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Don’t Let Your Online Class Turn into the Jersey Shore

Posted on Friday November 16, 2012 by Michael Keathley


In my previous post, “2 Preliminary Steps for Online Student Success,” 14 November, 2012), I wrote about two areas all online students must be prepared for before a term begins. Although most online courses operate within the academic context and communication can typically be described as semi-formal, respectful, and focused on the curriculum, online students must be knowledgeable about the potential for inappropriate communication and what to do if it occurs.

Understand Appropriateness
Keep in mind that within an online class, certain types of communication are appropriate. Some examples include faculty and professors:

    • introducing themselves within a discussion the first week.

    • offering examples from their own work and personal lives as support for theories being covered in a unit’s materials.

    • sharing a profile picture or perhaps a video as a response to an assignment.

    • asking questions about or disagreeing with comments made by a classmate.

These activities and other similar ones are normal and acceptable. However, here are some examples of inappropriate communication that I have witnessed as an online instructor and administrator that should not occur.

    • Sending emails and instant messages asking for personal contact information in an attempt to find dates.

    • Posting faith-based testimonials to win converts or divine affection.

    • Attempting to sell products or services.

    • Ranting, verbal attacks including expletives directed toward other students, the professor, or others within the university community.

    • Contacting other students to stir up problems by such actions as making false statements (e.g., “Everyone is failing this class. What should we do?”), inciting others to not submit an assignment on time in the hope that a deadline can be extended, or requesting grade information so the individual can “speak for the class” as part of his or her own complaint.

Communications such as these are not appropriate. Although higher education guides students toward critical thinking and allows for them avenues to file complaints (e.g., about a grade), there are proper channels in place as checks and balances that should be followed.

Set Clear Boundaries
One way to guard against inappropriate communication in an online class is to set clear parameters around the way you communicate in the course. Stick with the positive ways to connect with classmates in your online courses and to write effective discussion posts. Maintain a professional tone within all of your communication. Most schools maintain a clear electronic communication policy that should be followed. Washington State University provides a good example. Maintaining a set standard within your own posts will discourage those who may want to engage in inappropriate communication from seeing you as a potential collaborator or victim.

Conversely, avoid the temptation to cross your own boundaries by responding directly to an individual who posts offensive comments, even if they’re directed at you. This will only cause that person to focus even more of their attention on you. Contact your professor instead to make sure he or she is aware of the communication breach so that it may be addressed quickly by school personnel. Also, if another student contacts you privately (e.g., via email or private chat within the classroom) and asks for personal information, attempts to find out about your grades, or encourages you to join in disrupting the course somehow, you do not have to respond.

Avoid Accidental Disclosure
Additionally, guard against accidental disclosure. Don’t slip and share information about your academic progress or personal situation during a class meeting or within a discussion. For instance, it’s easy while giving an example in response to a discussion prompt to share a time you witnessed something unethical at work to slip and share actual names. Similarly, when an instructor sends an email announcing that grades have been posted for a project, it may be a reflex to hit “reply” or “reply to all” to ask about your own grade and progress, not realizing you’ve shared information with the entire class.

If you do realize you’ve posted something you shouldn’t have, contact your professor as soon as possible. Faculty should be able to remove these errors from the course site for you. However, it’s best to be vigilant and prevent the issue from occurring if possible. To avoid accidental disclosure, always take the time to review, revise, and edit your electronic communications carefully before submitting.

Report Improper Communication
If anything inappropriate does happen, document it by saving a copy (e.g., a screen shot). Then let your professor know. Usually he or she can delete an accidental post or take disciplinary action against a classmate who may be violating the school’s communication policy. Be aware, however, that any sites (e.g., social media) external to the university’s domain may not be subject to school policies, so take steps to protect yourself online if you choose to communicate with classmates in one of these venues. Edublog’s Ronnie Burt provides some excellent tips and resources for all involved in online learning? (30 November, 2010).

Maintaining clear boundaries in the virtual world is similar to the old adage: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Your classmates will know that you aren’t interested in engaging in inappropriate communication if you set clear parameters with your own communication.

By taking these three precautions, online students can help ensure that they have a comfortable, successful online learning experience.

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