Spicing up Online Class Discussions

I would bet that most, if not all of us, have had the joy of dealing with classes that require some level of mandatory Canvas discussions. Always met with a certain level of apathy and distaste, they generally follow a certain script:

Original Post:

“You know I found the ideas presented in the (article, lecture, video, etc…) very interesting for the following reasons (fill in the blank with some unoriginal thought). It was interesting to consider the (article, lecture, video, etc…) from this perspective, as I had never really thought about this idea like this before.”


“Hi (fill in the blank name)!

I really liked your insights about the (blank). I had also never thought about (blank) from this perspective before. I completely agree with (paraphrases what the first person said in a more roundabout way). I would also like to add that (fill in the blank with slightly new, but still unoriginal idea). Thanks for your input.”

Due to the nature of the script, Canvas discussions generally turn into a boring thing that you scroll through at 11 PM after you remember that you have three responses due before midnight. They are filled with things too boring or mundane to actually be covered in class, and, despite professors’ near constant combination of threats and cajoling, rarely result in an engaging discussion. Part of this stems from the college apathy that builds when you are faced with a screen rather than the awkward silence of an unproductive discussion, and from the desire to finish required posts as quickly as possible in order to move on to other work. However, I would argue the greatest failure stems from our discomfort, and our desire to avoid conflict and disagreement.

We live in a time in which polarized politics dominate the way we think about the world. People either agree with you or they are public enemy number one and there is little room for any gray space. In the kind of environment where fighting on Twitter (really, Twitter?) is viewed as an acceptable way to settle disputes, disagreements often rapidly turn into uncivil screaming matches. Since civil disagreement is not something we are really exposed to, we wind up trying to avoid disagreement in academic settings in order to maintain a more professional environment.

Beyond the difficulty we face in simply disagreeing, the impersonal nature of Canvas discussions can often make it difficult to be really sure what the other person is actually trying to discuss. We’ve all been in the position where we have posted or said something that sounded a lot different than how we intended. As a result, when we are faced with a discussion post that we fundamentally disagree with, we often roll our eyes and move on with our lives rather than addressing the source of conflict. However, this method of dealing with disagreement goes against the very purpose of higher education. College is all about having your ideas changed and solidifying a world view that may be different from the one you were raised with. How can we do this when we have conditioned ourselves to avoid confrontation?

I faced the dilemma of disagreement on a Canvas discussion last week when a girl from one of my classes, let’s call her Susan, wrote a very long post about the nature of motherhood and its overarching and all-consuming role in a woman’s life. I strongly disagreed with much of what she had to say, but I waited to write a response to her comment. After a few hours, when it became clear that no one else was willing to respond, I finally broke down and, with the help of my friend and roommate, constructed a response. My friend and I worked very hard to construct a comment that was polite, but also included all the ways I disagreed with her comment and explanations for why. It took a lot longer than it would have taken to construct a 280-character message simply saying that she was wrong. My post-turned-essay managed to stimulate a few more comments regarding my classmate’s opinions on women and motherhood. Susan even responded to my comment with a very polite comment that clarified some of her opinions and better explained what she wanted to convey.

Even though I had remained polite in my response, I worried I had crossed the line in the sand. I worried that, like Pandora, my comment had unleashed monsters into our Canvas discussion that would plague our class for the rest of the semester. Instead, we managed to have a civil discussion and ended with a better understanding of different opinions. I think the idea of positive disagreements is something we need to learn to embrace in discussions both on and offline. After all, it is only through actual conversation that we will be able to make strides towards making the world a better place.


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