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Can Digital Resources Ease Political Polarization in Class?

Working with the nonprofit Constructive Dialogue Institute, universities are offering online resources to help faculty approach sensitive political topics in class without increasing conflict.

Paper cutouts of human heads, one in black paper and one in white, facing eachother with a red paper cutout of an explosion in the middle to signify conflict.
According to a new study released by the Pew Research Center, animosity between U.S. voters in both major political parties has increased continually since 2016, as polarization between the American right and left continue fueling ideological tensions over topics such as racial justice, LGBTQ rights, immigration and class disparity. With what seems like no end in sight to today’s culture wars, some universities are turning to new online lessons and resources offered by the nonprofit Constructive Dialogue Institute to improve classroom climate and encourage respectful debate on campus.

CDI’s Senior Director of Research Mylien Duong said the recent uptick in hyper-partisan tensions in the U.S. has added to an increased sense of atomization among students, on top of feelings of isolation that have come with the advent of online learning during COVID-19. While sociopolitical tensions remain high in communities across the U.S., a recent report from CDI says the nonprofit’s online learning program, dubbed Perspectives, helped mitigate political polarization among 755 students surveyed at universities across the country over the summer.

According to the report, students who completed the Perspectives program showed an increased willingness to reach across the aisle to talk to and attempt to understand each other’s perspectives. Among the findings, it said 73 percent of students showed a decrease in polarization, while 51 percent of students were better able to recognize the limits of their knowledge. What’s more, 59 percent of students showed less negative attacking behaviors during conflict, and 55 percent of students showed a decrease in negative evading behaviors during conflict.

“We’ve seen polarization enter into the classroom. We see education [institutions] as a place where students are exposed to divergent viewpoints that are helping them to be engaged and informed citizens … But teachers and faculty are worried about introducing anything that might be offensive into the classroom,” Duong said of the need for programs such as CDI’s.

“Students are [also] afraid to voice their views, so we are hoping to develop a program that helps people reflect on their own worldviews and reasoning about what’s right and wrong,” she added. “We teach strategies for how they can try to understand others’ opinions, express their own opinions and conflict-resolution strategies to help people think of creative solutions to hard problems.”

Duong said the institute, founded in 2017, is looking to introduce its free online resource to higher-ed institutions across the U.S, having worked with William and Mary University in Virginia, Vanderbilt University, Valencia College and others where faculty are looking for new strategies to encourage respectful dialogue and equip students with conflict-mediation skills. The nonprofit also released new resources for instructors, such as its 2022 Back-to-School Playbook: Five Practices to Foster Constructive Dialogue in Your Classroom, a downloadable resource designed to aid secondary and postsecondary teachers to encourage healthy debate among students discussing politics.

“Since we launched in 2017, over 50,000 learners have used the program from 900-plus institutions that include mostly colleges, but also [recently] some high schools, workplaces and other community organizations,” she noted of growing interest in and out of higher education in recent months.

“It’s a series of 30-minute lessons — eight of them — that weave together psychological concepts with interactive scenarios, and it is adaptive, so the responses that users put into the program create a personalized learning experience,” Duong said, noting how the program works. “Then, there are also peer-to-peer exercises that give students opportunities to practice communication skills … The idea is to give students a chance to put into practice the concepts they’re learning in the online program.”

Noting the hostile nature of online political discourse on social media platforms like Twitter, as well as between teachers and students in person, Duong said the adoption of new ed-tech tools in recent years will need to play a role in closing the ideological divide.

However, she said, technology has been somewhat of a “double-edged sword” when it comes to discussions about politics, with students bombarded by a plethora of ideological media outlets that create a sense of informational overload, as well as social media users’ unwillingness to show “intellectual humility” in public online debates.

“We have an information environment where people are constantly bombarded with information, and so they gravitate towards the things that make them feel comfortable. That usually means things that confirm their existing beliefs,” she said, emphasizing the corrosive role that confirmation bias has had on ideological discourse. “That is a challenge that technology will need to grapple with as we’re developing as a society.”

“We have five basic principles that define what constructive dialogue is all about. The first one is to let go of ‘winning.’ The second is to share your story and invite others to do the same. The third one is asking questions to understand, and the fourth one is acknowledging others’ emotions. The fifth one is seeking common ground when possible, and that’s what we hope students will walk away from our program with,” she said.

Despite the growing political division, Duong said there may be light at the end of the tunnel with the help of online learning programs like Perspectives, as well as other resources geared toward building compassion and conflict-mediation skills among students with differing viewpoints. She added that the program is planning to offer a series of professional development webinars this fall for educators to help set norms and facilitate dialogue in their classrooms, in addition to increasing its availability for high school students — a demographic that CDI has only recently started to increase focus on.

CDI CEO and co-founder Caroline Mehl said in a recent public statement that she believes Perspectives will have a “profound impact” on improving classroom political discourse across the country, and “preparing the next generation for democratic citizenship.”

“At a time when polarization is at an all-time high and Americans are losing faith in our democracy, these [recent survey] results are extremely encouraging,” she said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.