Trustees | Freedom of Expression

REPORT: Virtual learning during COVID strengthened cancel culture on college campuses

CAMPUS REFORM   |  September 14, 2021 by Ben Zeisloft

Virtual learning during COVID-19 increased cancel culture at American universities, according to a report.

Large portions of American college students — especially those who identify as Republican — report self-censorship for fear of repercussions from professors and classmates.

A recent report reveals that virtual learning environments during COVID-19 led to an acceleration of cancel culture at American universities.

report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni — which promotes academic freedom in American higher education — discovered that “the rapid shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the ongoing free speech crisis on college campuses, further suppressed viewpoint diversity, and encouraged more self-censorship among students.”

“ACTA’s report draws attention to early signs that the online learning environment can be less hospitable to free and open debate than an in-person, on-campus collegiate education,” explains a press release from the organization. “Administrators and policymakers must grapple now with how to refine policies and build norms so that faculty are free to teach and students are free to learn in the online classroom, just as they are in the traditional classroom.”

A 2019 survey from ACTA revealed that self-censorship is prevalent among college students — especially those who self-identify as conservative or Republican. The poll of 2,100 students found that 61 percent stop themselves from expressing opinions “on sensitive political topics in class because of concerns [a] professor might disagree with them” at least “occasionally.”

Likewise, 85 percent report doing so “to avoid offending other students.” 38 percent do not express their views “because of concerns related to [their] college’s speech policies.” As a result, 48 percent of students “agree” or “strongly agree” that “pressure to conform to political correctness can negatively affect the development of close interpersonal relationships” — including 78 percent of those who self-identify as strong Republicans.

“Why is the crisis getting worse? Simple: self-censorship is a perfectly reasonable reaction when students and faculty are being investigated, harassed, or punished for their speech,” the report explained, citing Georgetown University’s decision to fire adjunct professor Sandra Sellers for a video mourning the fact that black students tend to perform more poorly than others in her classes,” explains the report “As ACTA continues, data from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education show that “issues related to race are among the very hardest to discuss.”

ACTA argues that virtual classes have accelerated a negative trend toward censorship. 

For one, the impersonal nature of online learning decreases goodwill and mutual understanding that can more easily exist in traditional classroom environments — a phenomenon that ACTA compares to vicious criticism and acrimony that often exist on social media platforms.

For another, classroom recordings create “opportunity for partisans across the political spectrum to exploit the digital records in order to further an agenda that has nothing to do with learning.” Clips can be taken out of context and instantly propagated on social media.

To improve free speech in virtual learning, ACTA recommends that professors refrain from “expressing their personal viewpoints as personal viewpoints” and discussing “social and political issues in courses that are not directly related to current events.” Professors are also encouraged to present multiple viewpoints from a neutral standpoint.

Meanwhile, ACTA advises that administrators should “refrain from leaping to judgment” when lecture recordings surface. Instead, “the default assumption should always be that clips ripped from their context do not tell the whole story and could easily capture an articulation of an unpopular position that was designed to enliven a reasoned debate.”

This article originally appeared here.


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