One of the challenges for teachers in online classrooms are moments of friction that can occur during classroom discussions. Moments of friction, or moments of tension/hot moments, are moments in the classroom where the dignity or safety of a student or teacher is under threat: a classroom participant is made felt excluded, othered, or disrespected. This for example due to a stereotyping remark or microaggression of a fellow student or teacher (see micromodule on equity responsiveness). Teachers have to acknowledge these moments and turn them into moments of learning to prevent the behavior that led to the moment of friction to be repeated.
In a digital inclusive classroom, the experiences, perspectives, and questions of students are seen as valuable contributions to classroom discussions. The focus on students’ participation in digital inclusive classrooms, makes digital inclusive classrooms have a more student-centred approach in contrast to the traditional teacher-centred approach (see https://roomtodiscover.com/student-centered-classroom/). A student-centred approach to learning results in higher student engagement because of the cooperative learning with a student-teacher partnership and the incorporation of digital tools (see micromodule on digital tools). When students have an active role in the classroom, everyone’s learning is enriched (see https://www.wm.edu/offices/diversity/inclusive-excellence/index.php). Nevertheless, being welcoming to different perspectives and thus open to unexpected situations can be challenging for teachers.
In online classrooms, just as in on-campus and hybrid classrooms, moments of friction occur. During classroom discussions (which is a staple of student-centred approach) an unconscious stereotyping remark, a microaggression, or the misuse of language can suck the air out of a room. In online classrooms, moments of tensions can be less noticeable due to the absence of small social cues online, for instance a look is not clearly visible in the small videos of your students, which makes it harder for teachers to be aware of the classroom climate (see micromodule on monitoring the classroom climate). However, the moment of unsafety occurs even if the teacher is unaware of it. Therefore, it is important for teachers to recognize and acknowledge moments of friction to ensure that every student has an engaging learning environment with psychological safety.
When teachers feel the tensions rising this can make them feel uncomfortable. A natural response to feeling uncomfortable is to avoid or talk over the topic. Avoiding moments of friction, however, strengthens the status quo. It is therefore important for teachers to acknowledge these moments, and turn them into moments of learning so the exclusionary behavior is not repeated. Thus, for digital higher education to become more inclusive, teachers need to learn to be more comfortable with discomfort and unexpected situations. Willner Brodsky et al., (2021) construed, from a study in which higher education teachers were interviewed and observed in the on-campus classroom, five steps for teachers on how to deal with moments of friction and turn them into moments of learning, which are also applicable in the online classroom as is added to the points below:
- (Re-)define hot moments as opportunities in your own perception. The tensions that occur in the classroom offer opportunities to practice reflexivity, open-mindedness, and opportunities to develop critical thinking.
- Create a safe learning environment with discomfort for every participant and not only the few. Learning and academic debate go hand in hand with discomfort. Intellectually, it is permitted to challenge all perspectives. Simultaneously, all classroom participants should be respected as full-fledged students to participate and learn comprehensively. When disrespectful remarks are ignored, students learn that such behavior is tolerated.
- See teacher discomfort as a call for reflection-in-action. Feelings of discomfort should not be negated but should be seen as signals that call for reflection. These are moments for recognizing and suspending judgments and taking action outside a teacher’s routinized patterns. In an online environment it is of extra importance to be conscious of your students’ experiences, which can be done by having regular check-ins and getting to know your students (see micromodule ‘getting to know your students’).
- Share your experiences, questions, and insecurities with peers. Exchanging experiences with colleagues is highly valuable for enhancing each other’s skills and confidence (for tips, see micromodule on contact with peers).
- Create room and space. The importance of hot moments – and the intricacies of handling them and turning them into learning – underline that making education diverse and inclusive while remaining safe and challenging requires serious investments.
These steps can help teachers prepare for classroom discussions and react to moments of friction. Classroom discussions in online classrooms have some other dynamics in interaction, making some of the steps more difficult to implement. To create a safe learning environment in online classrooms, teachers need to design their courses with the online format in mind. A format in which extra time needs to be put aside for students and teacher to get to know each other in a semi-informal way, where there needs to be regular explicit check-ins on the students’ engagement and belonging, and clear instructions on what is expected from students, what can be expected from the teacher and everyone’s accountability in creating a safe and engaging learning environment for every student.
Tisja Korthals Altes
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam