Why Being in the (Online) Room Isn’t Enough: Fostering Difficult Dialogues in Digital Learning

At the Online Learning Consortium’s Innovate conference this week, a panel of digital learning specialists shared how they are working to address some of these challenges at their own institutions and beyond.

Digital learning advocates have long hoped that online education could provide students of different and often underrepresented backgrounds new opportunities and access points to higher education. But the panel on Thursday started off by saying even delivering online education in more flexible ways isn't enough.

“Diversity is the myriad of differences and the things that make us who we are, and those matter in classroom spaces,” said Madeline Shellgren, a doctoral student and instructor at Michigan State University, but “just ‘inclusion’ is an old framework.” Shellgren urged educators to think about “anti-frameworks.” As an example, she said, “an anti-racism framework is where we think about how we work to dismantle systems of oppression specifically around race.”Why Being in the (Online) Room Isn’t Enough: Fostering Difficult Dialogues in Digital Learning

Getting to that point in a classroom setting can be challenging for educators grappling with how to address current and polarizing events in class. And for some, opening up dialogue on sensitive topics has been one of the most challenging parts about creating a welcoming space for students in the online environment.

“Because of the relative anonymity of the online classroom, [discussion] turns into something that is vitriolic,” said Joshua Steele, senior director of University of Arizona Online. “There are different demographics and there are things students will say in an online classroom that they may never say in an in-person classroom. And there are students, perhaps in rural areas, not exposed to as much diversity as students in urban areas, and who maybe aren’t comfortable with these conversations.”

It’s not something you can open up and immediately expect to have positive outcomes, he added.

Panelist Melody Buckner, director of digital and online education at the University of Arizona, said that she no longer asks students to post to online forums. Instead, she requires that students use cameras for discussions. “They can’t spout behind text,” she said.

While cameras prevent students from hiding behind a keyboard, Steele pointed out that the solution is not a guarantee that students will stay civil, and that some choose online courses for other reasons. He referenced a study at his university that found that the majority of students who fell below a 2.0 GPA ranked high for social anxiety, and that they had a “fear of engaging” which led them to avoid asking questions or asking for help in a face-to-face class setting.

Steele said he loves how technologies, like video, show faces and can help students build community and humanize online learning. But, “with fully-online students, we found a lot self-select for perhaps social anxiety issues. It creates a lot of anxiety when they have to record a video because they would prefer to be anonymous.”

Steele suggested that online instructors should look for additional channels through which students can participate in conversations and demonstrate learning. “Despite recent controversies [with Facebook]” Steele observed, “we opened a Facebook page for students to interact and it’s been remarkable to see the kinds of interactions and questions.

Kirsten Riddick of North Virginia Community College added: “[Groups of people] are not a monolith and our media is not one stream.” She suggests instructors stack a syllabus with different sources and have conversations about them, or ask students to take on opinions they don’t agree with to try to understand those perspectives better.

Each of the panelists agreed that in addition to these considerations, courses—whether covering controversial topics or not—should begin with a set of ground rules and norms.

In the classes Buckner teaches on multiculturalism, she said she swiftly establishes a norm that “you can attack the ideology, but never the person.” Riddick proposed that faculty should establish agreements that “what happens here, stays here” in their class communities.

Shellgren later said that instructors must also check their own biases and set norms for themselves. For example, last month, a Stanford University study revealed that instructors in online environments were nearly twice as likely to respond to discussion posts made by white male students than any other race and gender.

“When we talk about community norms, are we okay with the call-out culture to discuss things when they come up?” she posed. “If were running a workshop and a participant called me a racist, how would I respond in that moment? I think you can extend that to a variety of scenarios. And if you don’t have an answer, I don’t know if you’re ready.”

Steele added that students must also have outlets in an academic setting where they can challenge unwelcomed behaviors. He stressed there is a need to “provide a different perspective than just one faculty member’s opinion” to ensure that one narrative doesn’t discourage a student from a field or academics in general. He also noted that the lack of these opportunities with academic officials outside of student affairs has sometimes been why, for example, some underrepresented students leave in STEM fields.

Shellgren urged faculty to not underestimate how powerfully students are affected by current events—and so consequently to build on a trauma-informed approach. Recognizing trauma, she said, “will help you understand and think about ways of practice to create spaces and build as a community with our students.”