Fostering Open Minds Online

One of the most useful practices is to establish netiquette guidelines, which are indispensable for teaching about inequality and oppression, writes Abby L. Ferber.

November 8, 2017
 

Is it really possible to teach about inequality and oppression online? I hear this question all the time, and my answer is always the same: yes!

Many faculty members have written about the increasing pressure they feel to teach online courses. Like it or not, these classes are popular for many reasons, and their popularity will only increase with time. While universities usually have their own motives (money, lack of classroom space, etc.), online courses can also benefit our students. Many of the students in my courses are working part-time or full-time jobs with little control over their schedules; have children; care for an ill, disabled or elderly loved one; experience chronic illness and/or disabilities themselves; are in the military or married to someone who is and may have to move in the middle of a semester; or face a myriad of other issues that make it difficult to take courses on site.

Faculty on campuses around the country continue to battle to institutionalize a diversity requirement in their universitywide curriculum requirements. It is equally important, then, that we make sure we offer diversity courses online so that they are accessible for all students. Unfortunately, it is faculty members who teach courses on race, gender, sexuality, oppression and privilege that I find are most adamant that these subjects cannot possibly be taught online with the same degree of success. I can understand these assumptions, which often come down to fear, because I once embraced them myself. This emotion-laden subject matter can be challenging enough in the classroom, so how can these challenges be faced online?

Seeing few faculty willing to take this step, I decided to give it a try. That was about a decade ago. The most important lesson I have learned over the years is that moving to an online format is not worse; it is just different.

I am well aware of the challenges faculty face when teaching such subject matter. I co-founded and co-facilitate the Knapsack Institute: Transforming Teaching and Learning at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The institute takes the form of a learning community and is offered every June to educators, very broadly defined, who are seeking better methods and strategies for facilitating dialogues around race, sexuality, transgender issues and more, subjects that were infrequently taught when I was an undergraduate.

Most of us have faced those dreaded eruptions when emotion boils over, or as Helen Fox puts it in her book of the same title, when race breaks out. In today’s political and cultural climate, it can be even more difficult to navigate these contemporary issues. Students frequently enter the classroom with their own ideas fully formed and are determined to stick to their own long-held beliefs. My goal, however, is to foster open minds and develop critical thinking skills so that students are open to hearing a diverse array of views, to challenge assumptions not grounded in research, to learn to support their own positions with scholarly research (note: changing their views is not one of my goals), and to engage in civil and respectful dialogue.

While educators’ motivation to attend the Knapsack Institute was at one time to learn how to incorporate race, gender, disability, etc. into their classes, no matter what the subject matter, these motivations have shifted overtime. Educators now seek tools and approaches for maneuvering through this subject matter in a manner that is not conflict ridden but instead fosters a true learning environment. Faculty express even greater fear of dealing with the dynamics of emotion and resistance in the online environment.

I have come to see that this can be done successfully, and even has its own it strengths when compared to in-class pedagogy. But it takes work, and planning.

Netiquette Guidelines

From the very start, one of the most useful and crucial tools is to establish netiquette guidelines (a counterpart to ground rules or community agreements). In online courses, I add guidelines tailored to the online environment. These are indispensable in fostering an inclusive class experience for all students.

  • Be respectful. We all enter this course with our own opinions and different levels of knowledge. Express differences with respect toward others’ perspectives.
  • Assume the best of each other. Keep in mind that we are all on different points of our learning journey. Some of us have received very little education in this subject matter.
  • Challenge ideas, not people.
  • Value humility: do not be afraid of making a mistake. That is how we learn! Language changes quickly and even faculty make mistakes or offensive comments. Give each other the gift of explaining why a term may be out of date or offensive to some people (this can also be the result of generational differences).
  • Think before you respond. If a comment or reading triggers anger or other intense emotions, think about where those feelings are coming from and why. Practice writing a response that is respectful yet still conveys your perspective.

Results of the above guidelines: I find students to be extremely polite. Rather than immediately responding from a place of pure emotion, they can take time to formulate a response based on the above principles. Typical responses read something like this: “Amanda, thank you for sharing your perspective. I want to explain why I disagree with some of the ideas you have shared.” In class, such responses more often sound like this: “That is just insane, don’t you watch the news? Did you do the readings? I don’t understand how you can still see things that way after everything we have discussed. You are just ignorant!” Responses are better thought out and supported with class material.

Don’t use sarcasm or all caps to make your point. The meaning of these can be interpreted very differently when you cannot hear someone’s tone of voice. Some people experience caps as yelling, while others may use them to make a strong point. It is everyone’s responsibility to monitor discussions and dialogues. Faculty cannot be online 24-7. Yet dialogues can quickly evolve into inappropriate and hateful messaging. When this happens, or even if you are not sure, alert faculty immediately. (I often assign one monitor per group each week and make this a class requirement, offering a small number of points for successfully carrying out this role.)

Other Beneficial Results

More students participate in the class. Many students have different learning styles: some are very shy, some are embarrassed to speak due to a stutter and some just need more time to compose their responses. Yet in a classroom the discussion may already have moved on to another subject.

It is also easier to require participation online. Include very specific requirements about how many times per week students must participate, respond to class materials and respond to each other. I find this produces a more robust dialogue than the classroom environment, and more voices are heard.

  • Students can maintain anonymity around social identities if they wish. (I never require students to share a photo of themselves for this reason.) This can avoid the common negative dynamic of majority students turning to a few students of color, openly gay students or men in a gender studies course to speak for everyone of their group.
  • Negative dynamics around certain students sitting next to each other and talking during class, playing games on their laptops, texting, or egging each other on and disrupting classroom behavior are avoided.
  • Students do not miss class. (I usually provide them with at least a few days to complete assignments, engage in dialogue, etc.) Even if they are traveling or sitting with a friend who is in the hospital, they can usually find time to get their work done. This same benefit accrues to faculty members. Classes never have to be canceled.

Bio

Abby L. Ferber is associate director of the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion and professor of sociology and women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. 

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