Difficult Discussions in Virtual Courses: Challenges and Opportunities

Because we’re all affected by world events, difficult classroom conversations can come up at any time, whether the topic of the course is directly focused on hot-button issues or not. But in a semester shaped by an ongoing pandemic, racist violence, and an enormously consequential election, the likelihood of tough discussions—in fact, the need to have them—is higher than ever. 

It’s essential to be thoughtful about how we approach such conversations, particularly in a virtual environment where there are not only barriers to engagement, but also advantages and tools that can make the attempt easier and more productive.

As California State University Channel Islands points out in their helpful resource Difficult Conversations, Virtually Speaking, “What works with minimal reflection in a face-to-face workplace — such as choosing a common place to gather, figuring out where to sit (if the group sits at all), what to do to ‘warm up,’ how to take breaks, and how to close the meeting — all change once the group ‘goes digital.’ And those changes only compound the existing challenges we face in conducting difficult conversations.”

The resource points to a number of issues that can make it hard to have a productive discussion in a digital space, including difficulties reading one another’s emotions, barriers to close listening, and temptations to turn one’s attention elsewhere and multitask. But the virtual classroom also brings with it helpful tools, including anonymous polling to read the temperature of the room and solicit low-stakes participation.

We at CNDLS have gathered a number of resources on this topic, and you can find them on our Difficult Discussions page. We hope these resources will help you to make the most out of these charged interactions that can, if we handle them right, lead to deeper engagement and learning.