What do “Virtual Classroom” and “Racism” have in common?

In the training environment, the words that we use matter. If we don’t clearly define the terms that are central to our topic and which we will be tossing around throughout our presentations, we’ll leave a lot of room for individual interpretation and confusion.

I was struck by this point last Friday when I was participating in a Tweet Chat on the topic of “virtual classrooms.”

When participants were asked what came to mind when they thought of “virtual classrooms,” there were many comments about web conferencing software and multi-tasking and trying to keep people engaged. This led one participant to observe:

At that moment it dawned on me – discussions aren’t constructive if everybody is using their own, personal definition of a term. It’s possible that people were using the terms “virtual classroom” and “webinar” as synonyms. If that’s the case, some of the discussion participants were clearly annoyed.

In the absence of a standard, agreed-to definition preceding this discussion, people shouldn’t be annoyed or surprised that various participants use the term in different ways. Training will always miss the mark unless the facilitator first ensures everyone is on the same page.

The best example I’ve seen of this principle in use was during a cultural competence training that revolved around the concept of “racism.” It’s a loaded word that means many things to many people. Conversations about race can quickly become destructive and feelings can easily be hurt if a facilitator doesn’t do his or her job well.

In Casey Family Programs’ Knowing Who You Are course, a definition of “racism” is given to all participants toward the beginning of the session. Whether or not the participants personally agree with the definition, they are asked to use that particular definition of “racism” inside the classroom so that everyone can be talking about the same thing.

Unless the point of your presentation is to have a debate over the meaning of a word or concept, take a minute or two at the beginning to establish a definition that everyone can agree to. Otherwise, participants and facilitator alike may end up perpetually frustrated as people use the same word to mean many different things.

3 thoughts on “What do “Virtual Classroom” and “Racism” have in common?

  1. Hi Brian, I agree – defining terms is important and just because it means something to you it doesn’t always mean the same to others. On virtual classrooms and webinars to further confuse the matter there’s nothing to stop you using a webinar tool to create a virtual classroom and vice-versa I guess; we are often separated by a common language. Another way perhaps other than a straight definition is to use analogies to explain your concepts from the beginning – it may hold more interest for people but finding the right one is always the challenge 🙂 Maybe you could throw back to your audience to define the term prior to expressing opinions as we too often jump in with these first 🙂

    • Yes! Even though we’re using the same words, it’s so easy to be talking about two different things!

      Throwing it to the audience first is definitely a way to get them engaged from the beginning.

      The important thing is that there is *one* definition that everyone agrees to – whether or not it’s the definition they would use outside of the classroom (or virtual classroom, as the case may be).

  2. So many fields of study have their own language, and they are not consistent about its use. Brian does well to use a “loaded with emotion” term to dramatize the point. It’s hard to capture all of the words at the beginning of a project together and have them acquire shared meaning. A good procedure is to define new terms as they arise and have everyone in the group become a vocabulary monitor.

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