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Online learning on hate crime, hate speech and bias: Connecting theory and practice

By Joanna Perry

Pre-COVID, online learning was often presented as the cheaper and more efficient way to deliver training. Now, moving online is understood to be essential in keeping organisations in business, and to simply get training done. In both paradigms, the particular qualities and advantages that online learning offers can be missed. As we progress on our own learning journey we try to base our learning designs on relevant theory and empirical evidence, including our own evaluation data. In this post, we share some of our findings and identify some of the gaps that we have observed.

Spoiler alert! There is very little empirical evidence to guide learning designs for multi-stakeholder and inter-disciplinary online education about hate crime, hate speech and bias. Our target groups can be best described as anyone, anywhere with a responsibility and interest to improve understandings of–and responses to­– hate crime, hate speech and bias. The thread that connects our diverse courses is a commitment to support learners to better understand and address these harms from their perspectives, roles and responsibilities, whether they be police officers, policy makers, specialist support organisations, individual activists, researchers or representatives of international agencies. When we started designing online courses in 2015, we had deep content knowledge and extensive experience of working with these groups. Our learning curve was to understand what support and structures they need to learn best online.

Learning in technology

Technology affects and influences every aspect of the user experience when learning online. This usually means that existing in-person programmes need to be completely re-imagined.

Taking the perspective of learning in­–as opposed to simply learning with–technology highlights the factors, both simple and complex, that need to be considered in learning design. For example, it is essential, but also quite easy to plan technical audits and checks to make sure that all content, including videos, can be accessed from highly securitised police networks, mobile phones or dodgy Wi-Fi connections. More complex issues arise when designing for interaction. For example, discussion forums might present a fantastic opportunity to explore key concepts together, but this design choice has to take account of the fact that some learners might be worried about creating a permanent record of their questions about hate crime in front of their supervisors or peers, or the privacy aspect of simply recording this information online.

Further, over time, learning can be transformational for one’s professional and personal identities. Going through this process in technology can have important consequences. Pre-pandemic studies suggests that professional online identities are constantly negotiated and navigated through individual personalities and professional realities, and that confidence builds when professional and online identities become more integrated (Bayne, 2005). The pandemic has increased reliance on and proficiency in technology, which might have had an accelerating effect on this process of ‘integration’ for many. At the same time, the huge increase in online interaction might have yet other consequences on individuals’ online learner, professional and personal identities that also need to be understood.

Learning in community (Hall, 2007)

The limited evidence available told us that online learning on hate crime was not popular with at least one of our target groups: the police. For example, in their study of  police experiences of hate crime training, Trickett and Hamilton found, ‘the feedback on available online learning on hate crime was overwhelmingly negative in terms of personal benefits for officers’ (2016:74; see also Donavant, 2009). So we were clear about what we needed to avoid, but less sure which learning design principles we should adopt as our building blocks.

Sociocultural theory proposes that learning is social (Vygotsky, 1978) and foregrounds the importance of learning in ‘authentic’ contexts (Brown, Collin and Duguid 1989). As explained by Hall (2007), online learning design that is informed by sociocultural theory should be based on

‘genuine practice, which enables learners to function as a community, using the language signs and symbols that are a normal part of that environment [and] use domain knowledge in the same way practitioners would.’ ( p. 97).

And as explained by Brown et al (1989),

‘Authentic practice may be simple or complex depending on what the learner is ready for, but it should be embedded in the context and cultural practices of others in that field’.

Examples of our learning design choices that align with these principle include: case studies based on actual instances of hate crime and hate speech, filmed interviews with people directly affected by these harms, as well as with police responders, facilitated discussions that support learners to use established terminology  and concepts to  expand their ‘domain knowledge’, often through connection with more experienced practitioners. For example, during a recent course, monitoring experts in Greece shared their methodology with peers in Nepal seeking to set up a similar approach.

Like other learning theories, sociocultural theory emphasises the importance of individual tasks when learning and integrating key concepts. Online learning lends a ‘stretching’ quality to time that can be harnessed by designs that encourage learners to engage with materials at their own pace. Some learners spend time to read around the subject and explore certain aspects quite deeply, while others, due to time constraints or interest level stick with the essential readings and activities, thus enabling a ‘multi-gear’ approach within a cohort.

Some of our courses involve highly collaborative engagement, where learners have progressed from conceptual internalisation to adopting and integrating domain specific terminology and language and finally to situated problem-solving. For example, a small inter-departmental cohort contributed to the development of an organisation-wide hate crime recording and monitoring methodology. The process took six weeks, including weekly tutorials. We suspect that traditional in-person trainings would not have been able to produce this result.

Understanding and supporting our learner community

Of course there is a wealth of research and information on hate crime, hate speech and bias to dive into. The fantastic online library of the International Network for Hate Studies showcases peer reviewed research (sign up for their newsletter and you will get a monthly digest of recently published articles for free!). Those familiar with the work of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency will know about their regular surveys of people’s experience of bias-motivated harassment and hate crime, which are essential sources of information for those working with limited data at the national level. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has been reporting on hate crime for many years. Its annual reports are the go-to source for official data, NGO data and links to national hate crime laws of 57 countries. We draw on all of these resources while supporting learners to make sense of the complex, voluminous and often non-comparable data that characterise this field.

