What do you do when something inappropriate pops-up in your online class? I’ve dealt with this on a small scale as an instructor, reacting to students’ posts that for various reasons were inappropriate in the context of an online academic course. In many cases, a quick connection with the student reveals that they were unaware of the problem and agreeable to revising their approach.
From drawing the ire of parents and school officials to damaging reputations and resurfacing during a future job search, students can do a good deal of damage with public posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter. But what happens when these activities take place within your course site?
The nature of online communication – mostly text-based and without intonation or emotion (even with our favorite emoticons) – is subject to interpretation. Failed attempts at humor and sarcasm can all too easily be “read the wrong way” and get out of control. In addition, there are more extreme scenarios we all hope won’t ever happen, but sometimes do, such as sharing racy photos, using offensive language, and commenting that can be perceived as hostile.
When you discover an inappropriate post in your course, time is of the essence. The University of Wisconsin-Stout’s Checklist for Online Instructors recommends both “immediately contact[ing] students with inappropriate posts for explanation and clarification,” and “mak[ing] disrespectful postings unavailable for the class at large.”
Keeping your communication with the student who posted the questionable response private is also recommended. Be ready to respond with corrective guidance and resources to help the student better understand the situation. Reference materials like the popular Netiquette guide can help answer questions and provide positive examples for future work.
Prevention is better than a cure. And as Edutopia’s guide to Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation [PDF] points out, “don’t assume that students automatically know how to communicate appropriately in an online environment. While they may be accustomed to participating in social forums, the guidelines for an educational setting can be quite different.” So what can we do to encourage appropriate online discussion?
- Model good behavior. Being active in the discussion forums is important to not only knowing what students are sharing, but also providing positive examples of how to engage in terms of topic, technology, and tone. Show your students how to professionally respond, even disagree, with each other, as well as how to address their peers, use citations, and avoid text-speak in an academic conversation online.
- Publish ground rules. Convey your expectations for accepted behavior in online discussions. A list of ground rules can be included in a syllabus or on a dedicated page in your course site. Make sure it’s easy to find and that all items are clearly stated in order to avoid adding to the potential confusion. You may also want to put a simple policy in place that encourages students to alert you to a potential problem (i.e., offending post) before responding in the forums, to avoid unnecessary escalation while you address the issue.
- Link to policies and procedures. Provide students with access to student handbooks, course catalogs, and other code of conduct policies. Become familiar with your institution’s established disciplinary and notification procedures (and note that if you are teaching for multiple schools there may be variances). Be aware of the required actions and documentation, and able to identify behaviors that would initiate a formal report.
In some cases, you may need to involve your school’s leadership and resources, but in most instances, a problem with communication can turn into a learning experience for all involved. Provide the guidance necessary to foster positive online course discussion and help your students make the best possible choices as they interact with you and their classmates.
Image credit: ian murchison, Flickr, CC:BY-NC-ND