The University Record, January 28, 2002

Diversity discussions to go digital

By Elizabeth Manasse
University Record Intern

The University community soon will have an innovative new way to discuss diversity issues. The project, Digital Dialogues, is a Web-based forum where students can participate in moderated discussions about diversity topics. It will make its debut this spring. Digital Dialogues provides a medium beyond coursework and extra-curricular activities in which students, faculty and staff can draw upon the experiences of others, while simultaneously offering their own perspectives. “Learning from the experiences of others is an integral component of higher education,” says Pat McCune, director of Dialogues on Diversity. “Through honest exchange with others we can become more aware of our own views and more informed about others’. We are challenged intellectually not by sameness but by difference.”

Using a digital forum to discuss diversity issues is new to the field of diversity education and provides a mode of interactivity that supplements other forms of learning. “Our goal is to provide another medium for honest discussion about diversity-related issues that supplements the face-to-face opportunities available in everyday campus life,” says McCune.

Each week, a new diversity-related question will be posted on the site. Members of the U-M community with a uniqname and kerberos password are able to comment on the question 24-hours a day. Because moderators monitor the discussions, Digital Dialogues is different than a traditional chat room or graffiti board. Moderators trained in facilitation methods by Intergroup Relations Conflict and Community respond to postings as instructors would in the classroom and freeze inappropriate exchanges.

According to McCune, the site also will include resources presenting a variety of balanced opinions and information relevant to the question posted that week. The accompanying resources encourage viewers to think critically about the topic and prepare informed contributions. Resources may include images, film clips, music and text. At the end of the week, discussions are closed and archived so that people may read the dialogue in the future. The dialogues will be stored in a database, searchable by keyword.

Digital Dialogues has undergone several pilot tests with student groups, staff groups and classes. Pilot groups discussed topics such as gender equality, racial and ethnic profiling, gay and lesbian parenting, and affirmative action. “The pilots have been very successful because they have provided a forum where students and staff can approach discussions that may be extremely difficult and in some cases impossible to achieve the level of engagement and honesty in communication in a face-to-face dialogue,” says Julieanne Muir, moderator and facilitator of Digital Dialogues. “All students come away from the dialogue with a broader view of diversity issues and the world around them. Whether they challenge it or not, they are never the same.”

Beginning in March, Digital Dialogues will be available for the whole University community. The Dialogues on Diversity office seeks organizations such as student clubs, student government and residence hall staff to suggest an issue for discussion. Dialogues staff will assist users with framing questions appropriately, gathering resources and organizing publicity.

Media Union staff modified the U-M CourseTools platform for Digital Dialogues so that students and staff are familiar with the technology. Diana Perpich, computer systems consultant, and Gonzalo Silverio, systems research programmer, continue to refine the structure and assist in incorporating feedback from pilot testing evaluations. Digital Dialogues can be accessed on the Web at www.dialogues.umich.edu.