Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.” These words originate from the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 11) and probably defining one of the most important rights in the European law: The freedom of expression and information.

Utilizing this law to full extension is today not very complicated. All you need is access to the internet and off you go. Different types of social media, blogs, and news platforms offer, often for free, possibilities to get information and to comment this information in related forums or groups. Someone could think that the internet with all its information plurality is a guarantor for a progressing enlightened society. But what we see today instead is an increase in social polarization and radicalization in our world wide web. The reasons for this are manifold but without doubt has the pitch on many online platforms and in our society as a whole exacerbated. To tackle these problems a respectful communication online has to be developed and deployed to protect minorities, individuals and probably our democracies.   

So, but what have this all with group work to do? A lot as I realized. Not long ago I supervised as a teacher a group of mechanical engineering students which had the task to develop a thermal manikin which is used to measure temperature and other parameters in rooms to evaluate human thermal comfort. After a week, the group presented to me some first sketches of the manikin they planned to build, and everything looked fine. However, one minor detail I was curious about. The students decided to design the manikin with a clear shape of a female body. When I asked the students which motivation they have for this design decision I received the answer that they discovered that all manikin available on the market are male shaped. Knowing the market, I could only partially agree since the most manikin shapes are quite neutral and exhibit no sex-based morphological differences. In addition, I asked the students if the measurements might be in one or another way be affected by their design decision on which they clearly agreed that they will not. So, as teacher I questioned again if we have to give the manikin any sex-based morphological differences or if a neutral manikin would be fine. The discussion continued over weeks and after a while I believed the students reconsidered their design based on facts and arguments we come up with during the time. However, at the final presentation the students presented a female shaped manikin despite our previous discussions. As a teacher I was not sure if I should be happy or frustrated. On the one hand they fulfilled the part of the course description which request them to consider their design not only from an engineering perspective but also socially and environmentally. However, the design was clearly not driven on facts but on ideologically reasons of some group members. Similar observations I could make in other groups I during auscultations where students with a clear ideology did not allowed opinions of other group members which did not followed their world view or were not considered as “politically correct”.

This example got me thinking. In the future I will have not only have a focus on the content of the group work but also try to understand more how the group think and communicate. As teachers we have to ensure that the right of free speech is offered to all our students to all time but is not misused for any form of propaganda, lies, or discrimination. However, we also have the duty to ensure that our students do not out of “political correctness” or ideology suppress unconventional, uncomfortable, or unpleasant opinions, facts, or designs. I think universities have to offer a forum for such discussions and group work is a great opportunity to teach our students something what our society starts to lose partially: To listen what the other party have to say! And I mean not only listen and checking if that what was said is in agreement with my personal opinion or not, but to try to put oneself in someone’s position in order to understand the opponent’s view, reflect about it and, if necessary, to reconsider its own opinion. Group work which takes place online can also be a great opportunity to train students how to communicate, argue, and discuss in the world wide web in such a way that facts prevail, all arguments are fairly considered and statements are comprehensive analyzed without prohibition of thought and speech.

And if that is to much work we may at least teach our students one sentence from Voltaire who said: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Prohibition of Thoughts and Speech in Group Work