In a recent blog post, the CTEI shared strategies that can be used to facilitate difficult conversations in the classroom. The center also hosted a community conversation on the same topic, featuring perspectives from three different faculty members from across the institution. In response, we heard from some instructors who are interested in specific strategies they can use in an online environment. While many of the ideas previously shared can be applied to the online classroom, such as setting ground rules, the following considerations are worth keeping in mind when facilitating difficult conversations online.
- Establish a positive classroom climate. This is especially important in an online environment where subtle gestures, voice inflections, and facial expressions may be missing. Creating a safe, inclusive environment from the start will encourage student participation and respect among peers. Some ideas include:
- Engage students in icebreaker or other collaborative activities to ensure multiple opportunities for students to get to know one another.
- Include a syllabus statement with language expressing a commitment to respecting diverse opinions and being inclusive. Model this commitment by using students’ preferred names, pronouns, inclusive language, and diverse examples. See a recently shared example from Professor John Mercurio in The Chronicle.
- Communicate regularly with students. Send weekly reminders, post regular announcements, and commit to responding promptly to discussion board posts from students to help them feel connected to the class and to each other.
- As part of setting ground rules, remind students of “netiquette;” be very clear about rules for online discussions, group interactions, when/if it’s okay to use the chat feature, etc. Consider involving students in creating these rules.
- Lack of privacy – remember that students on Zoom are not necessarily in a private space and may not feel comfortable speaking or engaging freely with others. Communicate alternate ways for students to engage, such as using chat, polls, or an asynchronous discussion board.
- In hybrid classes, make sure to include Zoom participants in the discussion. This may require additional or amended ground rules such as requiring everyone to raise their hand (Zoom and in-person participants) before making a comment.
- Acknowledge and accept that there may be (uncomfortable) pauses due to a bad online connection or people gathering their thoughts.
- Consider using breakout rooms for students to discuss issues in small groups which may be more comfortable/less intimidating for some.
- Consider using the chat feature to allow students time to reflect on their response before sharing. The faculty can then selectively address comments shared by students including contextualizing or reframing points made. If you have a co-instructor or teaching assistants, they can help with replying directly to comments posted in the chat.
- Establish a set of gestures/emojis to be used when asking a question, adding a follow-up idea, agreeing or disagreeing, etc. to keep interruptions to a minimum. (This requires everyone to be in grid view.)
- As much as possible, keep an eye on Zoom participants for indications of distress. Encourage students to take advantage of university wellness resources.
- For larger discussions, consider using a Zoom webinar in which you can moderate questions and comments submitted before sharing them. In typical Zoom classrooms, you can ask students to send their comments directly to you in the chat instead of posting to the entire group.
Do you have additional ideas to share? Please post them in the comments.
Amy Brusini, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation
Image Source: Unsplash
Rudenko, N. (August, 12, 2020). Facilitating discussions via Zoom (in a college-level classroom). Medium. https://medium.com/@natasharudenko_37929/facilitating-discussions-via-zoom-in-a-college-level-classroom-619d3ac4343b
Supiano, B. (November 9, 2023). Teaching: How to hold difficult discussions online. The Chronicle of Higher Education.