Written by: Nicole Fournier-Sylvester
Educational programs from around the world have been looking for ways to foster social connectedness online. Although many of these programs were developed to facilitate dialogue for civic, peace-building and reconciliation purposes much of the research is relevant to any practitioner looking to initiate or maintain inclusive and empowering relationships between people in the long-term. The affordances of online environments for fostering social connectedness include: access to a multiplicity of viewpoints, different ways of sharing and communicating, space for reflection and tools to engage in public discourse and social change.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of online dialogue is that by transcending geographical boundaries and time zones, students can gain access to a diversity of people and viewpoints that they may not otherwise have access to (Amichai-Hamburger & McKenna 2006; Johnson, 2001; Johnson, Zhang, Bichard, & Seltzer, 2011; Middaugh & Kahne, 2009). Another advantage of online communications is that when participants do not see each other they are relieved of obvious markers of social status and group affiliations (Jenkins & Thorburn, 2003). According to Lea, Spears and de Groot (2001), the lack of “individuation cues” can allow for greater and deeper opportunities for connection. Students participating in online discussions often report feeling more comfortable sharing their views online because discussions center around what they are communicating as opposed to the individual who is taking the position (Jenkins & Thorburn, 2003).
Students who may typically be introverts or self-conscious in a traditional classroom or community setting may often feel more comfortable exchanging ideas in the written form (Johnson, 2001). Using online spaces to share through narratives, storytelling, images and social media functions can also help students engage on a more personal level. Integrating opportunities to collaborate, construct and share knowledge online is thus considered particularly relevant for creating spaces that are inclusive of different abilities and ways of seeing the world (McLaoughlin & Oliver, 2000).
Rarely available in the traditional classroom or community setting, asynchronous online dialogue can also be used to encourage students’ “reflexivity practices” by providing the time needed to consider multiple perspectives and develop ones own position (Ghodarti & Gruba, 2011; Wilhelm, 2009). Brookfield and Preskill (2005) confirm that this type of reflective opportunity encourages independent and critical thought:
In face-to-face discussions the phenomenon of groupthink, of everyone moving toward the consensual mean, is a constant danger. Few want to risk being the odd person out by expressing a contrary view. In cyberspace, however, the pressure to move quickly toward a shared point of view under the eyes of the teacher is felt much less strongly (p.232).
Having time to reflect and determine the pace of interactions is particularly important when bringing together groups that may be experiencing some kind of tension. While face-to-face encounters can be anxiety producing, internet-mediated contact allows participants to take their time in getting to know each other at a pace that they are comfortable with (Firer, 2008). Peace educators have described online dialogue as helping provide a “base for meaningful interaction while affording a sufficient feeling of safety for a personal disclosure,” (Yablon, 2007, p. 102) which can allow for deep and meaningful connections between a wide range of participants (Yablon & Katz, 2001).
Internet-democracy scholars point to the fact that public discourse has extended to online environments (Dahlberg, 2001). With political and civic groups often turning to social networking sites to reach youth, digital literacy skills, defined as the ability to critically navigate, evaluate and create information using digital technologies, need to be considered essential civic skills (Van Hamel, 2011). Thus, the value of integrating online dialogue as an extension of work around social inclusion is to facilitate the development of a “public” voice that can be used for civic and social justice purposes (Rheingold, 2008). Bachen, Raphael, Lynn, McKee and Philippi (2008) further contend that young citizens who are not comfortable learning and taking part in internet-mediated civic dialogue will be at a disadvantage and potentially excluded from future civic discourses. In fact, the use of the internet for expressing and sharing opinions and concerns has been shown to impact young people’s civic interest and commitments to engagement (Lee, Shah & McLeod, 2012). Castells (2012) confirms that social media has facilitated communication between disenfranchised peoples allowing them to share their frustrations, empathize, mobilize and instigate many of the recent social movements around the word.
Finally, although online dialogue spaces can be used to foster social connectedness the role of the facilitator cannot be underestimated in creating an inclusive environment. In addition, any effort to develop an inclusive and justice oriented online space must acknowledge that many young people around the world do not have access to the technology needed to join these conversations.
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Nicole Fournier-Sylvester is a humanities teacher at Champlain College Saint-Lambert and PhD candidate in the Education Department of Concordia University in Quebec, Canada. Nicole teaches courses on democracy and cultural diversity, ethics, education and social change. Her research and publications address citizenship education and facilitating discussions on controversial issues both in a classroom setting and through online discussion forums. Nicole’s dissertation explores how globally networked learning environments can be used to facilitate transformative dialogues for peace-building and global citizenship.