Inequality Regimes and Student Experience in Online Learning: Tressie McMillan Cottom at Berkman

Today, I’m liveblogging a talk by Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) at the Berkman Center for a talk about inequality in online learning, based on her qualitative research with students taking online for-profit learning.

Tressie, who’s completing her PhD in the Sociology Department at Emory University, studies stratification, considering what inequality means both experientially and empirically when corporations are people, supranational corporations like Facebook and Twitter shape the public square, and education is increasingly privatized. She also has a developing research agenda that examines the political economy of emerging “new” media organizations.

As jobs with good wages decrease in availability, more people seek higher education to find jobs. Tressie does research on systemic biases in society and for-profit higher education. For-profit higher education companies know that inequality is a basic part of their business plan, and yet there’s a tendency to avoid analyzing the connection between inequality and their businesses.

Tressie’s research starts with Inequality Regimes, an analytical approach to understanding the “interlocked practices and processes” that create and reproduce class, gender, and racial inequality in various combinations (Acker 2006). We tend to look at these issues independently, we can downplay the importance of inequalities. Tressie encourages us to see these issue in relation.

If you cannot measure inequality, you end up perpetuating it, she says.

Democratizing Ideologies and Inequality Regimes by Tressie McPhd

When we focus on the design of technology platforms, we can miss out discussions of inequality, Tressie says. For example, many people critiqued for its technical difficulties. Those debates missed out the access difficulties as well: is it really best to use the Internet to expand healthcare for people who have the least access to the Internet?

MOOCs tend to see information delivery as education, when we know that education is more about bringing your background into new opportunities that you internalize and synthesize. Information alone won’t get you an education. Information is also culturally relative, Tressie tells us. Furthermore, online technologies are good at measuring tasks but not so good at measuring learning. There’s also a risk that these systems might get tooled to “the norm” — a “roaming autodidact,” a “self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembodied from place, culture, history, markets, and inequality regimes.” What you end up with is a system that evaluates people who aren’t like this and constantly finds them at fault.

Researching Experiences of Online Learning

This summer, Tressie has looked at young people’s interactions in online learning. One in 20 students at degree-granting institutions attends a for-profit: black and latino students, many of whom are first generation college students looking for credentials and upward mobility. She’s talked to 60-70 students currently involved in a degree granting for-profit institution, many of whom are women. She’s asking them about their motivations, the admissions experience, their classroom experience, and how their friends and potential employers see their degree. By 2020, college students will be more likely to be browner, more likely to be women, and have families.

Finding these students can be hard work. Online learning companies have no physical student lounge and many companies are reluctant to grant access to students. Tressie meets students by going to sports games, churches, and other community events to find students at for-profit colleges. Those students sometimes introduce her to friends from work who are also taking similar courses.

Students at these degree granting institutions aren’t saying “I always wanted to do physics because I’m interested in it.” Instead, they tell her story about working in call centers, watching men move up into supervisory positions, often because they have degrees. They’re talking about the difficulties of shift work, the gender wage gap, and the families they’re trying to support.

How Online Learners find Peer Support and Navigate Online Racism/Sexism

In online courses, even when sharing physical space, students get very little time with each other and with faculty/administrators. These aren’t sprawling campuses and often occupy a floor or two in an office. Since the programs are accelerated, students are taking night classes, and they’re working and caring for families, where do they spend time together?

Tressie tells us about a group called “SWAG: Successful Women Achieving Greatness,” all of whom say they’re pursuing a PhD. Most of them are at for-profit schools, care for a family, and have family situations that aren’t especially supportive.

These students recognise that having better social connections would make their education more fruitful for them. In one case, an online platform gave up requiring its students to comment on each others’ posts, after students complained. Many students however missed the chance to get feedback from other students, to find out how they were doing. Students went outside official university platforms to get information on loans, worrying that revealing their racial identity and financial difficulties to administrators, faculty, and peers would bias responses against them.

Students have complicated relations to anonymity: on one hand, “[other members of the support group] said I shouldn’t use my picture in the [avatar for her online class] because they will know I’m a black woman. But I was like, shit, my name is Keisha!” On the other hand, hiding their racial and gender information might make it harder for them to meet each other and find peers.

Research Methods for Studying Online Learning Experiences

Tressie thinks that social media content can be used as “event history diaries” and that content produced by universities themselves can be “institutional ethnographies.” Tressie talks with students about their Facebook timeline, and then compares it to what the institution says they’re providing. She also creates composite renderings of group identities, to look beyond individuals to race and class groups. As she does this, Tressie also does multiple ongoing queries for consent to ensure that everyone is comfortable being involved.


A participant asks: how do we know that the people in online courses are actually who they say they are? Tressie notes that in-person exams often have similar issues. Tressie also notes that race is a social, not a biological location– something that isn’t about the color of your skin

Jessa asks: do these students enjoy school? Tressie notes that the majority of the students are very proud of themselves and their education — they think that the problem is us, not them. They measure their success by their effort given the opportunities they had. Even if they’re not overwhelmingly happy with their institutions, they’re happy with themselves.

Andromeda, a librarian who teaches people to code, asks if she’s seen successful attempts at place-making online. Some online learning initiatives are focusing on a specific region, or limiting the number of people involved — Tressie thinks that these ones are most successful at creating meaningful social connections. In some cases, students are finding each other and creating safe spaces, based on shared similarities– online courses should support these efforts.

Mary Gray asks Tressie to tease apart the degree to which students identify as students, and students at particular institutions. For students, Tressie says, it’s important to feel like they can identify as a student: getting the ID card, changing a profile username to note the degree they want. Online institutions offer fewer of those opportunities, so they develop alternatives.

Bruce Schneier asks how much of this is a new generational development. It’s hard to answer, Tressie says. Generations are hard to understand in the context of online education. We could take this for granted in periods where students were coming from similar class and socio-economic backgrounds. Most students Tressie speaks to tend to be in their 30s and 40s. she’s not sure they have any different ideas of group formation online due to generation — it’s more based on the constraints that led them to an online degree. Some of the students don’t want to spend time with each other in person, they see the online degree as necessary, but they don’t necessarily trust people they meet online.

Do students in online, for-profit campuses organise student societies, Tim Maly Asks. No, says Tressie — people build collective identities around their degree, but not around their institution or other student groups. In some cases, student contracts don’t allow collective organizing. Even if they wanted to — where could they do it? They are already overworked; they’re not going to have the time to start a college debate club.

TL Taylor asks if Community Colleges are being replaced by online learning, or whether they’re expanding opportunities for new groups. Tressie replies that community colleges used to be seen in a similar way as MOOCs. At one point, it was a place that was cheap where you went until you figured things out. Online courses have turned out to be bad at remedial 100 and 200 level courses– work that takes hard work and support. That’s exactly what community colleges are expected to do. The fortunes of community colleges are deeply tied to the political whims of state legislatures. Community colleges have been given higher expectations of addressing inequality at the same time that funding was going down. Furthermore, community colleges have been hit by difficult economic situations — people trying to make a living simply don’t have time to show up at their community college twice a week any more.

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