Inclusivity in the virtual classroom: Study looks at developing racial literacy in psychology courses online and beyond

Talking to people from different backgrounds, listening to their experiences and taking in different perspectives can impact how we see the world.

In Assistant Professor Iván Carbajal’s psychology classes, Oregon State students often learn about the history of multicultural America for the first time. 

But can cultural competency and its accompanying benefits also be taught in an online setting? 

Carbajal’s research on developing racial literacy in online courses aims to find out. The goal is to create safe and trusted learning spaces where people feel comfortable questioning their own assumptions and challenging those of others in a respectful way.  

“As the world becomes more globalized, students are interacting with people from different racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds and languages,” Carbajal says. “We’re seeing this with the things students are advocating for, the jobs they are going into and the skills they want to learn.”

Carbajal hopes his findings might hold greater significance in creating truly inclusive spaces at Oregon State through strategic planning, programming and events. 

And there’s even more at stake. Previous studies have shown that developing a racial identity provides psychological benefits.  

“It serves as a buffer against discrimination,” Carbajal says. “Pride in your identity helps you maneuver through life. It also creates a community to interact with, to advocate for and to turn to with specific needs and issues.”

Developing a racial identity can change how a person thinks of themself in the world. 

“A lot of my students, especially students of color, know what their racial identity is,” Carbajal says. But they don’t really know what it means to develop it. And for a lot of my white students, they never even knew that they could develop a racial identity.” 

Carbajal took a course on race and racism as a graduate student in Texas, and his professor encouraged him to start teaching the class. When he was hired at Oregon State, he first taught the class in person before developing the online version with the help of Oregon State Ecampus. 

Through his research, Carbajal wants to overcome the limitations of online learning and determine if one discussion style is more impactful than another.

In an in-person class, students get to see each other and interact in real-time. “They’re in a safe and trusting environment that we’ve been able to build,” Carbajal says. He can also ask questions to prompt discussions to move forward. 

In the online course, he asks students to post and reply to each other’s videos. The main project is for students to have a conversation on race or racism with someone outside the class. They create questions, interview someone and submit conversation notes. 

Carbajal can tell the discussions are good when students ask critical questions. It also shows in their
journal entries. 

“As I am reading through their reflection pieces, I am seeing a difference in how they talk about themselves,” he says. 

Carbajal’s research is preliminary, and data is still being collected. He wants to do a follow-up study at the graduate level on developing racial literacy online to train culturally competent clinicians. 

Because developing a racial identity is not only important for personal growth. It’s essential to the growth of communities and in fighting racial injustice.