Culturally sustaining online learning environments

Issue: Volume 99, Number 7

Posted: 18 May 2020
Reference #: 1HA7Wb

More than 2,000 teachers tuned into a webinar held by Dr Ann Milne in April about how schools will develop critical, culturally sustaining content online.

In a post-Covid world, how will schools develop critical, culturally sustaining content online – and how will this reach the children who need it the most? It’s a question Dr Ann Milne(external link) asked in a recent blog(external link) Colouring in your virtual white spaces. 

Ann describes ‘white spaces’ as being like a colouring book where the background is white and the lines are already on the page and dictate where the colours are allowed to go.

“We don’t think about that background – it’s just universally white and that’s the default that we’re talking about and so we never have to think about the way we normalise whiteness,” she explains.

More than 2,000 teachers tuned into the Colouring in your virtual white spaces webinar that she held in mid-April.

In my online courses(external link) that I’m delivering for teachers and PLD providers all over the country, I refined an activity that I often do with groups and schools where I ask them to look at their school environment and find what you see and hear that is visible and welcoming and is a space for Māori. I call it Seven Steps(external link) to audit your school’s white spaces.

“Then Covid-19 hit and I thought ‘now I need a Step 8, because everything that’s wrong with our physical spaces is going to be intensified in the online environment’. I did a Step 8 for virtual spaces and made both available for free download(external link) and it just went crazy,” says Ann. 

By early May there had been 850 downloads of Steps 1–8 from all parts of the education sector in Aotearoa, and from overseas.

Online learning amplifies inequity

Ann says the present status quo is not a safe space for many Māori and Pacific learners and change needs to be intentional and build on the strengths of students and their cultures to make it easier for them to access all learning and knowledge.

“At the beginning of the Covid crisis, my first thought was ‘who cares about white spaces now?!’ But then I started to think that safe spaces and family spaces are still the first priority; there are real issues of access which are sharply classified by postcode across the country.”

Ann realised anything problematic relating to curriculum and pedagogy in face-to-face teaching and learning would be amplified in an online environment.

Personal relationships key

Māori and Pacific students value personal interactions and relationships such as kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face), authentic leadership and tuakana teina (learning from older, more experienced family relationships), says Ann.

“Those things are still important in a virtual environment and you can’t just do that with whole class Zoom sessions. How do you know who will be able to supervise learning in the household? If there are 10 of you, three generations living in a three-bedroom house, where’s your quiet space?”

When auditing online spaces, Ann says many educators should become more aware of the impact of their personal perspective on environments that are different to them, but rich in other types of learning such as generational learning and knowledge – kaumātua/kuia knowledge and interactions between the extended family.

“Now teachers are in children’s homes and should consider: Do you know how to act? How do families hear you pronouncing children’s names? What languages does the family speak? What assumptions are you making about whether the kids might be available or not, or what responsibilities older kids might have in that environment?” she asks. 

Long-term planning needed 

Ann is committed to challenging and changing educational inequity. She works with educators and PLD providers and has a particular focus on creating culturally sustaining learning environments. Online learning had to be put in place quickly in response to Covid-19 school closures, but Ann argues that long-term planning should include online environments which are determined and designed by Māori – or people who Māori trust can operate from a Māori perspective. 

Online cultural sustainability possible

Relationships, mentoring, authentic leadership and role models are important values for Māori and Ann believes they can be incorporated into online learning environments. 

“Those kind of multi-level, multi-ages interactions – allowing seniors to buddy up with younger students – those are the things that work for Māori students. This can be done in an online environment. I’m not for one second taking away from the size of the task and how rapidly it’s had to be implemented. But I’m hoping that people will take the opportunity to have a complete re-think about what we could do in that space.

“Whose knowledge counts? Who’s decided on this knowledge? Who’s said this is what they need? Our national curriculum is a good document. It’s the way we interpret it that’s the problem. It’s got a lot of flexibility – it could be adapted massively and made to work so it’s relevant and culturally sustaining.”

Ann’s checklist for auditing online spaces

  • How is your virtual space connected – not just to the internet, but with learners’ lives and realities, across subject areas, with the community, and with students’ identities? 
  • Is it reproducing white colonial methodologies and practices and considering them to be ‘norms’ or standards? In other words, is your online learning basically replicating your face-to-face practice which hasn’t worked for Māori learners in the first place?
  • Are you recreating a ‘pedagogy of poverty’ or poor teaching for poor kids (worksheets, drill and practice computer exercises, activities without purpose, low-level activities, low expectations, ‘busy’ work)? 
  • How is it critical? Do your projects, inquiries, contexts for study, critique and analyse societal conditions and attitudes through a Māori lens? 
  • How does it give learners choices and control over their learning? 
  • Does it understand whanaungatanga i.e. how does it reflect the crucial importance of relationships that are built on trust, advocacy and respect in a virtual environment?
  • Are you basing your assumptions about students’ learning environments, the capacity of that environment, the access to technology and support for learning virtually, on the realities of your students, or on your own experience? 
  • How do you know your student isn’t trying to write their NCEA assignment on their mum’s phone, which is also being used by other whānau members all trying to do their schoolwork? 
  • Neutrality is a position. Technology and e-learning are not culturally neutral. How is your virtual planning actively mitigating this truth? If you are using digital content and curriculum you found online, or is provided by others – who wrote it, whose perspective is paramount and legitimised, and whose agenda does it fit? 

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:46 pm, 18 May 2020

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