Campus Culture: Wild Card in Distance Education

by Nancy Bayne

Not many semesters into my teaching career, I discovered that classes, even different sections of the same course, have different personalities. In recent years, I have participated in programs on Female Friendly Science and spent many hours discussing the climate differences between natural science classrooms and social science or humanities classrooms. Two years ago I helped my oldest son find the college that best fit his personality. Why then did it not occur to me that the two campuses of the University of Wisconsin System involved in a team-taught distance education Women and Science course would have quite different cultures that would be reflected in the personalities of the two groups of students?

I had plenty of information that should have alerted me to the existence of different campus cultures within one state. UW-Stevens Point's mission emphasizes programs in Natural Resources (Biological Sciences), Wellness, and Communicative Disorders while UW-Platteville's mission emphasizes programs in Engineering, Agriculture, and Criminal Justice. UW-Stevens Point enrolls over fifty percent women, UW-Platteville about thirty percent. However, it was not until the class began that I realized there were major campus culture differences and that these differences would create some of the biggest challenges of our distance education experience.

The Challenges

The problem became obvious early in the semester when students began to participate in the class email discussion list. Students were required to read the email entries and to provide at least eight entries of their own. On the first day of class we devoted considerable time to identifying the rules that would govern electronic discussion participation, including several relating to respect. Students from Platteville, who were primarily engineering majors, began to participate in the list immediately. As I read their initial entries, I was startled by the tone and language of some of the messages. For example:

"I think that you missed the entire point of the readings."

"Apparently, you have either spoken without much research into your topic...or you are trying to start an argument to gain e-mail discussion points."

"Stupid ass arguments and blunt ignorance is really annoying and filling up my mailbox with this crap is getting on my nerves."

In the four prior semesters during which I had incorporated an email discussion into several classes, I had never encountered messages like this.

I took examples of messages that violated our rules to the next class and pointed out that these were not appropriate. I suggested that some students may hesitate to get involved in the electronic discussion after reading these messages. As I looked at students in the two classrooms, I found nearly all of the Stevens Point students nodding their heads, while most Platteville students were either shaking theirs or looking puzzled. At that moment several pieces of the puzzle shifted into place and I realized the Stevens Point classroom reflected a social science/humanities culture, more accustomed to honoring and expecting different points of view, while the Platteville classroom reflected a natural science culture, more trained in rigorous inquiry focused on finding the singular correct answer. While the students could not articulate the difference in this way, it was also clear to them that there was significant cultural disparity.

Additional behavioral differences, reflective of these divergent classroom cultures, soon emerged. During the first part of the semester, discussion was led by teams of students at either the Platteville or Stevens Point campus. Platteville students were more likely to devise games in which there was one right answer, or to give mini-lectures, while Stevens Point students more often asked qustions requiring an opinion or interpretation. Platteville students clearly enjoyed the competition involved in the games, while Stevens Point students showed ambivalence.

This difference was important because it was one of a number of factors associated with the use of distance education that contributed to the development of in-group bias and a number of related negative behaviors. With approximately equal numbers of students at two different locations, there was already a proclivity toward two separate group identities rather than one group identity encompassing students at both campuses. Differences in sex ratio in the two classrooms (nine males and eight females at Platteville, one male and seventeen females at Stevens Point) visually reinforced this sense of difference. When the differences in behavior began to emerge, students were primed to develop a strong sense of "we" versus "they" that even I sometimes found hard to avoid.

As the group identities solidified, group processes began to operate. The in-group was seen as superior to the out-group. In-group members were seen as individuals, while out-group members were viewed as undifferentiated and stereotyped. For example, Platteville students were labeled as condescending engineering majors, while Stevens Point students were stereotyped as condescending women's studies minors. Each group saw the other as condescending. The development of this kind of mirror image in which each group views the other in the same negative terms is common as groups become more hostile toward each another.

Meeting the Challenges

How did we attempt to deal with this problem? In designing the course, we had included a one-day, face-to-face meeting of all students in Madison. At this meeting we paired Stevens Point students with Platteville students and had them interview each other; students then introduced their partner to the rest of the class. We also encouraged partners to sit with each other rather than with students from their own campus. This was an effective strategy in the short run but was not powerful enough to significantly affect the rest of the semester.

Because having members of different groups work together toward a common goal is an effective strategy for overcoming group bias, we created cross-campus teams to lead discussion during the last third of the semester. Unfortunately, students circumvented our efforts by splitting the readings in half and continuing to work only with students from their own campus.

That these belated efforts to overcome in-group bias and the associated intergroup hostility were too little too late became clear when a student on one campus made a derogatory comment about gays, even though he knew that a student at the other site was gay. Students at the site with the gay student (Site 1) were unanimous in their support of the gay student and his immediate response that he found the comment crude and offensive. Students at the site from which the comment originated (Site 2) were split. A few excerpts illustrate both the different reactions and the intensity of the group bias:

Site 1
"...I think that the person in our class who is so outspoken represents everything that needs to be changed in our white, male-dominated, homophobic society. Any comments?"

Site 2
"Yes, I do have an idea. I think that this class is about, as you said, looking at things from a new point of view. That means that we should look at situations from EVERY available point of view. Just because you may disagree with a person's beliefs doesn't make their viewpoint any less valid. That is why we should value everyone's opinion, even if we do disagree with it."

"I have to agree with (the Site 2 student) on this one. Dismissing someone else's views because you don't agree with them is not right. Not everyone thinks the same.

Site 1

"I believe (the Site 1 student) was very diplomatic about her statements and have to back her up... If some people would think things out before 'blurting' we'd all be better off, that way apologies wouldn't be needed or offense taken."


The development of in-group/out-group bias is not a fatal flaw in distance education. Many students spontaneously commented on how much they learned in the class. While some students prefaced their remarks with the statement "in spite of the distance education component," others actually commented that their learning was enriched by the interaction with students at another campus. Courses must be designed, however, with a constant awareness of the challenges created by different campus cultures. The creation of cross-campus teams, an early face-to-face meeting at which students engage in cooperative learning, reinforced by a second meeting midway through the semester, and educating students in the class about group formation and dynamics are some of the techniques I will incorporate into my next distance education course.

[ Nancy Bayne is a Professor of Psychology and Coordinator of Women■s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The distance education Women and Science course discussed here was funded by a University of Wisconsin Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Grant, Using System-wide Collaboration and Distance Education to Improve Student Access to Courses and to a Major in Women's Studies: A Pilot Program.

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Mounted December 8, 1998