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As the COVID-19 crisis has forced professors to scramble to teach remotely, a top priority must be ensuring the new teaching settings foster open exchange and wide-ranging discourse. What makes college learning much more than just the mastery of skills and content is the cultivation of the ability to become an independent thinker -- a skill only acquired through practice and the give-and-take of academic discussion and open exchange.

The threat to open exchange during this pandemic was made vivid when Charlie Kirk, president of Turning Point USA, took to Twitter calling on students to become classroom snitches by recording and sharing videos that “document and expose” professors’ purported “radicalism” and “blatant indoctrination.” Instead of learning, debating and mastering their discipline, students are encouraged to forgo their education in favor of the sugar rush of social media virality and likes.

Kirk’s fringe rabble-rousing notwithstanding, faculty members and students are worried that their comments in an online video or discussion board could be twisted to discredit them. Consider these findings, which make it clear that students from across the political spectrum lack confidence in how well campus culture supports open exchange:

  • A 2019 College Pulse/Knight Foundation survey found that 68 percent of undergraduates say “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive.”
  • A 2019 Brandeis University Steinhardt Social Research Institute report found that, at three of five campuses surveyed, large majorities of self-identified liberals, moderates and conservatives disagreed that “unpopular opinions can be expressed freely on campus.”
  • A 2020 report by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers found that 26 percent of self-identified liberal and 75 percent of self-identified conservative students had some degree of concern that other students would hold lower opinions of them for what they said in an in-person classroom discussion. In addition, 10 percent of self-identified liberals and 43 percent of self-identified conservatives were worried their classroom comments would be shared on social media.

If anything, students -- and faculty members -- will be more concerned now. Those who might have risked a provocative idea in the ephemeral setting of an in-person classroom will likely be more cautious about trying things out that could be recorded or screenshot. The risks might be long term: as John Villasenor, an electrical engineering, law, public policy and management professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote before the COVID-19 crisis, digital records of classroom discussions “could involve saying things that might be considered innocuous today but offensive by the social-media mobs of the 2040s.”

Professors abruptly moving their classes online must counter the reluctance to risk giving offense through an awkwardly phrased question or unorthodox argument and re-establish robust discussion in their newly remote classrooms. To do so, faculty members must reset expectations for the remainder of the term and then implement strategies that will maintain a spirit of open inquiry and free exchange as classes move into their crucial final weeks.

To reset course expectations, faculty members must summon up a reassuring online presence that communicates a sense that class remains a community of learning built on trust, even with students scattered far and wide. One model: Brandon L. Bayne’s “adjusted syllabus,” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has been widely shared as an exemplar of how to bolster norms of trust and mutual respect that are the prerequisites for open and respectful exchange. Even some weeks into the COVID-19 remote teaching experiment, it is not too late to create a similar document. It might include statements that the class will promote open inquiry and debate even in its new format and about respectful discussion and disagreement as essential to learning and discovery. If your college has a free expression policy, consider linking to it and adding a statement that classroom discussions should not be shared on social media.

Part of resetting course expectations will also be communicating what course content has been cut and what has been kept. This is an opportunity to reassert the centrality of question asking to the academic inquiry, by reminding students of the fundamental questions the course was designed to address and why the material kept is the most apt to address those questions. Students will welcome being invited into this “insider” perspective of course design, and it will remind them that questions -- which can be answered in more than one way and therefore should be discussed and debated -- are what college inquiry is about.

With course expectations reset, here are four strategies to foster a spirit of open inquiry, even about charged topics, in the final weeks of this unusual semester.

  • If feasible, hold weekly synchronous discussions so students experience the live give-and-take of academic dialogue. Samantha Hedges, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, wrote of her teaching experience that “face-to-face dialogue … even if through a screen and pair of earbuds, provides a richer experience for students to engage with and understand one another.” Her class involves controversial political topics, so she requires video: “Because the group was having a real-time dialogue, they could see the sincerity in each other’s facial expressions. And instead [of rejecting views opposed to their own], they asked follow-up questions to understand each other’s perspectives better.” Derrick E. Rancourt, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, who had to shift his graduate seminar online in response to COVID-19, described 40-minute student-led synchronous chats to analyze research papers, noting, “Online chats come naturally to millennials, and I was very impressed with the discourse.”
  • Establish a discussion board so students can hold asynchronous conversations with their peers. Provide a rubric that establishes expectations and incentivizes thoughtful contributions. The rubric should remind students that disagreements are welcome but must be respectful; it could include examples of how to respond to a claim with which students disagree. To ensure conversations are robust, University of Texas at Austin historian Steven Mintz (an Inside Higher Ed blogger) suggests requiring students to respond to at least one classmate’s post; consider also requiring students to start at least one thread, too.
  • Use polls to create conversation springboards and to unveil the range of opinion in the class. Historian Sara K. Eskridge wrote before the COVID-19 crisis, “Polling is useful for asking questions that help students ponder the complexity and ambiguity of certain topics … results can reveal common threads as well as a range of opinions the students may not have considered before.” Poll results could kick off the next taped lecture or discussion board session. Students’ knowledge that their peers hold a wide range of views can moderate any extreme assertions and deepen conversation on discussion boards and online classes.
  • Make open exchange an explicit course topic, either as preparation for setting up discussion boards or a topic in itself. Open Mind, First Amendment Watch at New York University and the Georgetown University Free Speech Project offer free, off-the-shelf modules.

Wide-ranging discussion, respectful disagreement and open exchange are central to the learning that should happen during college years. They are also vital for preparing students for a globalized workplace, engaged citizenship and community leadership. In adapting to remote teaching in these most trying of circumstances, revising courses in ways that shore up these core academic values is a must.

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