am someone who has plenty of privilege and social and cultural capital. And yet I am someone who did my masters entirely online and my PhD remotely (with a few visits here and there). Clearly, I turned out OK. Perhaps even better than OK, considering the recognition I get for my work, given my marginality as a global South scholar. But hear me out.

First of all, I started off privileged, educated well from K through undergrad. Educated parents. Digitally literate. Worked in a multinational where collaboration online back in 2002 was the norm. Learning online for me was a breeze. I didn’t struggle with it. Many people do. I was an autonomous learner and self-motivated because I didn’t have access, in my immediate locale to a good degree in education.

For my PhD, I became aware of how my PhD away from Sheffield was not building my social capital enough on the day I presented some of my early findings of my PhD and, although I am a generally good presenter, I gave a really bad presentation. Because I had not built the cultural capital to speak intellectually about what I had been writing.

I had several things that helped me overcome this problem. Bear with me

  1. I worked at an elite institution in Egypt, I had access to others who had PhDs in similar disciplines and I fostered my relationships with them to help me. I talked aloud with them about my PhD. I practiced. I helped organize conferences. I presented. I did all I could within my means
  2. I was able to teach locally while working on my PhD. Something I felt mattered for a PhD experience since many(?) do so in a f2f PhD
  3. Whenever I traveled, I attended seminars and workshops meant for academics or PhD students
  4. I connected with as many UK PhD students as I could. People I already knew. And (eventually) people I met online. It made all the difference
  5. I wrote/published outside my PhD context and found my own voice outside th confines of the thesis

All of these were conscious efforts to build my social and cultural capital and they helped. But it is entirely possible for someone to survive and complete a graduate degree remotely or online without doing any of that. Not every person does this. And I think it makes for a much poorer education if you focus on academics and ignore all the rest. But you need to have enough social and cultural capital in the first place to be able to even attempt this.

Let me give a good example. I once asked how someone could get a nursing degree online. Turns out the institution I was asking gave only graduate degrees for nurses who were already employed and practicing and had in-person supervisors who could mentor them. This makes total sense. No one assumes they can learn it online and figure out the f2f alone later.. they need it happening while they study online.

So my concern is this. Can we build online degrees that build social capital without depending on the learner already being in an environment that fosters experiential learning in that area? Note that this was my case: my employment in an educational institution is the main reason I could do my PhD and masters. I had enough to reflect on in my f2f coupled with theory and discussion of experience with others online. It then totally makes sense.

But what if I needed to get the degree first before I could get the job? What if my job had nothing to do with my masters while I was studying it? How would I build the social and cultural capital to go along with it?

I was thinking recently of visa and immigration laws that limit the ability of people from certain countries to study in the US for example. And wondering if online would be a good option for them. But then it occurred to me that online may give knowledge but it won’t be likely to develop social and cultural capital.

And so it would be a consequence of Othering, promoting more Othering. First, the Othering of not giving visas. Then, the Othering of an inferior education, not because it is poor quality online learning, per se, but because of lack of social and cultural capital.

Has anyone researched this point?

As someone who managed this, obviously I have pointers for how to do it as a learner.. but can institutions systematically incorporate these things, or would that sort of go against why they were doing online degrees to begin with?

P.S. this is also why graduate online edu is more likely to be OK because learners will have had some amount of social and cultural capital developed and may have lots of intersections w my situation that made it work out OK… and enough agency to make it work.

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