Every Learner Everywhere

Meet the Expert: How This Diversity Education Director Helps Colleagues Think Strategically About Digital Learning

Dr. Chandani Patel first started working on inclusive teaching while a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago. She says that, as equity-minded education was becoming more visible, “more and more graduate students and postdocs wanted more conversations and resources on inclusive teaching.”

Patel began reading the emerging scholarship on inclusive teaching, and “all of this became my area of focus” she says, which she used while in faculty development roles at the University of Chicago. After her time there, she moved to the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University, and today Patel is the Director for Global Diversity Education at New York University (NYU) where she develops institution-wide educational excellence standards and programs on inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging.

Increasingly, that means helping faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate teaching assistants who are new to working in digital learning spaces in equitable and inclusive ways. In 2019, Patel and her colleague, Amanda Jungels, alongside colleagues at the Columbia University Center for Teaching and Learning, co-produced a MOOC for the edX platform on inclusive teaching that over 10,000 people have participated in.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about a self-paced asynchronous course that wouldn’t perpetuate harm,” she says. “We wanted every module to be really clear on how we’re focused on underrepresented students. It was to help faculty examine and challenge their own assumptions. This project really helped me start thinking about the intersections between equity-minded education and digital learning.”

Now as part of the Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network, powered by ISTE, Patel is looking forward to sharing her expertise in equity-minded education and digital learning with colleagues across the country. She is one of a group of seven consultants providing flexible on-demand coaching to higher education faculty and leaders who are working to advance equity and inclusion in blended and online modalities. Her areas of expertise include diversity, anti-racism, inclusive teaching practices, course and curricular design, active and collaborative learning, faculty professional development support, and DEI-centered strategic planning.

Strategy, planning, and practical tools

As the Director for Global Diversity Education, Patel serves faculty and staff across NYU, including two global campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Using the curriculum she designed for graduate students at Columbia, Patel teaches two faculty cohorts a year at NYU on inclusive teaching.

But Patel says not everyone can find the time to attend her seminars. To address the gap, she co-led a project to develop a faculty toolkit on digital inclusion.

Patel serves as a consultant for the Global Inclusion Officers Council at NYU, a coalition of 50 professionals representing all the schools in the university. Through this partnership she provides professional development resources, and she helps guide strategic plans for addressing equity and racism throughout the institution.

Patel also continues to work one on one with faculty and with individual departments that are assessing their needs and developing action plans centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Navigating a new era

Patel says one upside of the COVID-19 crisis is that it creates a big opportunity to identify and confront inequities for students that have always been there. “Before we were thrust into 100 percent remote, learning inequities weren’t as visible to everyone,” she says. “It really came to the surface because students and faculty were struggling.”

Patel says a few common issues have been coming up frequently in her consultations with faculty, department chairs, and administrators.

First, she emphasizes that digital learning tools can perpetuate inequities when faculty try to translate what they do in person to the digital space without any kind of reassessment. In the rush to convert to online learning in Spring 2020, not everyone had time to consider how to do so in ways that support equity efforts.

A second problem Patel often observes is “when faculty get in their own way.” For example, she has a lot of conversations about whether instructors should require students to turn their video cameras on during class. She reminds them that remote or hybrid learning is not a situation that every student signed up for: “When we’re thinking about equity, you really need to take that into consideration; we are still in an ongoing pandemic.”

Third, faculty need to take time to question and be flexible about the choices they’re making. For example, Patel says, “Have I thought about whether all my students have access? Have I thought about whether I need to operate in an interactive mode? Have I thought about what tools I’ll use in the sessions?”

Lastly, Patel acknowledges many faculty are navigating their own insecurities about online learning. She advises instructors to let their students know “I’m not an expert in this environment, but I am committed to figuring it out with you” It’s an opportunity to create a shared experience with students.

Familiar questions, new opportunities

Sharing vulnerability is a key part of Patel’s approach to coaching and consultation. “My goal is to help people understand that they’re not alone,” she says. “Faculty often struggle because they don’t know where to ask for help. As a coach, I’m there for them, but also there are a ton of resources that I can connect them with.”

Asked what she’s most looking forward to as a member of the Expert Network, Patel says, “It’s fascinating to learn about different disciplines and the challenges that faculty encounter in their own roles. What are different disciplines talking about in terms of equity? What types of cultural challenges are they facing at their institutions? It’s always helpful for me to grow my own knowledge.”

Ultimately, as challenging as it is to implement and improve online learning experiences, Patel says, doing so with an equity-minded approach is an enormous opportunity to create access for every student. “I want to help faculty understand that they don’t need to do everything all at once,” she says.

“These are not new questions but perhaps new contexts. We’ve been thinking about equity for a long time, and we’ll continue to think about how we can make things more equitable for everyone.”

This article is part of a series profiling consultants in the Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network, powered by ISTE. The program offers flexible, on-demand coaching to advance equity and inclusion in blended and online modalities using all aspects of digital learning. 

Learn more about the program and schedule a consultation with Chandani Patel.