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A gathering of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., last month left one woman dead. Confederate memorials were defaced or removed, including some whisked away in the middle of the night. President Trump announced that he plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for 800,000 undocumented immigrants, including college students.

These emotionally charged events, which took place just as the new academic year got under way, are part of a growing list of tense developments that institutions are grappling with, including protests against far-right speakers, sexual violence, police shootings of black men and immigration policy. For full-time faculty members and part-time instructors who teach online courses, keeping discourse civil and productive on discussion boards is getting trickier -- even when the course or assignments have nothing to do with controversial topics.

“Even online I can sense a heightened character of the conversations with the current social-political climate,” said Tom Beaudoin, an associate professor of religion at Fordham University who has been teaching distance courses for three years. “Any conversation is political.”

“I expect this anxiety and tense politics will absolutely inform my online class this fall,” he continued. “How could it not? When students are writing their papers or discussion posts, they may have Fox or CNN open. We are just a pixel away from the next outrage.”

Beaudoin said he might have an advantage because Fordham is a private religious institution. “I emphasize to students the kinds of conversations that are appropriate to the Jesuit Catholic heritage of our university,” he said. “This allows me to talk about the care of persons.”

But, he added, “That doesn’t mean we can’t have disagreements or disputes.”

Abby L. Ferber, a professor of sociology and women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, takes a similar approach. “I try to make it clear from the beginning that all perspectives can be shared, but they must do it in respectful manner,” she said.

In the Beginning

Ferber, who teaches only online and hybrid courses, said she focuses on pre-emptive measures so she doesn’t have to go into “crisis mode.” First, she has her online students agree to ground rules -- “netiquettes” -- because “it’s important to get buy-in.”

“I ask for their suggestions, what are their best and worst experiences,” she said.

Tables Turned

Michael Goldberg teaches a massive open online course on entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve through Coursera. The visiting professor of design and innovation in the Weatherhead School of Management said that 85 percent of his students are from outside the U.S. and represent 190 countries, and that 5,000 students have completed the course since he began teaching it three years ago.

Goldberg said he is “awed” by how supportive students from different continents are in the MOOC’s discussion board. “There a lot of stories about government corruption that hinder entrepreneurship,” he said. “This is a global issue.”

But, as Goldberg found out, the instructor can say something that turns a discussion in the wrong direction. He noted that his Greek students get ruffled when he discusses Macedonia, the successor state to the former Yugoslavia. He didn’t know, he said, that Greeks think Macedonia has no right to call itself Macedonia because they think the country always has been part of Greece.

“I recognize there are a variety of political beliefs, and I try to be thoughtful and sensitive,” Goldberg said. “But I unwittingly said something about Macedonia.”

Lisa Dadio, coordinator of the master’s of science program in forensic technology at the University of New Haven, provides her online students a tip sheet that concludes, “Above all else, think before you post. If you wouldn't say something to a classmate or your instructor face-to-face, then don't post it online.”

Ferber starts each online course with an exercise about the origin of surnames that looks at the importance and complexity of names. Because online students may never meet in person, learners may not know what their peers look like. Ferber invites learners to share information about themselves, including their race, religion and sexual orientation, so they can get to know one another -- details, she said, they might not provide in a classroom.

“Students will reveal very personal stories about discrimination based on race, and also some share how they changed their names if they are gay or lesbian and are married,” she said.

Likewise, Tim Milosch said, he has his online students outline their personal learning goals as the course gets started. “Now they are building empathy and relationships,” said Milosch, an adjunct professor of communications and political science at Biola University, in California. “It’s just about who they are.”

Ferber also teaches students strategies for dealing with touchy subjects, and how to have a dialogue about them in a respectful manner. “We challenge the idea, not the person,” she said.

Milosch, who is a full-time instructional designer at Biola, said the university's practice of placing online learners into smaller discussion groups of six to eight also is effective in preventing inappropriate comments because students get to know one another better.

Other Effective Strategies

Besides up-front procedures, Ferber scaffolds the curriculum so students have the background they need to discuss sensitive topics. If a delicate subject arises early in the course, “I say we are not prepared yet to get to that point. We need more background and historical knowledge before we can have an educated discussion about this.”

Beaudoin said he thinks instructors always need to be aware of what students are writing in discussion boards. “I have to stay curious about the ways that it might be heard by a range of students and try to model frank and respectful interaction,” he said. “Students pick up on that and they start to use my phrases.”

“I am trying to help them see and practice that there is a way of writing online that you can affirm the soundness or novelty of what you are saying, and at the same time, clearly state your position and reasons for it -- and to do it in a way that has a [positive] tone,” he added.

Milosch said it’s also important for instructors to recognize that distance learners might not know the context behind hot-button topics. “It shouldn’t be assumed that students just know."

He said he tells students they can write about their experiences, but also to include information garnered from his lecture videos. “What this does, pedagogically speaking, is frame up the learning piece,” said the instructor, who completed his master’s degree fully online. “It focuses students on the learning process, rather than turning this into a course about opinions.”

Milosch said he thinks instructors have more control, not less, in online discussions because they have to do more up-front legwork than in face-to-face courses, and they can incorporate more learning modalities.

Another benefit of discussions online, Ferber said, is that students have the opportunity to stop and think about what they want to say. “In a classroom, you have to respond right away,” she said. “If you respond immediately, it often comes from emotions.”

Beaudoin tells his students that because they can’t see facial or body cues, they need to think carefully about how what they write will be received. “It doesn’t matter if you think that someone’s beliefs are wrong; we are about to talk about them thoughtfully and carefully and not dismiss them.”

A Different Approach

At Anne Arundel Community College, in Maryland, 55 percent of the college’s 14,000 students take at least one online course and many are fully online learners. Because most of the students live in or near the county, which is located not far from Washington, the college sponsors evening events about sensitive issues so students and others to talk freely in a face-to-face setting. For instance, last week Anne Arundel held an event called Rise Against Hate that attracted hundreds of students and staff members. Last spring the college sponsored a gathering about immigration issues.

Colleen Eisenbeiser, dean of learning advancement and the Virtual Campus, said these events provide civil discourse that carries over to online and on-campus classes. “We’ve had great student interest in these events,” she said. “These are opportunities to discuss these issues. [Students] have such wonderful questions.”

Challenges Remain

Professors said that despite their best efforts, some online conversations still go awry. Beaudoin said he’s had to insert himself several times during the past year to “tamp down some discussions that I wouldn’t have had in the past. This never happened before the election.”

“What’s happened … is an emerging looseness of respect for people who are not like you,” he added, noting the comments he’s dealt with were about gender roles, racial stereotypes, Republicans and Donald Trump. “It’s a failure to be curious about people who are not like you.”

People often say things online that they wouldn’t say in person, but Beaudoin said distance learners don’t often respond to insensitive comments. He said when these situations arise, he redirects the conversations, asking students to dig deeper into the issues.

Ferber agrees: “Stop the conversation and ask a question that reframes the comment. Ask a question to further the dialogue.”

Dadio, a former police lieutenant, said she tells her online students that “basic courtesy and common sense are the rule of the day when communicating -- whether it is face-to-face or on the internet.”

These are lessons, Beaudoin said, that will serve students well beyond their college days.

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