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On-line assignments: reducing potential classroom conflict ...

Beyond social networks and student’s “who is hot” rating games: craziness in the classroom …

There is no doubt that we live in perilous times. Whether you accept the hypothesis that digital desensitization leads to egregious actions or can promote physical violence, you must accept the fact that there are some among us that are waiting for a trigger event – the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back – before exploding in an unacceptable manner. Unpredictable people may require instructors to become more aware of the implications of digital classrooms, digital assignments and instructional message boards.

Watching what one says on school message boards …

We are living in a digital age, where people who use message boards may appear to be somewhat divorced from the niceties of more traditional face-to-face communication. Because of this digital isolation, many feel comfortable saying things that they would not ordinarily say – or, conversely, to take extreme offense at what others are saying about them.

Beyond constructive criticism …

While academic freedom demands that all students be able to render their opinion in an objective manner, there are some modalities of digital conversation that produce adverse reactions or escalate emotions into interpersonal feuds.

Personalization of comments which criticizes the person rather than the person’s behavior or subject matter at hand.

Using inappropriate descriptive language which pokes fun at an individual based on some physical characteristic.

Deliberately excluding a person from the conversation by not answering a direct query.

Going for “funny” and making a lame or derogatory joke that may be misperceived.

Directing comments at fellow students when they should be directed at the instructor.

Piling on where the overwhelming majority of commenters attack another commenter.

Instructor warning …

In some select cases, instructors appear to encourage intra-class competition; sometimes in ways that may put students at risk of retaliation from their fellow students. These are the teachers who demand the fellow students criticize each other in a personal manner rather than responding to the subject matter at hand.

In some preparatory- or professional- level classes, students may be asked to criticize their fellow student’s personality, academic achievement, learning abilities, schoolwork and other characteristics – somewhat like the 360-degree peer review process found in pre-employment preparation or in the workplace.

Unfortunately, when such a practice is introduced into an un-moderated digital realm, it can easily escalate beyond bruised egos to resentment – possibly rising to additional cyber-bullying or a physical confrontation to seek redress for real or imagined slights. Escalating beyond an academic exercise into concerns for a student’s safety at the next classroom meeting.

Anonymous vs. named responses …

It appears that demanding a respondent use their own name or class-id does tend to lead to self-moderation of comments. Therefore it is always preferable to demand that all comments be sponsored.

Guidance for students …

Courtesy of the Martin Community College Online Teaching Resource Center …


Some students are not sure how to behave in an online environment. Other students are used to being online chatting with friends or playing interactive games. In either case, students can benefit from hearing what you expect for appropriate behavior in your class. Etiquette for the online world is often call Netiquette.

Guidelines for acceptable behavior in discussion forums should be provided at the beginning of the semester. While you will want to customize the list to fit your particular class, some items you may want to include are:

  • students should "listen" to others respectfully
  • online learning is devoid of physical cues that often support communication; students should strive to utilize language that is thoughtful, respectful, and collegial when communicating with fellow students
  • sometimes students may disagree with one another, which is perfectly acceptable; strive to critique ideas in a respectful and constructive manner, not criticize an individual
  • direct comments to fellow students, rather than to the professor
  • try to understand other people's behavior and perspectives rather than simply criticizing them
  • avoid stereotypes and humor that are disparaging of others
  • intervene politely if someone is being disrespectful or unfair to others
  • use language, spelling and grammar that is appropriate to an educational setting; do not use slang or Internet shorthand, and remember to proofread work prior to posting it for the class to read.

Bottom line …

Unless you teach at “Top Gun” or the Naval Special Group Warfare Center where the students are encouraged to criticize, harass and otherwise slam each other during training, it is best to avoid this atmosphere.

In some instances, it might be prudent for instructors to refrain from encouraging student-student criticism, especially when conducted in an un-moderated digital realm and where there is a risk of physical confrontation.

Sometimes school resentments linger and intrude into future times, producing adverse consequences like preventing someone from getting that dream job in a small community. Most of us can remember insulting individuals from our early years well into our later years. Which should serve as a notice that, for some people, adverse criticism and those that criticize them may not be a transient event without future consequence.

For students asked to criticize their fellow students or engage in digital behavior, perhaps it is far wiser to refrain from acting and to discuss the matter with their instructor. In cases when instructors appear to be intolerant and demanding – or threaten the student with an adverse grade – it might be wise to escalate the matter to the school administrator or student ombudsman.

For instructors, there is the very real possibility that your conflict with a student may be captured on a digital device and the results, possibly out of context, shared with the local or national media. Embarrassing, expensive and something that may survive decades on the Internet.

For administrators, there is the legal obligation to provide a safe learning environment. Since we do not know how this might play out in the digital realm, one must look towards the actions of their institution, their instructors and their students to develop reasonable safeguards which minimize the possibility of violence both inside and outside the classroom.

-- steve

Reference Links …

Martin Community College Online Teaching Resource Center -- Online safety & civility

A Call for Internet Civility

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