A ‘safe space’ in ‘cyberspace’? Refugee students in synchronous online EAP classes

Aleks Palanac

The argument for classrooms to be set up as physically and viscerally safe spaces for refugee students and others who have experienced potentially traumatic events is not new (e.g. Horsman, 2004; Kerka, 2002), and the application of this work to English language learning contexts is beginning to gain more momentum and visibility through initiatives such as the recent British Council commissioned Language for Resilience programmes (British Council, 2018; Capstick and Delaney, 2016).  But, with COVID-19 lockdown restrictions prompting a sudden need to move our teaching and learning online, it has become necessary to ask how this advice might translate to synchronous online settings. This is particularly pertinent in light of the fact that platforms such as Zoom have recently come under fire in the media for their live sessions being vulnerable to breaches of privacy such as trolling and unauthorised recording by participants, which might be particularly damaging to refugee students needing to protect their identities to safeguard themselves and often also family members back home. How, then, might we take measures to minimise these threats and to foster the creation of safe spaces in cyberspace for refugee students?

As I outlined in a recent article synthesising insights related to trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees (Palanac, 2020), there are many factors which combine to render a classroom a ‘safe space’, and many of these can be transferred to synchronous online learning contexts. One of these is giving students the opportunity to exercise a degree of control in the space of their classroom. One way of doing this in online contexts is to overtly familiarise students with the features of the synchronous online platform which you are using, which will enable them to make decisions about the degree to which they wish to be ‘present’ or ‘visible’ in the online space of the classroom. This might entail allowing them to experiment with: changing their on-screen name (to their first name only, or a pseudonym); turning their video on and off; muting and unmuting themselves; using the chatbox to communicate with the class if they cannot or do not wish to switch their audio on; changing the view of participants to grid view so that they can see all of their classmates (if their videos are turned on), or at least get a better sense of who is in the virtual classroom with them; sending a private message to the teacher to express a concern; and using a virtual background (if they do not wish for others to see their home). However, on this last point, see Barrett-Fox’s (2020) recent insightful blog on the limitations of using virtual backgrounds, which includes concerns about these not functioning properly on all devices and potentially not fully preventing other people from appearing on the screen.

Another transferrable strategy from face-to-face trauma-informed ELT pedagogy is to set clear expectations and ground rules from the outset (Furneaux, 2018). This might include: a procedure for turn taking (e.g. raising one’s hand in the video or through the ‘raise hand’ function of certain platforms); agreeing rules about whether and/or when it is permissible for them to record and/or take screenshots of sessions, and what use these screenshots might then be put to; explaining the procedure for using break-out rooms so that, among other things, they know to expect that you may be popping in and out; agreeing whether students are permitted to share the session link and password with others, and, if so, who. 

On this last point, there are various further measures which can be put in place to secure the boundaries of the synchronous online classroom against undesirables. For example, with reference to the Zoom platform, guidance compiled by U.C. Berkeley (2020) suggests: the meeting ID and password for the session should not be shared on public forums, but instead sent to participants directly; the ‘join before host’ option should be unchecked, as should the function which allows students to record the session through their app; and private chat and screen sharing by participants should be disabled. If an undesirable does somehow end up in the session, it is important for a teacher to be aware of the actions which they can immediately take to minimise the risks, including switching a participant’s audio and/or video off and removing them from the session.

Whilst it can be seen that some strategies from the trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees can be usefully applied to the synchronous online classroom, these measures are by no means a perfect solution to creating a ‘safe space’ in online classes. For example, the options of being able to switch one’s video off and change one’s online name may help a student feel more comfortable in some respects (in terms of protecting their own identity), but the flip side of this is that others in the class may feel uncomfortable not knowing exactly who is in the room with them, which may then reduce their own sense of safety, and may also negatively affect quality of inter-personal interaction and relationship-building. The latter is another key tenet of building a sense of safety in the language classroom, in which students need to feel comfortable enough in their social environment to take risks and make mistakes (e.g. Stone, 1995). 

At present, therefore, the indication is that, while there are certainly ways in which teachers and refugee students can mitigate the risks contingent in using online platforms for synchronous EAP teaching and learning, the measures used for increasing the sense of safety of one student may inadvertently lead to other students feeling less safe, or to a potential deterioration in the quality of classroom interaction. Ultimately, as with good face-to-face trauma-informed teaching, a flexible approach should be taken, with teachers making themselves available to listen to students’ concerns and needs, and being ready to respond with flexibility and creativity.


Barrett-Fox, R. (2020). ‘A reminder of who is hurt by insisting that students share images of their personal lives’, Any Good Thing, 6 March. Available at: https://anygoodthing.com/2020/04/06/a-reminder-of-who-is-hurt-by-insisting-that-students-share-images-of-their-personal-lives/amp/?__twitter_impression=true (accessed 8 May 2020)

British Council (2018) Language for Resilience: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. Available at: https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language_for_resilience_-_cross-disciplinary_perspectives_0.pdf

Capstick, T. & Delaney, M. (2016) Language for Resilience: The Role of Language in Enhancing the Resilience of Syrian Refugees and Host Communities. Available at: https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language-for-resilience-report-en.pdf

Furneaux, C. (2018) ‘Trauma and second / foreign language learning’ in T. Capstick (ed) Language for Resilience: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives. Available at: www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language_for_resilience_-_cross-disciplinary_perspectives_0.pdf (accessed 8 May 2020)

Horsman, J. (2004) ‘”But is it education?”: The challenge of creating effective learning for survivors of trauma’. Women’s Studies Quarterly 32/1-2: 130-146 www.jstor.org/stable/40004396 (accessed 8 May 2020)

Kerka, S. (2002) ‘Trauma and Adult Learning’ ERIC Digest  1-8 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED472601.pdf(accessed 8 May 2020)

Palanac, A. (2020). ‘Towards a trauma-informed ELT pedagogy for refugees’ Language Issues 30/2: 3-14

Stone, N. (1995) ‘Teaching ESL to Survivors of Trauma’ Prospect 10/3: 49-57U.C. Berkeley (2020). Settings for securing Zoom. [online] Available at: https://security.berkeley.edu/resources/cybersecurity-and-covid-19/settings-securing-zoom (accessed 8 May 2020)

About the author

Aleks Palanac is an EAP/ESOL practitioner at the University of Leicester and has been heavily involved in developing its University of Sanctuary initiative, particularly pertaining to widening participation to HE for asylum seekers and refugees through trauma-informed English language provision. More information about her social justice work in EAP and EFL is available here

Published by EAP 4 Social Justice SIG

What is the EAP for Social Justice SIG? Welcome to the website for BALEAP's EAP for Social Justice Special Interest Group! This SIG is intended to provide a forum for EAP practitioners to discuss, deepen their understanding of, and address concerns related to, social justice within and around EAP, whilst also broadening and strengthening the evidence-base of the impact that social justice initiatives can make in this field. Through bringing this often-sidelined area into the spotlight and examining the knowledge, skills and values that a social justice lens can contribute to EAP, this SIG aims to encourage more EAP students, practitioners and managers to take action and play their part in fulfilling the vision of the university as the “critic and conscience of society”.

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