4 Scenarios and Tips for Managing Conflict in Online Learning

By Sharon Buchbinder, RN, PhD
Author of Introduction to Health Care Management, 3rd Edition

Teaching online is convenient and access is fast. However, that same convenience and speed of access can also create unwanted conflicts that might not occur in a face to face classroom. This month, I am going to follow up on my November post about Diversity and Online Learning with some conflict scenarios that revolve around diversity. These are not for students, however, they are for faculty who teach online. I have categorized the conflicts by Student/Student, Student/Faculty, and the dreaded Group Project. Sample solutions are at the end.

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 1: Student/Student

Professor Janice Jones, age 55, is teaching an undergraduate sociology course. In the class is Jorge Rodriguez, a 20-year-old student leader in the Q Group (for GLBT Students and allies) and the Organization for Latin American Students. He is the first in his generation to attend college.

Another member of the class is a 38 year-old White male, George Masters, who is attending on Veterans’ Benefits. He was deployed to the Middle East three times. He is married with six children and has posted he believes the woman’s place is “in the home.” He is also the first in his family to attend college.

Threads in a discussion board about gender roles have erupted into an argument between these two students over the President’s directive banning of transgender military recruits. The younger openly gay student is thrilled at the news, the older military veteran is not. Other students in the class are uncomfortable and are sending Professor Jones emails.

What should Professor Jones do? Take a few moments to jot down your thoughts. Coaching tips will be discussed at the end.

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 2: Student/Faculty

It is 11 pm on a Sunday night and 65 year-old Professor Ball is just about to go to bed when he receives a text message on his cell phone from a female student who is questioning a grade.  Professor Ball is quite taken aback and very annoyed. “Yet another Millennial instant gratification seeker!” he says to his wife.

What should Professor Ball do? Take a few moments to jot down your thoughts. Coaching tips will be discussed at the end.

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 3: Student/Faculty

Professor Smith, age 42, is grading a mountain of undergraduate essays. She opens the last one and wants to cry. While English is the student’s first language, you would not know it from her submission. The basic mechanics of writing appear to have eluded this student and she uses terms the professor has to look up in the Urban Dictionary. When Prof. Smith returns the paper to the student with extensive feedback and a failing grade, the enraged student calls Prof. Smith office number and cell phone repeatedly leaving messages and shouting, “I’ve NEVER had anyone say I couldn’t write before. You need to give me a better grade. This is on you!”

What should Prof. Smith do? Take a few moments to jot down your thoughts. Coaching tips will be discussed at the end.

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 4: Group Project

While having dinner with friends, Professor Weiner, age 62, receives a stream of text messages from a student. The student had elective major surgery during the 8 week session and took a 10-day vacation, since she had taken time off from work for the procedure. The student is with her family in a resort in rural Virginia and has just discovered there is no WIFI in the resort nor is there a business center. The student is texting Prof. Weiner to ask her to assist her with her group project (worth 30% of the course grade) which is due in three (3) days. The student does not have her team mates’ phone numbers in her phone. Would Prof. Weiner please let her team mates know she will be late with her part of the project?

What should Prof. Weiner do? Take a few moments to jot down your thoughts. Coaching tips will be discussed at the end.

Coaching Tips

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 1: Student/Student Coaching Tips

This is a volatile situation that must be stopped as soon as possible. Professor Jones has the obligation to ensure a safe learning environment for the students. The following are some steps that can be taken.

Take screen shots of the flame war in the discussion board to document the incident and inform her supervisor of the situation.

Delete the threads where the students become inappropriate.

Post an announcement reminding all students of the Student Policy Manual and that all students are expected to be civil and respectful of one another in their interactions.

Email each student that they must set up a phone appointment with her. Her supervisor may want to be on the calls as a witness.

Prior to the phone appointments, the professor may also wish to contact the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs for guidance.

What other coaching tips can you give to Professor Jones?

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 2: Student/Faculty Coaching Tips

Professor Ball should not text the student back—especially while annoyed!

Professor Ball should not assume the student is a Millennial. They are not the only generation that likes to text.