Our own research really helped us understand our key targets’ learning needs. Carried out in six countries[1] between 2016-2019, we used a mix of desk research, interviews and workshops to find out what supports those at the centre of national efforts to increase reporting, and improve recording and data collection on hate crime.[2] Our workshops supported participants to understand themselves as part of a national and international hate crime response system. We use these findings to evidence the importance of a multi-stakeholder model for online learning on hate crime and to design activities that enable connections and collaboration across boundaries of identity and institution.

In a rare empirical consideration of a ‘social justice approach to professional learning’, Charitonos et al (2020), identified several useful principles for us to reflect on. Deliberate iterative design, or ‘intending to respond and be relevant to the needs of organisations and frontline workers in the sector’, chimes with our approach of working with partners to produce ‘personas’, or model target learners, to give us a clear idea of the motivations, knowledge and skills of our target groups.

Support as well as access to and flexibility of provision were two additional principles identified by Charitonos et al. Of course, support in various forms, including in the discussion forum and synchronous tutorials to clarify concepts, and offers of individual support where needed should be part of learning design. In terms of access, we ensure that our learners can take part in our programmes from anywhere in the world, with tutorials scheduled for access across several time zones. Since we use a Moodle platform, participants can access courses via the mobile phone/tablet app, which allows offline learning.

‘Advancing knowledge and skills and adapting the workplace’ are further principles identified by Charitonos et al., also recalling the principles of sociocultural learning; we have the fact that our learners will want to put their new skills to use in the workplace firmly in mind.

Cormier’s ‘Rhizomatic learning theory’ combines the learning in technology and in community principles by focusing on the potential and practice of networked learning. His categorisation of ‘simple’, ‘complicated’, ‘complex’ and ‘chaotic’ learning helps think of scaffolding options to support learners, that also chime with sociocultural learning theory. For example, Facing Facts introduces the relatively simple international concepts of hate crime and hate speech, followed by the more complicated steps of hate crime investigation for police, or monitoring and reporting for NGOs. Cormier’s ‘complex’ and ‘chaotic’ categories help us consider the fact that answers are not always readily available and they might best be found through collaboratively working through problems as opposed to consulting static material. For example, these more networked approaches might be appropriate when considering the complex issue of hate crime prevention in diverse national contexts or navigating the chaotic context of understanding and responding to the rapidly changing nature of hate speech online. We aim to encourage an exploration of, and connection with, networks and information outside the Facing Facts ‘learning management system’ in learners’ diverse national contexts.  In these instances, in Cormier’s words, the ‘community is the curriculum’.

Time for empirical support!

The theory accommodates and supports what we are trying to do in Facing Facts, but relevant empirical efforts are limited. While there is rich data to be found on university students’ and teachers’ online learning experiences and needs, we find that the needs of our key target groups – victim support specialists, police officers, criminal justice practitioners, activists and policy makers operating across the EU and beyond– are under-researched. Our evaluation data certainly tells us that we are on the right track in terms of meeting our targets’ needs, but theoretically informed empirical research would greatly enrich our knowledge. One of the aims of this blog is to share what we know and make connections with others who can add to our collective knowledge.


Bayne, S (2005) “Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace”, Education in Cyberspace, R. Land; S. Bayne (eds). Routledge: Falmer.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Charitonos, K., Albuerne Rodriguez, C., Witthaus, G. and Bossu, C., 2020. Advancing Social Justice for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the UK: An Open Education Approach to Strengthening Capacity through Refugee Action’s Frontline Immigration Advice Project. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2020(1), p.11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jime.563

Cormier, Dave (2008) ‘Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum, Innovate Journal of Online Education: Vol 4: Iss. 5, Article 2, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234577448_Rhizomatic_Education_Community_as_Curriculum

Donavant, B.W. (2009) ‘To Internet or Not?: Assessing the Efficacy of Online Police Training’, American Journal of Criminal Justice, 34: 224.

European Commission (2017) ‘Overview of Resources and Initiatives to Support Hate Crime Training in Member States’, [online], available at http://ec.europa.eu/newsroom/document.cfm?doc_id=43147

Hall, A., Vygotsky Goes Online: Learning Design from a Socio-cultural Perspective, Learning and Socio-cultural Theory: Exploring Modern Vygotskian Perspectives International Workshop 2007, 1(1), 2007. Available at: https://ro.uow.edu.au/llrg/vol1/iss1/6

Sharples, M., Adams, A., Alozie, N., Ferguson, R., Fitzgerald, E., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Means, B., Remold, J., Rienties, B., Roschelle, J., Vogt, K., Whitelock, D. and Yarnall, L. (2015) Innovating Pedagogy 2015: Open University Innovation Report No. 4, Milton Keynes, The Open University [Online]. Available at

Trickett, Hamilton (2016), Hate crime training of police officers in Nottingham: a critical review. Research report for external body. Nottingham: Nottingham Trent University, http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/28089/

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.



[1] England and Wales, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Spain

[2] You can learn about our findings by exploring the European and national reports.

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