by Pamela Toney
Online education is a unique space for personal interactions among students and faculty. It is important that we keep the classroom a space that allows for academic freedom and opinions but also a space that maintains a professional atmosphere that is respectful and appropriate. The rules of engagement in a successful online classroom can actually provide key lessons for online communication in general.
With more individuals entering online educational spaces, we’ve learned there need to be clear boundaries and expectations to support meaningful conversation and a greater understanding of all sides of an issue. Many people have become accustomed to communicating online in ways that are counter to the type of discussion that we aim for in an online classroom. If you scroll through online articles and review the comments, for example, you will notice that people use this space to make their opinions known and often to put down those who have a different opinion from them – and not always in the most polite manner. Taking a stand that only your opinion on an issue is correct does not open up a conversation so that others can truly understand the issue from your perspective, nor are you trying to understand it from theirs. The key to effective communication, both in-person and online, is to seek understanding of the other person’s perspective.
In the classroom, whether in person or online, we strive to promote constructive conversations about controversial topics, especially in our political and societal climate today. To get beyond opinions and sides, it is important that we engage with others and ask questions. Questions, not criticism or judgment of an idea, help each side articulate their perspective so that a common understanding can be formed. This open and respectful discourse is at the heart of all higher education, but one that is even more critical in an online space where words and ideas sometimes stand without the benefit of non-verbal context, tone, or defensible explanation before interpretation. This does not mean that you have to agree with the other person or change your mind, but it does allow you to better understand where that individual is coming from. Further, this careful choice of what you should and shouldn’t say is commonplace in today’s personal and professional environments where we all have had to explain a text or email that was received with unintended implied meaning.
In the online classroom, we have highly qualified faculty who help facilitate constructive discussions, which is not always the case with other types of online conversations. We require cited sources that are peer-reviewed and reputable, another staple that is missed in the broader context of all our online interactions, where inaccurate information can be misinterpreted as facts. Being respectful and engaging with the intention of understanding different perspectives is an expectation in the online classroom – and is a practice that can help you to open your mind on topics as well as drive more productive conversations. People hear you better when you are open to listening to them, even in the online space.
A common misstep I see, especially in situations that are highly emotional, is that people do not differentiate between feelings and thoughts. Many times, we will hide our opinions in “feeling” words that generate a response that makes it hard to overcome and work through. People feel what they feel, and you cannot argue with how a situation or issue makes someone feel. But online faculty model how you can ask questions to better understand why students are feeling the way that they are to help them learn to more effectively articulate their opinions. This can open up a more meaningful conversation about the topic without the person feeling judged or setting up the scenario where one person is right and one person is wrong.
In the world today, there are many ways to express your thoughts, opinions, and feelings in an online environment. The most important piece of advice I would offer from our CSU Global experience would be to seek to understand other perspectives even when they are different from your own, as this will open your mind to different possibilities. Creating dialogues where there must be a winner and a loser does not create a constructive environment to solve issues or for learning. So be your own facilitator, and think about how you engage. Acknowledge that other people think differently because of their varied experiences in life, and seek the opportunity to learn from their perspective and experiences. When it comes to a discussion or conversation it is important to work toward understanding the other person’s perspective; this does not mean you have to agree with it, but understanding the other side of an issue helps you to better articulate your thoughts or opinions on the topic in a more constructive way.
Pamela Toney, MBA, is president of Colorado State University Global.