Keeping It Real: Creating Relevant Online Learning Assignments for Marginalized Student Populations

Concurrent Session 4
Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

Growth in online learning poses an increased risk of marginalizing students. Connecting classrooms to the workplace can open doors for students, reducing the likelihood of marginalization. Assignments translate to real-world applications across all populations, resulting in unique submissions from students that excite and motivate both the students and their professors.


Allison White, OA Regional Program Coordinator at Ohio University, began her education at OU with an A.A.B. She obtained her bachelor's in Marketing & Business Administration at Franklin University & her master's in Tech Ed at Wright State. During her career she's taught at multiple levels from K-12 substitute to high school business teacher to community college & university instruction. She spent nearly 15 years with American Electric Power in Marketing & IT as a customer service rep & business analyst. She worked 6 years as an admin, counselor, & teacher in a youth detention center for Ohio DYS. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Ed Administration at OU. Her research includes tech-rich instruction, faculty development, ergonomics, admin careers & the job market, and interdisciplinary teaching. She has presented these topics at OATYC (2010), AURCO (2011-14), USDLA (2013), ISTE (2014), Emerging Technologies Online Learning Int'l Symposium (2015), & BbWorld DevCon (2015).

Extended Abstract

“What Have You Done for Me Lately?” is more than the title to a Janet Jackson song. It is the question that adult students ask each and every time they are in the classroom. Sometimes, professors even hear it out loud. Questions like, “Why is this important to learn?”, “Will I ever use this again?”, “Why do I need to know this?”, “Is this something that will help me on the job?”, etc. are just some of the ways that students in a classroom will express concern over the importance and relevance of their learning. Gone are the, “because I said so,” days of education, especially with adults. The traditional “sage on the stage” where the professor is the expert is no longer accepted by today’s students, especially adult students who often have no qualms about expressing the need for their education to be useful, relevant. It is in this environment that today’s professor must navigate the rapids of the curriculum in order to create meaningful student learning.

Adults want their learning experiences to be practical. While they are happy and excited to learn about new things, they are always considering how this learning can be applied to the here and now. Students want what they are learning in the classroom to be used on the job tomorrow.

So, what exactly are the factors that often contribute to marginalization? Students who are older and underprepared for college can create marginalization in a classroom. Being economically disadvantaged and coming from poor K-12 school systems adds to marginalization. Being from a racial minority, being LGBTQ+, or being disabled either physically or mentally can create marginalization.  Marginalized students face negative stereotypes, lack social capital, have lower expectations placed upon them, and are often juggling work, classes, and families. School has not been a place of success for them, and their sole interest in obtaining a degree is to get a better job.

It is important for instructors to understand the impact of marginalization, engage students at their own starting point, and employ the students’ own experiences. By allowing a student’s experience to be incorporated into assignments, especially in the online environment, instructors are affording students a greater opportunity to succeed.

One practice on designing courses that aids students from varied and diverse backgrounds is offering opportunities to “practice the knowledge” first. Failure to help marginalized students succeed in higher education is a failure to what a college graduate offers as a productive citizen in our society. The course design must not marginalize any student. This is the point where open-ended assignments are key, for if students feel marginalized by the assignments and their assessments, they are less likely to respond.  

Barriers to higher education for marginalized students also carry forward to the workforce. Helping students overcome these barriers, as well as any new barriers they may encounter as they transition to the workforce, defines the importance of the curriculum, instructional strategies, and assessments needing to be about the practical application of knowledge. Sometimes it is impossible to know if a student is marginalized. Because of this, faculty include instructional strategies to appeal to all learning styles (e.g., auditory, kinesthetic, and visual).

Asking students to perform real-world tasks to demonstrate their understanding of and ability to use learned skills is the basis for authentic assessment. Likewise, asking students to apply learned experiences to course assessments also expands their knowledge. In an effort to appeal both to the primary, intrinsic goal of adult students (learning relevance) and to provide students with those skills that they could immediately put to use in the workplace assessments must be designed accordingly.

The critical thinking and writing skills of students can be assessed through reflective, open-ended writings and written discussions. The speaking skills of students can be assessed through presentations. Collaboration and listening skills are enhanced through group projects. Students may be asked to create graphics and videos in an effort to condense important information into a less traditional format thus giving them assessments by putting various technologies to use. Through interviews and videos, students are asked to use what they have learned in class and apply it to real life experiences hence exposing them to diverse experiences.

Technology can present problems. Internet browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox often do not work well together or certain sites are not compatible with a specific browser or learning management system. Technologies may not always talk to one another. However, when incorporated seamlessly into the curriculum, the use of a variety of technologies in the online learning environment can support authentic assessments.

Technology is part of our daily lives and is constantly evolving. With the desire to connect course outcomes to real world employment, professors incorporated the Internet for course delivery, resources, and assignment submission options knowing it provided the highest career application for future jobs. With 95 percent of students using the Internet regularly and 93 percent having a computer or at least access to one, teaching becomes more interesting when aided by technology and students react better when assisted with technology (Ismail, 2019). This is the truly authentic assessment the professors sought to employ. To be “authentic” an assessment must be realistic, innovative, incorporate active learning (i.e., doing), simulate real life and the workplace, use the student’s “repertoire of knowledge,” offer opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback to refine performance and outcomes, and last but not least ask students to use good judgement (Wiggins, 1998).

When incorporating authentic assessment, faculty need to know the importance of being able to apply what has been learned to situations that may occur in their field of interest. The discipline or field may vary for each student. Still, students must be able to demonstrate what they have learned through assignments that mimic or utilize a current situation, circumstance, or today. The application should mirror what would be expected of them in the real world.

A quick overview of the assessments finds a variety of tools employed from the presenters’ online toolbox and multiple opportunities for the students to apply what they have learned. These will be discussed during the presentation with concrete examples given. The presenters, two faculty with years of experience working with non-traditional students, will discuss and define the topic and provide examples from their own work. They will then ask members of the audience to think about their own courses and assignments.

Working with the audience, presenters will ask everyone to list at least three of their own assignments. Attendees will be divided into smaller groups so that the presenters can work more closely with them to discover workplace links, apply technology, and reduce marginalization in shared assignments. The likelihood that attendees will share some nuggets with the presenters during this activity will be recognized and appreciated by all in attendance.

At the end of the activity, volunteers will be asked to share an assignment. The entire group will then discuss how technology can be used to enhance the assignment, how the assignment can become more relevant so that it could be immediately applied in the student’s life/workplace, and finally how any accommodations may need to be considered to ensure the assignment addresses any marginalization concerns to be more inclusive. This will be an interactive presentation where participants will play an active role.   

Attendees will:

  • Broaden their definition of marginalized students.
  • Modify techniques using technology to lessen the effects of marginalization.
  • Create assignments that can immediately be used in the workplace or in life.
  • Construct assessments that accurately reflect the intended outcomes.

Participants will leave the presentation with an understanding that marginalization may be bigger than previously defined, and that rather than adding to the marginalization, technology can assist faculty in overcoming the marginalization thus promoting success across all populations. One way to do that is to make sure that assignments engage students in the practical application of knowledge. Addressing assignments that can lead to performance gaps leads to assessments that are unique and capture the unique nature that student desire and that many assignments necessitate.