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As learning moves online, trigger warnings must too

Beware what a click could trigger. Laptop via

When I was a first-year student at university, our class of 300 students watched Jodie Foster get gang raped in the film The Accused. Our professor, an experienced teacher, told us before the movie that: “anyone not comfortable with scenes of violence against women could leave and complete an alternate assignment”. Nobody left.

Now, 15 years later I am a senior lecturer in a university and we are still having debates about these kind of trigger warnings that lecturers give their students before reading or watching graphic material. Since then, the pace of higher education has not changed but the way that we impart information has; from online learning to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and “gamification” – where students play a game as they learn, we are living in a world where as Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan put it “the medium is the message”.

The nature of university study is changing, with one in four students in the US taking at least one online class during 2012, and numbers climbing. Traditional undergraduate university students in lecture halls are now just one part of a market that includes working adults and others drawn in by the flexibility of online learning. However, with this flexibility comes ambiguity, and the lack of face-to-face communication can increase misconceptions about the purpose of covering graphic or explicit material.

The grassroots movement of students asking for trigger warnings started as a simple request from a literature major at the University of California, Santa Barbara: give students a heads-up before covering graphic material that could cause flashbacks of trauma. Like wildfire, the trigger warning issue has caught public attention around the world setting off debates between students, staff, and faculty from the internet to the ivory tower. For students and faculty that interact completely online, when the ivory tower is the internet, the trigger warning can look completely different.

Open for discussion

I often give a guest lecture in education classes on videogames and learning. This includes an online section where students are asked to review games like Super Columbine Massacre RPG, Decisions that Matter, Choice Texas and Darfur is Dying among others. This leads to an online discussion about what players learn when they play these games.

Prior to students participating in this activity I post an announcement that gets emailed to all of them simply stating that: “We are exploring different types of games freely available on the internet. Some of these games are on topics that you may find hard to deal with. Please post a response in the ‘Ask the Instructor’ if you would like to talk about the assignment.”

By posting an announcement on the system there is a degree of certainty that all the students will at least receive the message; whether they read it or not cannot be controlled. The closed discussion forum where students can ask the instructor a question or set up a video chat gives the students the opportunity to voice concerns. In the five years I have been giving this lecture, both in the US and the UK, not one student out of thousands has posted in the “Ask the Instructor” section. In fact, this assignment which comes with the email announcement tends to have more participation then the assignments that do not come with email trigger warnings.

Tonia Dousay, an educational technology professor at the University of Wyoming, teaches classes on message design where she uses in-line trigger messages where the video is embedded, such as this one about how to fly a jet which uses an analogy of a woman playing golf.

A classic clip from the War Department.

Dousay says:

When I show How to Fly the P-47, the warning is usually along the lines of: ‘Please consider the context of this video when it was produced. Who was the intended audience? What’s their ethnicity? What’s their age? What’s their socioeconomic status?’ Thus, the warning is embedded in the question. In my weekly video overview for the week this video appears, I re-emphasize with my voice that students should consider the context when viewing the video and challenge students to explain how they might reach the same audience today without using the same tactic.

Gamified modules and MOOCs, where students can earn badges for completing tasks, in online learning offer another challenge for faculty. In such modules the way forward is to complete the task and a new task is then released. In one gamified module in Introduction to Child Psychology students are asked to watch a programme called Secret of the Wild Child about a 13-year-old child who had been chained to a potty for much of her life. The programme has its own trigger warning embedded on the webpage.

But this can cause problems. If a student has concerns about the content of this programme in a class that may have thousands of participants and only one instructor, the wait time may be considerable and the student will be stuck at that point until the concern can be addressed.

Caution on entering virtual worlds

Augmented and virtual reality experiences are growing within higher education as well. Researchers at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work have built a hyper-realistic world to recreate situations that trigger cravings for drugs like heroin. With technology advancing to the point of immersive sensory experiences (this experience has a scent machine and treadmill) trigger warnings become even more applicable for the virtual world.

Some in the media have compared trigger warnings to the equivalent of content warnings on CDs and movies – but we this kind of media is different to set in class. Students are expected to interact with the content and synthesise it into their own work. Students no longer receive their education directly from a person standing in the front of a lectern and the learning experience may now take place virtually or across augmented realities.

This means we need to question the way in which we prepare our students to tackle the material that is presented. Faculty should take proactive steps to address potentially triggering material that they set students to watch or read online, prior to a meltdown occurring.

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