Managing Controversy in the Online Classroom

Controversy can erupt in any learning situation, and knowing how to manage it is an important skill for any instructor. Online instructors need to be aware of the following challenges when it comes to managing controversy:

  • The asynchronous format. An instructor in a face-to-face course can defuse a conflict as soon as it arises. “In an asynchronous online course, if a student says something and you don’t notice it right away but other students do, they may pounce on the student, and you can get emotions flaring and words going back and forth,” says Cristy Casado Tondeur, whose online courses in African-American history and women’s studies often generate their fair share of controversy.
  • Potential misinterpretation of predominantly text-based communication. In addition to the asynchronous format, the reliance on text-based communication in most online courses opens the door to misinterpretation due to not seeing or hearing the students. When a message is only text, students may interpret its meaning based on assumptions and stereotypes, Tondeur says.
  • Relative anonymity. One of the strengths of the online classroom is that it can empower students who might be uncomfortable speaking up in class to express themselves in the discussion forums. There is a downside to this relative anonymity—what LaTasha Gatling, who teaches African-American history and African history, calls “Internet thugs,” students who feel free to post whatever damaging, hurtful, or incendiary messages they care to with impunity because “they don’t know who I am.”

Controversy is inevitable and sometimes productive. The key is to know how to manage it effectively. Tondeur and Gatling offer the following techniques.

Anticipate controversy and set expectations. “In my first post, I tell students that in this course we’re going to talk about issues that they’re going to be uncomfortable with; however, it’s part of the learning process. I ask them to throw away any stereotypes they may have because stereotypes often get in the way of us opening our minds to something new. I ask them to be mindful when they are typing certain words or phrases because they can be hurtful,” Gatling says.

Icebreakers can also be an effective way to prepare students to interact productively and respectfully in the online learning environment. As an icebreaker, Tondeur asks students to post answers to the following questions: What was the best concert you’ve attended? Who would you want to interview? What is your favorite movie? Besides fulfilling a requirement, why are you taking this course?

It’s an activity that lets fellow students know something about one another. This information is also useful to Tondeur as she looks for ways to illustrate concepts that her students will find interesting and relevant. Tondeur also posts a video introduction of herself to let students know more about her and to invite students to share more about themselves.

Look for signs of conflict and unease. Some conflict is immediately recognizable in the online environment through heated discussion board posts. But not all controversial issues bring out interpersonal conflict. Sometimes thinking about controversies can elicit internal conflict and strong emotions. Instructors need to be able to recognize signs of this. These signs can include changes in the quality and quantity of posts. Long posts may indicate a student’s attempts to come to terms with a controversy. Short ones may indicate a reluctance to discuss a particularly difficult issue. Some students will contact you directly and let you know they are upset.

Be supportive. When students get upset, they may need extra support, which can be given in a variety of ways. “When I have students who reach out to me one-on-one and say they have become so upset that they cried, I let them know that this is a part of growing. As we grow, we learn things about ourselves. I engage them to find out what exactly caused them to react so strongly,” Gatling says.

These conversations can be conducted via email, but sometimes it helps to connect in more immediate ways via telephone or Skype. “One of the things I do with a student having a hard time is Skype. We can have this conversation live so it’s more personal, so they don’t feel like I’m out there somewhere in cyberspace,” Tondeur says. “Sometimes students need that extra emotional support. They need to debrief. That’s very important if you’re going to be teaching topics that are controversial. If you’re going to invite that controversy, you will have to deal with it when it comes knocking on your door. Not all instructors would be comfortable with that.”

Directly address interpersonal conflict. Interpersonal conflict can occur at any time in an online course. It can unfold within minutes or over a period of days. Left unchecked, it can hinder learning. Tondeur recommends acknowledging conflict as soon as possible. She uses an informal approach and says something like, “Wow! I see you’ve had a very good conversation over the weekend. It seems like it was pretty intense.” “If you insert that at the beginning, then they don’t think you’re blowing them off or not paying attention,” she says.

In some cases, it helps to ask students to take a break to cool off before the conflict escalates. Throughout a conflict, it’s important not to take sides, because this could alienate students. “It’s a tricky road to navigate. How can I make students understand that I understand where they’re coming from or why a person feels the ways he feels but also why that is problematic? How can I make the student feel like her voice isn’t being silenced?”

Encourage critical thinking. Controversial issues stir up strong emotions, and students often base their opinions on these feelings rather than on facts. Gatling encourages and reminds her students to come up with their own opinions based on facts versus feelings. “It can be really hard but really rewarding,” she says.

Provide a space for difficult questions. Tondeur encourages students to post difficult questions for discussion. “That’s where you see how a student is processing [the content]. They’ll ask something like, ‘How could people behave this way [referring to slavery] if they were Christians?’ And I’ll respond with something like, ‘This is a great question, but let’s remember we need to put it in its historical context. If you look at history and the way race was viewed during those times, does it help you understand how this happened?’”

Use podcasts. Tondeur uses video podcasts to respond when students express problematic views or when she wants them to pay close attention to a particular issue. The video format adds emphasis and reduces the possibility that students will misinterpret her message.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 12.3 (2012): 2.3.