Does a free online program available to colleges and universities really foster civil dialogue and reduce toxicity among students?
The nonprofit Constructive Dialogue Institute says its learning portal Perspectives–formerly known as OpenMind–does, and its recent study of more than 750 students across three very different institutions shows the impact. More than 70% displayed less polarizing behavior after using it, which was 30% better than those who did not partake initially but took it later on. The CDI, which was founded by Jonathan Heidt and Caroline Mehl of NYU’s Stern School of Business, notes implementing it alongside other strategies can be effective at building much-needed discourse.
“At a time when polarization is at an all-time high and Americans are losing faith in our democracy, these results are extremely encouraging,” said Mehl, who co-authored the study with researchers Mylien Duong and Keith Welker. “We believe Perspectives can have a profound impact on improving discourse in classrooms across the country and preparing the next generation for democratic citizenship.”
Beyond bridging differences between factions, the study also showed slightly better outcomes (10% or more) for those who took part in Perspectives than those who didn’t in areas of intellectual humility or showing understanding and empathy for another’s views, and in tamping down aggressive behaviors to make their points. CDI researchers noted that students were more inclined to deescalate rather than escalate when presented with outlooks other than their own.
“Perspectives helped students be comfortable with conflict, face conflicts rather than withdraw from them, and display less hostility during conflicts,” researchers said. “Many students highlighted improvements in having conversations across differences and a greater appreciation for views other than their own.”
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So what is Perspectives? It is a collection of eight online lessons and peer conversations that can be customized and infused in three ways: through student orientation and the lead-up to semesters, into curriculum offerings for first-year students, and via centers for teaching and learning. In addition to sessions and Q&As, both administrators and faculty can track the progress of students, and create assessments that measure knowledge and success. They cover the basics from learning about how the mind works to managing the toughest conversations.
Developed as OpenMind back in 2017, it has evolved and been embraced by around 400 institutions and 43,000 students in some form. To see how well it was working, it conducted a big study last year of two big public four-year universities (one in the East and one in the South) and a community college in the West with students from three fields: psychology, counseling and speech communications. One drawback was that its pool didn’t turn out to be politically representative of the nation: 64% liberal, 14% conservative, though the group that did participate showed it was better served by taking the course. In other words, even those who had preconceptions were able to work through them.
Perspectives is just one way to help students from different backgrounds connect civilly. Here are a few other strategies from CDI:
- The first is for administrators to make clear that engaging in civil dialogue is fundamental to campus operations and to democracy. Events on campus with some of the same principles used in Perspectives can also help bring groups together for discussion.
- On the faculty side, one of the key messages CDI says is important is to think of classrooms as learning environments that allow students to talk and express opinions in meaningful ways.
- Structure is important to prevent dialogue from spiraling out of control. “Setting norms can be an opportunity to shape an environment that is intellectually rigorous and respectful,” they said.