Can an Online Tool Depolarize Campus Discussions?

Digital Learning

Can an Online Tool Depolarize Campus Discussions?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Aug 23, 2018

Can an Online Tool Depolarize Campus Discussions?
Jonathan Haidt, founder of Heterodox Academy, giving a TED talk.

This article is part of the guide: 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

As a new school year kicks off in a time of mounting political scandals and heightened polarization, some campuses have added a new component to their freshman seminar programs—an online training in how to talk politics (productively).

The training was first created by Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit group working to foster “viewpoint diversity” on campuses, with the goal of making college classrooms more welcoming to student populations who hold a variety of political beliefs.

“I’m hearing from so many students and professors that even in seminar classes, they can’t get people to talk,” said Heterodox Academy’s founder, Jonathan Haidt, on an episode of the group’s podcast. “There’s a lot of fear on campus—on all sides and among professors—and we want to fix that.”

Haidt, a New York University business professor trained as a social psychologist, worked with other psychologists to develop the training, which it then spun off into a separate project called OpenMind. The online exercise gives a quick primer on the inner workings of the mind, showing how the human brain is wired for things like confirmation bias, the tendency to fit new information into previously-held belief systems. It explains how two well-informed and well-intentioned people can interpret the same facts in wildly different ways, depending on their perspectives.

Heterodox Academy isn’t without its own critics of how it is approaching the issue of free speech on college campuses. When the group held a conference in New York this summer to discuss the issue of viewpoint diversity on campus, the mix of speakers from higher education—representing liberal beliefs and conservative ones—had trouble aligning on solutions, or even how to frame the issue. As one article about the event in National Review put it, “The panelists all saw a problem regarding the state of speech and expression at American universities, but they couldn’t agree about what the problem was.”

Heterodox Academy has pivoted since the group started in 2015, changing its strategy to adapt to the unexpected election of President Trump and the social and political upheavals that followed.

One frustration the group faced was that some on the far right started using materials and quotes from Heterodox Academy as evidence to discredit and try to tear down higher education. But the group is made up entirely of professors and graduate students, and the last thing they want to do is contribute to the demise of their own institutions.

So these days Heterodox Academy spends less time calling out the problem of political bias on campus and more time offering resources for colleges and professors to address the issue, such as the OpenMind training.

The training takes only about 90 minutes to complete. It walks students through a series of questions about their political beliefs and attitudes toward people with opposing views. “How do you feel about individuals who identify as progressive (people on the left)?” it asks, prompting users to move a slider bar from 0 (very unfavorable) to 100 (very favorable).” It then asks the same question about how the person feels about people who identify as conservative.

“It kind of reminds people that we don’t all know everything and there’s a lot to be learned from diverse perspectives,” says Caroline Mehl, director of the OpenMind project, in an episode of Heterodox Academy's podcast. “It also prepares people to enter into disagreements and conversations that have conflicts in them with a different perspective, where it no longer has to be about proving that you’re right or winning the argument. It’s an opportunity to learn from the other perspective and learn and find growth from it.”

The tool was released just last year. This fall, OpenMind leaders say, three campuses are piloting the training: Wilkes University, in Pennsylvania, plans to make it part of first-year seminars, Auburn University will deliver it to a group of 500 students as part of a Critical Conversations speakers series, and NYU’s business school will pilot it with some of its entering students.

Mehl hopes more colleges will incorporate the training into first-year seminars, or even make it part of freshman orientation. “Our goal is to really equip an entire community with this shared language and practices that they can all refer back to over the course of the year and over the course of their college experience,” said Mehl, in the podcast interview.

Individual faculty members are also asking students to go through the online training at the start of their courses. Mehl said in an interview with EdSurge this week that more than 200 college courses assign the training.

The Heterodox Academy's leaders say the issue of speech on campus has far-reaching implications.

For instance, if a campus climate is inhospitable to socially conservative students and those with deeply religious views, “then we’re going to be suppressing participation by lower income people and among Latinos and Blacks and other groups, because they just tend to be more religious and more conservative,” says Musa al-Gharbi, editor in chief and communications director for Heterodox Academy.

A ‘Two-Front War’

From the beginning, Heterodox Academy has struggled to build trust on both sides of the political divide. Some professors, especially those who identify as liberal, see the group as right-leaning and therefore don’t want to be associated with it. Even though OpenMind started within Heterodox Academy, they separated the projects, which means professors can use the training without being affiliated with the larger organization.

“Some people are afraid to join because they think that others will think they’re conservative—and that would be a terrible thing for people to think about anyone in some departments,” said Haidt, on his group’s podcast. “We did have some pieces on our blog that were attacking universities or saying we think there is a problem… We’ve also been pretty balanced left and right, but people on the right tend to want to write more on the blog.”

The reality is that the group, which now counts about 2,000 members, has drawn more liberals than conservatives. About 30 percent of members are liberal, 50 percent are either moderate or centrist, and 20 percent are conservative, says Musa al-Gharbi, editor in chief and communications director for Heterodox Academy, and a sociology researcher at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, some people on the right want to see the group do more to take colleges to task for not including enough conservatives. The group’s goal, though, is not to reach some specific proportion of liberal and conservative professors on campus, says al-Gharbi.

“The reality is that most professors are on the left,” says al-Gharbi. “And so if there’s going to be meaningful change, at least in the foreseeable future, it’s going to have to come from people who probably have orientations that are left of center.” Al-Gharbi himself identifies as left-leaning, but he has done research to show, for instance, how certain bodies of research by liberal faculty members suffer from liberal bias in their research design. "I’m a strong opponent of Donald Trump," he says, "but I think it’s important, particularly for democrats, to have a clear and accurate understanding of what happened in 2016," rather than produce research that affirms what the authors wish to be true.

That's a difficult needle to thread. Actually, Haidt used a different, more precarious metaphor during the group’s conference this summer, according to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “We’re on a ship, the ship is kind of going down, and rather than fighting with each other, we actually can work together and patch it up,” Haidt said. "It’s a pretty good ship, other than it’s sinking."

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