How to Address Conflict in the Online Classroom

How to Address Conflict in the Online Classroom

Conflict is likely to occur as students interact with each other, and it can happen in a traditional or online classroom. But when conflict occurs in an online classroom, it is much harder to resolve than conflict in person because you are relying on your perception and interpretation of the other person's message. You don't have the advantage of interacting directly with that person and seeing their expressions or hearing the tone of their voice. But if the conflict is left unchecked, it can have an adverse affect on your participation in the class and disrupt the process of the learning. Let's consider what conflict means and how it can be addressed so that you are able to work productively in your class.

As you interact with other students in the online classroom, primarily through the discussion board, you will share ideas, opinions, and experiences. When you read other students' messages, you are interpreting what you believe it means and if you find that you disagree with something that has been written, you may post a follow-up reply. For most interactions, there will be an exchange of words and nothing further will occur. However, on occasion, a short-term disagreement may become a series of heated exchanges (called flaming) which may turn into a conflict. This type of conversation involves posting messages with a strong emotional tone. 

Before a disagreement escalates, ask clarifying questions about your interpretation of the message. This will help to create a dialogue between you and the other student. Keep in mind that you're more likely to generate a positive response if you write in a professional and non-threatening manner. This takes some practice because you may be responding to another student on something you feel strongly about. This often occurs during class discussions when students share their religious, cultural, or political views. If a student has made a statement and it does not agree with your beliefs or values, you may feel compelled to post a reply.

However, if you're feeling frustrated, angry, or upset, stop and acknowledge your emotions before you post a reply. Your negative reaction must be addressed before you can continue to communicate effectively. To do this, separate your feelings from the discussion and consider what the issue is really about. A productive conversation occurs when you have control of your emotions and initial reactions so that you can interact with other students while considering the value of both of your needs and interests. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, whether or not those beliefs agree with yours.

After calming down and recognizing what you truly want to respond to, one effective approach to addressing the situation is to send the student an email and determine if the two of you can talk about the incident. The benefit of this technique is that you will develop conflict resolution skills. It is possible that you can reach an agreement about the issue, even if you both simply agree to disagree. But if the response to your message isn't positive, stop posting responses and consider the next best course of action. It is also possible that the other student may not respond or decline an invitation to discuss the issue. If that happens, the next step for resolution of an ongoing problem is to talk to your instructor and request assistance.

During conflict resolution, it's important to understand what the issue is really about and what it would take to resolve it to the satisfaction of all parties involved. The most effective resolution is one that is agreed upon and accepted by both parties, and negotiated through a process of collaboration. This may be an agreement that you will try to work together better in the future. Stay focused on issues instead of feelings while working together and you will likely resolve the conflict.

Of course, to avoid any occurrence of conflict altogether, the most effective method you can use is to review your messages before you post them. Consider following the guidelines for online communication — or the Rules of Netiquette — to ensure your messages are written clearly and concisely, living little room for misinterpretation. 

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