Online micro-learning can transform the teaching of sensitive topics

Non-linear course design means that emotive and uncomfortable content can be paused or skipped and returned to another time, says Gemma Ahearne

Gemma Ahearne's avatar
University of Liverpool
3 May 2021
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Difficult and emotional course content is easier to digest through non-linear, asynchronous delivery
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I recently explored the ways in which cultivating a micro-learning strategy is useful for students with specific learning difficulties. Yet the control this approach offers over how students access materials, particularly whether they engage with them in a chronological or non-linear way, also lends itself well to the challenge of working with materials of a sensitive and/or traumatic nature.

My teaching and research focus on emotive issues such as the sex industry, women in prison and gendered violence. I lead a third-year undergraduate module called Crime, Justice and the Sex Industry based on my 19 years in this field.

This course is provided as a complete package from the start of the semester with a visual navigation grid that provides an “at-a-glance” view of the module content. This allows students to immediately identify their personal areas of interest and shows how threads run across the content. Most importantly, in terms of teaching sensitive topics, it is crucial for giving students a clear sense of direction and warning them of the themes.

Teaching about the sex industry is highly emotive and can be (re)traumatising for victim-survivors of sexual violence and abuse. It is therefore crucial that the facilitator sets ground rules for discussion, focusing on the need for respectful language and honouring the varied lived experiences of those in the room.

For example, stigma is one of the main issues facing sex workers − from the state and NGOs often speaking over and for them as they are not perceived to be “worthy” voices, to the barriers they face in accessing healthcare, support in higher education and the constant risks of being “outed” or doxxed.

My own lived experience of the sex industry is powerful here, as the course content goes beyond abstract theories and ideas to that of a real person. Students benefit from an educator’s authenticity. Establishing boundaries, guidelines and expectations is crucial in addition to signposting students to additional support.

The course’s micro-learning lecture segments navigate students through key concepts and stage independent study tasks such as watching clips that platform sex worker voices and reading policy briefings, blogs and journal articles. This provides students with the necessary proximity to the lived experience of sex workers and often difficult subject matter, but also the distance of retreating to the academic literature, reports or policy documents.

Content that is emotive and uncomfortable, such as violence against sex workers, can be paused or skipped and returned to once other tasks have been completed. The non-linear design of the course content freely lends itself to this.

In addition, I clearly label teaching materials with trigger warnings so that students can make an informed decision about if and when they are able to access that segment. This also acknowledges that not all students need to access all the course content − and learning outcomes and assessments must be designed with this in mind. Students should never feel pressured; it’s crucial to adopt a trauma-informed pedagogical approach. This is particularly true in a pandemic where student mental health is already suffering.

Our seminar classes require us to think about the concept, the tensions of the debate and how the law is applied. Students are required to prepare by completing the navigated tasks and independent reading. They then lead the debate with me as facilitator. Each week, the class is reminded of our ground rules, and students are given the option of taking time out if they do not wish to contribute. We must not confuse silence with lack of interest or engagement. Much active learning takes place in the silences.

Maggie O’Neill has discussed the need for a slower academy, and this is also beneficial for students. Online or hybrid ways of learning change the pace at which learners engage. Some weeks may be “heavier” in hours than others, and students can slow down when they encounter traumatic material. We need to reclaim the slowing of pace and the benefits of reflective practice. In the accelerated neoliberal academy, stopping to pause and reflect is a radical act.

In her THE Campus resource, Elena Riva outlines how to develop “soft skills” such as empathy, approachability and a capacity to listen. This is crucial for reassuring students that they are being academically supported, but also that their concerns, discomfort and uncertainty when working through difficult material is being acknowledged. Our role has morphed from that of teacher and facilitator to also include mentor, leader and guide.

Trauma-informed teaching is key for supporting learners at any time, but it becomes particularly important when most learning is happening via screens. Students do recognise when we provide this, with my recent student evaluations praising the “safe spaces” of my digital classroom. Going forward into the world of blended HE, we must ensure that we utilise more care-informed pedagogical approaches that recognise and honour sensitive subject matter.

Gemma Ahearne is a criminologist with eight years’ experience of lecturing in UK higher education. She is currently a university teacher in criminology at the University of Liverpool.


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