Peace, Love, and Understanding: Why Digital Discussions are Critical to Personal Development

Contributed By

Robert Schuetz

Technology Coordinator for Palatine High School, IL

Peace, Love, and Understanding: Why Digital Discussions are Critical to Personal Development

Posted in Evolving Ed | December 13, 2016

Nearly three decades have passed, I fondly remember hanging out as an undergrad in Kryzsko Commons at Winona State University. The arcade games and snack bar gobbled up quarters intended for the laundromat. MTV, back when VJs actually played music videos, was always on the large projection TV. Elvis Costello and the Attractions could be heard in the background, “what’s so funny bout peace, love, and understanding? Oohhh!”

Tables and chairs provided study space in between games of “Toobin’” and pool. What I remember most was this was where “the regulars” gathered to chat about sports, politics, and the weather. We made plans for the weekend, bragged about hometown happenings, and occasionally discussed academia.

The eighties were tumultuous times. It was good to have a place to share our thoughts and aspirations. Kryzsko Commons is centrally located at WSU, and it was a center of my college-age informal learning, my third place.

Third Places are casual spaces of interaction that exist between the private location of home and the more formal, structured areas of school or work. Coffee shops, libraries, and community centers are common areas where folks congregate, interact, and learn from one another. Third places are where the culture of the community is developed and sustained.

Why Digital Discussions Should Be Our Students' Third Places

A lot has changed since the eighties; hanging out isn’t what it used to be. Urban sprawl, commercialization, and social fragmentation threaten community-based third places. According to Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Place, the decline of available third places contributes to feeling stressed out and isolated. He says, "In the absence of an informal public life, Americans are denied those means of relieving stress that serves other cultures so effectively."

Oldenburg’s research focused on face-to-face interactions. Today, connecting and interacting with others virtually via the web has become a fundamental aspect of modern socialization.

According to the Pew Research Center, three-fourths of American adults have least one social media account that they visit daily. Virtual third places, like chats and discussion forums, are engaging locations where people can interact on the web.

Like the university commons area, digital third places are essential for informal learning and help shape us as individuals and as members of communities. Online discussions are frequently-used, asynchronous, interactive spaces of engagement that can deepen our understanding of content and stretch our perspective.

Oldenburg says third places are necessary for promoting democracy, building relationships, establishing an intellectual forum, and nurturing personal development.

It stands to reason that our students are also living during tumultuous times. Students are living in poverty, cultural and economic divisions are wider than ever before, and the Internet has become our primary source of information, though according to a recent study by Stanford University over 80% of students can't decipher what information is legitimate from what's fake.

While it may be difficult, it's up to us to help guide them through these tumultuous times. One great way to do that is through digital discussion. Beyond empowering student voice, digital discussions are third places where students can safely share perspective, practice civil discourse, and reflect on the issues of their daily lives. It’s a place for storytelling where students willingly read and write. Discussions help answer the questions, such as “who am I, and how do I fit in?”

ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, recently updated learning standards for students. The prevailing theme of these standards is empowered student voice paired with student-driven learning supported by technology. The ISTE targets challenge students to become agents of their own learning.

Discussions can clearly be referenced to at least five of the seven new ISTE standards for students: empowered learner (1), digital citizen (2), knowledge constructor (3), creative communicator (6), and global collaborator (7).

It's important, however, to be aware that tumultuous times will undoubtedly ignite difficult conversations. Are there benefits to having these discussions online? 100% yes!

Edutopia, in Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation, shared these benefits of online discussions.

  • Build class community and promote discussion of class concepts
  • Asynchronous response time allows students to use research and reflection to produce emotionally-balanced, substantive comments
  • Facilitates learning by enabling students to view and respond to each other’s insight
  • Development of thinking, reading, and writing skills
  • Allow experts to participate in the discussion by posting information and responding to questions

In addition to points published by Edutopia, teachers at my school shared these benefits of engaging online discussions.

  • Reluctant classroom contributors can safely share their thoughts in a fully moderated digital forum
  • THINK strategies can be practiced when posting forum comments—is the comment true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind?
  • Intrinsic motivation is increased as students write for authentic audiences

Sonia, a tenth grader at my school, enthusiastically embraces online discussions, “I like Schoology discussions best of all because I can give my opinion. I can comment on what other kids are saying. It feels good when someone “likes” my comment. I believe we understand each other better with this type of conversation.”

It’s evident that students are more engaged in school when they are able to share their learning with their peers. Modern learners, like Sonia, have grown up in a world of constant interaction and socializing. Why would schools offer anything different?

A Few Tips for Using Online Discussions to Facilitate Difficult Conversations

What can instructors do to facilitate effective online discussions, particularly when the topics become challenging or controversial?

  • Establish clear expectations for all classroom communication, especially as dialogue becomes more transparent. Model and expect empathy and respect.
  • Provide a structure for contributing to a discussion. Clarify student responses and visibly interact with students in the thread.
  • Give appreciation to students willing to engage. Spotlight exemplary online etiquette.
  • Provide opportunities for all students to participate. Create opportunities for peer feedback and expert involvement.

Educational thought-change leader, Kathy Schrock, says, “I have always believed, when responding to others in a public forum, my comments should be positive or neutral—never negative.” Her recent post contains several helpful strategies for teaching civil discourse in the classroom. Including, looking at things from multiple points of view, practicing respectful debate, and listening for understanding.

The fact is, social media has become a primary source of news and information for a majority of American adults. We’ve seen the anxiety and pain that is caused when people feel isolated and misled. It is common to see constructive communication breakdown during stressful moments.

Kryzsko Commons was a favorite third place where I learned about becoming a contributing member of a community. Today, Twitter and Facebook are virtual third places where I interact with, and contribute to, learning communities. But what about our students? Where can they connect and learn? Where are their third places?

Online discussions provide students opportunities to become better communicators, and more importantly empathetic, contributing community members. What could be a better lesson during tumultuous times? 

With nearly thirty years of separation, Sonia echoes Elvis Costello, “we understand each other better through our discussions.”

“As I walk through
This wicked world
​Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity.
I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside,
There's one thing I wanna know:
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding? Ohhhh
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?”

(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding

Elvis Costello, 1979

About the Author


I am a veteran educator of 25 years, all at Palatine High School in Palatine Illinois. I am a National Board Certified Teacher, and I’ve spent the last 14 years serving as technology coordinator at my school. We are 1:1 with iPads, and we are building our connected learning with Schoology and Google Apps for Education. I am a proponent of self­­-determined, web-­connected learning for all educational stakeholders.

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