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1.4 Compassion and care online

Discussion is a valuable part of learning online, but without support and guidance this interaction can lead to ‘hate speech and toxic communication’ (Munn, 2020). One reason for this is that online communication does not include the facial expressions and other bodily cues that help to establish whether comments are ironic or light-hearted. An explicit statement about online communication at the beginning of a course can help to avert problems.

The following statement is used on an Open University module that uses a conversational approach to learning. It begins with an explanation of the value of these discussions to learners.

‘You’re encouraged to contribute to these discussions. You’ll find that others’ comments are a rich resource, which will enhance your understanding of the course materials […]’

Compassion and care

Some of the topics covered in this course, for example racism and gender identity, can be difficult to discuss and it’s likely that you and your fellow learners will disagree with each other from time to time. We’re not expecting you to steer clear of discussing sensitive and contentious issues. As the course discussions are not heavily moderated, we’re relying on the course community to take care of each other.

‘Online discussions can easily become heated, especially as there are no visual cues giving an indication of the spirit in which a particular comment is being made. So please be sensitive to other learners’ perspectives and views, even if they differ from your own. If you want to voice an alternative perspective or opinion, take care to focus on the ideas expressed and not the person expressing them. Before you contribute to a discussion, ask yourself: ‘Am I being kind to others in what I’ve said?’ It’s vital that everyone feels welcome in the comments sections. They need to be safe, compassionate and supportive places where, if you wish to, you can share your experiences, raise questions and explore your fellow learners’ different perspectives.

Privacy and confidentiality

‘Throughout the course, you’ll be encouraged to draw on and share your own experiences. This could be useful for other learners, helping to give real-world relevance when exploring specific topics and allowing comparisons to be made across sectors, settings, nations and cultures.

‘Please take care to anonymise any discussion of specific people such as your students, friends or family. Don’t share any information that could allow the people you’re discussing to be identified. Good practice is always to assume the worst – that the post you’ve shared will make its way to the world outside this course. In our networked age, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook allow information to be shared far and wide in an instant. This can happen by accident, even by people with the best of intentions.

‘If you are concerned about a particular post, you have several options. A gentle reply to the post could be sufficient.’

Activity 3 Compassion and care

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Read the statement above and consider whether it would be appropriate for the learners in your setting. Make notes on:

  • How expectations about online discussion are currently set at your institution.
  • How the statement above might end at your institution. What would learners be recommended to do if a gentle reply was not sufficient?
  • Any changes you would recommend after reading the statement above.
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The statement comes from a postgraduate microcredential on embedding social, race and gender-related equity. It is therefore written for experienced learners who are working alongside each other without having met in person. Their course involves discussing issues that are highly emotive. When writing such statements, it is helpful to take into account any problems that have arisen in the past and also to be aware of any challenges that particular courses may raise.