Professor Ball should email the student the next day (when calm) and point out that he provided his cell phone number to students for emergencies, such as illness. He should tell the student he will review the grade and get back to her by email within 48 hours.

What other coaching tips can you give to Professor Ball?

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 3: Student/Faculty Coaching Tips

Professor Smith has a lot of options in this scenario. Assuming this is not the student’s first submission, Prof. Smith might want to go back to the student’s earlier work, such as her introduction in discussion board postings, and see if there were similar issues.

If her previous work was as poorly written as the essay, then Professor Smith might want to reflect on how she used that information. Did she provide robust feedback to the student that was not incorporated in the student’s next submission? Did Prof. Smith refer her to tutoring services?

If she has provided regular robust feedback and the student has not incorporated it into her work, then she has an opportunity to coach the student when the student is calmer.

After collecting her data and reviewing the syllabus, Professor Smith can send the student an email indicating she would like a phone appointment to discuss her submission.

Assuming the student is able to remain calm, Professor Smith can review the student’s previous submissions and point to where she gave feedback and guidance. She can also point to the syllabus which says students should incorporate faculty feedback into subsequent assignments, or they risk losing points on their work.

If the student is still unhappy with her grade, Professor Smith can provide her with the information to appeal her grade—AFTER the course is over and grades are posted.

What other coaching tips can you give to Professor Ball?

Diversity and Conflict Scenario 4: Group Project Coaching Tips

Prof. Weiner can call the student back after dinner and advise the student that being 3 days late with her part of a major project is not fair to her team mates. In fact, it could lead to her team mates giving her poor evaluations leading to a poor grade in the course.

Prof. Weiner can suggest to the student that she may need to leave the resort and find a coffee shop with WIFI to complete her part of the project.

In the meantime, Prof. Weiner can email the team mates and provide the exact information the student gave her in the text to them, along with the student’s mobile phone number.

What other coaching tips can you give to Professor Weiner?

The advantages of teaching online far outweigh the disadvantages. As faculty, we must be vigilant in our online classrooms to prevent sparks of conflict from erupting into blazes. I hope the above scenarios have given you some food for thought and some strategies for “fire” prevention.


Sharon Buchbinder is Professor and Program Coordinator for the MS in Healthcare Management at Stevenson University in the Graduate and Professional School and former chair of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration (AUPHA). She is also the author of three books from Jones & Bartlett: Introduction to Health Care Management, Cases in Health Care Management, and Career Opportunities in Health Care Management.

Here are some references if you are interested in this topic:

Bertrand, M. & Mullainathan, S. (2003, July). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field Experiment on labor market discrimination. NBER Working Paper No. 9873. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/papers/w9873

Buchbinder, S. (2016). Diversity in online learning. Retrieved from http://blogs.jblearning.com/health/2016/11/09/diversity-and-online-learning/

Diamond, J. (2017, August 15). Trump signs directive banning transgender military recruits. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/25/politics/trump-transgender-military/index.html

Dreachslin, J. (2008). Diversity & disparities: Parallel challenges for 21st century healthcare. Institute for Diversity in Health Management Conference, June 19-20, 2008, Westin Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX. (Slides 7, 31-32). Retrieved from http://cchc-conference.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/J_Dreachslin_CCHCC_Org_Cultural_Competence_Ok_to_Post_9-29-11.317160606.pdf

Hobby, F., and Dreachslin, J.L. (2007). Diversity and disparities: Parallel challenges for 21st century health  care. Bridges 13 (3): 5-6.

Kelly, D. (2016, Jan. 28). Challenger disaster a generational touchstone. Retrieved from http://www.readingeagle.com/news/article/challenger-disaster-a-generational-touchstone

Rodriguez, M. (2015, May 21). Five strategies for managing generational differences, p. 4. PDF retrieved from http://www.bsci21.org/five-strategies-for-managing-generational-differences/

Zumbran, J. (2014, Nov. 27). How to tell If a ‘fact’ about Millennials isn’t actually a fact. The Wall Street Journal, para 6. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2014/11/27/how-to-tell-if-a-fact-about-millennials-isnt-actually-a-fact/

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.