A Ripple Effect of Change: Reclaiming a Sense of Joy and Purpose through Online Learning Culture and Restorative Practices

Hand causing ripple effect in water in front of scenic forest

The philosophy of “cancel culture” may have started with noble intentions to hold individuals and groups accountable for offensive words and/or actions. With this trend, the idea of fairness can sometimes appear differently in the Digital Age: Public shaming is viewed by some as an acceptable way to educate others about what is right or wrong. Most notably, this phenomenon limits the pedagogical concept deeply rooted in education—and even more so in higher education environments where students are exploring their interests, skills, and experiences for career paths—that emphasizes how learners can embrace their missteps and dilemmas as an effective way to build educated communities who live and learn through restorative practices.

Let’s consider how inquiries, open-mindedness, and discussions would become limited if society embodies an either-or cancel approach. People become more likely to neglect the opportunities to listen and learn across their differences. In the popular book Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture, human rights lawyer and free speech advocate Dan Kovalik (2021) makes the assertion that cancel culture is a counterproductive instance where “cancellers” put people against each other as they make assumptions, rather than coming together for solidarity and support.

We highlight examples and reasons in both the classroom and society, which allow leaders/professors to avoid this canceling mentality and encourage restorative practices for their communities, especially with the online learning culture during the COVID-19 pandemic. Historically, reform in education focused on “no tolerance” in behavioral management. Now, we imagine higher education with restorative practices for instruction with more personalized attention and care. Let’s evaluate how our higher education interactions have a deeply meaningful role—and reclaim a sense of joy and purpose—for a ripple effect of change.

To cancel is a detrimental way of thinking

As mentioned earlier, cancel culture is often related to accountability and online interactions. That being said, accountability with neither teachable moments nor opportunities for growth becomes punishment that takes on a submissive, punitive nature—the opposite of guiding and uplifting others. A recent study showed that over 70% of students at a mid-sized public university felt a great deal of anxiety about their online learning (Kedraka & Kaltsidis, 2020, p. 20). Anxiety can too often become a badge of honor and status, but why should we promote a feeling of being overwhelmed as an image of success?

Researchers believe there are three types of stress that people experience: positive, tolerable, and toxic (Shonkoff, Boyce, & McEwen, 2009). Anxiety related to positive and tolerable stresses are healthy and can be used to promote student problem-solving skills, as well as healthy accountability. In university courses, professors must plant seeds, provide challenges while encouraging growth, and support new beginnings despite tough circumstances of student anxiety. Remember, most higher education students are trying to learn healthy skills for both their job(s) and life. Thus, a professor has an important job that serves two purposes: (1) modeling self-regulation for others, and (2) explicitly teaching skills and knowledge for effective practices.

For higher education, effective practices do emphasize restorative practices—problem-solving, respecting each other with trust, affirming others’ strengths, and discussing ideas together.

Furthermore, as history shows, no tolerance policies are often ineffective for learners to improve behaviors and engage in classroom expectations. In fact, such rigid practices often promote microaggressions and misconduct. With online learning, information should be coherent and concise to communicate the goals of the course. Especially during COVID-19 and popular usage of online platforms, the needs of students should be considered frequently and evaluated for learner-centered instruction and interactions (Sofi & Laafon, 2020) so that the curriculum customization is a natural piece of higher education. Learners discover ownership and purpose.

Allowing time and efforts to master content

For the higher education landscape, encouraging equitable opportunities becomes salient for student success. During Dr. Brevetti’s time as a professor, one of her graduate students neither completed the coursework, nor met face-to-face throughout the hybrid course option. This was a clear instance of not submitting work, which resulted in the student failing the class. Nonetheless, it was important to stay in contact with the student and continue to encourage him to put in the time and effort to master the content. This took awareness and patience by Dr. Brevetti to guide her distracted student.

Truth be told, Dr. Brevetti’s student failed the class more than once, but he showed a hidden potential to value the material, earn a passing grade, and grow as a person. Dr. Brevetti continued using interactive learning approaches (i.e. Google Suite and Kahoot!), and these approaches created personal accountability in that he received feedback and guidance to improve his work. When her student earned a passing grade, he spoke with a deep appreciation for the opportunities he received. Later, Dr. Brevetti learned he was under personal stress because of an ill family member. By allowing time and efforts to master the course content, Dr. Brevetti facilitated a life-long lesson, which showed her student that he did have resilience and fortitude to achieve his degree—a journey he had begun without full understanding as a first-generation college student.

Discovering new ways to help struggling students

Learning from one another can help us discover how powerful restorative practices can be. An online culture can be the perfect platform to learn from one another by sharing stories and ideas, video guides and meetings, and imagination. Both landscapes of higher education and online learning are evolving—from their traditional beginnings to becoming more mainstream and inclusive. Indeed, it requires both consciousness and fortitude from educators to keep reaching out to students who are struggling and/or non-traditional.

  • Make/plan the time to know your learners and colleagues online
  • Design assignments to promote “divergent thinking” that engenders creative ideas and addresses students’ interests and needs
  • Promote experiences of integrated subject matter to develop skills and knowledge, which make connections across curricula, as well as life itself
  • Be proactive about a trickle-down effect with leadership, bad and good
  • Identify and anticipate potential classroom issues in order to put things in place to prevent distracting problems from arising
  • Engage others to ask questions, participate, and share ideas
  • Find ways to help others recognize what goals are equitable and worthy challenges for the development of each learner’s problem-solving skills
  • Encourage each learner and/or colleague to discover one’s own identity and voice

Online instruction provides educators the increased opportunities to work with people from different backgrounds and places. Openness and sensitivity towards all students are ways to diminish cancel culture mentality.

Higher education professionals can aim for restorative practices with a personal touch and compassion. We must not forget: University communities offer a sacred space for dreams. Indeed, we may not have been personally responsible for past injustices or unfulfilled dreams, however, we must work together and strive with the virtues of hope and courage to lift up our higher education community members, helping them reach their full potential. And along the way, we ought to remember that serving our most vulnerable learners is not merely to transform them; it is also meant to change us.

Dr. Melissa Anne Brevetti is a researcher and educator who believes in “maximizing the power of one.”  Her scholarship examines human nature as it pertains to inclusive practices, moral development, and historical virtue-ethics.  More specifically, she aims to understand how people think and act critically, morally, ethically (or not) in their educative settings across time so that effective practices and policy are put into action.  Dr. Brevetti is a recipient of the International Roundtable Scholar and Ten Outstanding Young Americans Awards.    

Dr. Bradley Mays earned his doctorate in adult & higher education from University of Oklahoma. His experiences as a person with a disability resulted in a desire to help students with disabilities thrive in higher education settings. His research interests include students with disabilities, increasing education and awareness about disability issues, engagement and inclusion. Dr. Mays believes education about disability issues can improve campus climate and educational and employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

Kedraka, K. & Kaltsidis, C. (2020). Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university pedagogy:
Students’ experiences and considerations. European Journal of Education Studies, 7(8), 17-30.

Kovalik, D. (2021.) Cancel This Book: The Progressive Case Against Cancel Culture. New York, NY:
Skyhorse Publishing.

Shonkoff, J., Boyce, W., & Mcewen, B. (2009). Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood
roots of health disparities: Building a new framework for health promotion and disease
prevention. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 301(21), 2252-2259.

Sofi, A., & Laafon, M. (2020). Effect of using the online learning platform in teaching during the
COVID-19 pandemic. In I. Sahin & M. Shelley (Eds.), Educational practices during the
COVID-19 viral outbreak: International perspectives (pp. 1167-180). ISTES Organization.