Negotiating the minefield of global online teaching: dealing with difference  

Farish A. Noor offers advice on managing the conflicting viewpoints of students living and studying in different countries and cultural contexts when teaching international groups online

Farish A. Noor   's avatar
Nanyang Technological University
7 Apr 2021
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Managing conflicting perspectives of international students when teaching online

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Teaching in a globalised world brings challenges, and this is particularly true for online teaching to students who may be living hundreds of miles apart, coming into virtual face-to-face contact only once a week through the medium of online classes. 

These students live in countries that may be experiencing political changes and even crises. It means they are in respective lifeworlds, and in some cases comfort zones, that may have remained unquestioned for a long time. 

In the humanities and social sciences, teaching such a diverse array of students from around the world can bring complications. I have been teaching South-east Asian political history for decades now, and even before the pandemic and shift to online teaching, problems would occasionally arise as a result of divergent readings of history and politics among students who have been taught very different histories in their respective countries.

I have had to deal with disputes between students about national borders and national identities, about the rights and wrongs of the wars that were fought between some Asian countries, about historical claims to both terrestrial and maritime domains such as the South China Sea, and so on.

Other political historians have shared with me accounts of disagreements that flared into all-out fights, as a result of students not being able to agree with one another, or their lecturers.

When such things happen during online classes, emotions seem to be amplified even further. This could be due to the simple fact that these students have not formed face-to-face connections with each other throughout the course, and remain unfamiliar with the realities of educational life in each other’s countries.

If I have learned one thing over the past few decades, it is that teaching an international student body means coming to terms with the fact that students will have very different understandings of history, and different understandings of the uses of history, too.

In many parts of postcolonial Asia, histories are nationalist in tone and tenor, and tend to foreground exclusivist agendas that are clear for all to see. I have learned not to assume that every student who wants to learn about the political history of Asia has the same “Asia” in mind, or that they will be open to the idea that history is discursively constructed, and thus open to critique and interrogation. 

The only way I have been able to anticipate and pre-empt the possibility of clashes in my own classes is to start with basic ground rules, the most important of which is to remind everyone that they are here for an education, and not a round of furious Twitter exchanges.   

  • In anticipation of debates that are bound to occur, I begin my course with a “health warning” that the course will deal with issues such as colonialism, racism, violence and colonial theft. I make it clear these topics will be dealt with in detail and discussed critically. This at least prepares the students for what they will be reading about, should they choose to take the course. 
  • Manners matter, and we should point out that universities are not boxing rings, and we are not here to score points against one another. Education is not simply about reading and taking notes, but about learning how to live in a world where difference is a fact; and if there is something that we can all take from the university learning experience, it is learning how to get your points across respectfully to those who may disagree with you. 
  • Without falling into the trap of excessive relativism where “anything goes”, we need to remind ourselves that the stances taken by others are not necessarily the result of whimsical tastes and preferences but are often shaped by lived realities that we are not familiar with.  
  • Despite the apparent homogeneity created by a grid of faces on a screen, the world is not homogenous or equal, and different students will bring with them different life experiences and educational baggage.
  • Notwithstanding the brevity of online classes and the absence of longer face-to-face interaction among students when it comes to teaching globally online, teachers can and should make full use of breakout rooms for more interaction to happen. It is only through such interaction that we can appreciate the fact that behind the faces on the screen are lifeworlds that are different from ours, thereby humanising our exchanges in class. 

As universities continue to adjust to the realities of teaching in a globalised world, with the pandemic lingering in the background, online teaching will remain an option for international students in particular.  

With respect and sensitivity, universities must stick to their purpose: learning is an inter-subjective process in which scholars need to understand the complexity of the world, past and present, and that complexity should never be diluted for the sake of preserving one’s comfort zone. 

Farish A. Noor is associate professor (with tenure) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University.

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