5 Discussion Ground Rules for the Online Classroom

It’s important to include discussion guidelines in your syllabi.

Somehow, online discussions have a tendency to spiral out of control more quickly than in-person debates. Whether we can attribute this to the distance between discussants, misinterpreting intentions due to a lack of visual and audio cues, general courage that comes with having digital space between people, or a combination, most anyone who has grazed through an online forum understands this.

This kind of environment can be detrimental to the learning experience. A classroom in any form—whether on campus or online—should be a safe space to foster thoughtful comments and open discussions without hostile, discriminatory or inappropriate comments. Thus, it is important for online instructors to ensure course participants engage in proper Internet etiquette to keep posts organized, focused and productive.

Peter Connor, of The Institute for Learning and Teaching at Colorado State University, recommends including a set of ground rules in your course syllabus to help raise general awareness among your students, and assist you in enhancing the learning experience.

He says that online-discussion etiquette is fairly similar to what you would expect in a classroom, though the absence of visual and auditory clues provides some unique situations (which are not necessarily bad). Here are explanations of five of the key rules he suggests in to include in your syllabus:

Ground Rules for Online Discussions

1) Participate: Students must contribute to the conversations. Neither stalkers nor cyberspace lurks are allowed. A shared learning environment is only effective if everyone involved actually shares. As instructors, offer class points to those who participant in the conversation. Make providing insightful commentary in the online discussions a requirement for passing the course.

2) Help Others: The benefit of interactive education is that students can act as additional facilitators, and good teachers will allow themselves to learn from the students. No one is an expert in all-things technology. If you find that some of your students have more experience than others in using online discussion forums—and perhaps more experience than you—encourage them to be advocates and educators. This will not only give them a boost of confidence, but it will also help bring the other students up to speed. Furthermore, the students who receive help will probably appreciate it more than they will mention at the time, but will be more willing to help other students in the future.

3) Use Proper Writing Style: This is a requirement! A virtual classroom is a professional environment. Write as if you were drafting a term paper, and tell your students to do the same. Correct spelling, grammar, and style are expected in all scholarship and academic writing. This is not to say that you should loss your voice behind a series of jargon and citations. However, remember your audience. If you would judge another person’s writing, you can expect that someone is judging yours.

4) Respect Diversity: Your virtual classroom—and academia as a whole—should be, without question, a safe space for people of all races, genders, sexes, ages, sexual orientations, religions, disabilities and socioeconomic statuses. Derogatory and sarcastic comments and jokes that marginalize anyone are fundamentally unacceptable, especially in the classroom. Offensive language—or language that could be construed as offensive—should be avoided and defused. In the unfortunate event that this becomes an issue, you should take immediate action to protect the safety and comfort of your students. Our ethnically rich and diverse, multi-cultural world should be highly celebrated in the classroom and in life. Knowledge your own biases as well before you begin teaching so you can treat every person under your facilitating with the respect and compassion that all humans deserve.

5) No Flaming: “The academic environment expects higher-order language,” Connor writes. Do not tolerate tantrums on academic forums. Criticism, although a central part of academia, must be constructive, well-meaning, and well-articulated. Rants directed at any contributor are highly unacceptable. In addition, tell your students to avoid profanity. Keep it classy, people.

Read Connor’s complete list, and let us know what other suggestions you have in the comments below.