Somehow, online course discussions tend to spiral out of control quicker 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 from having digital space between people, or a combination, anyone who has grazed through an online forum understands. Set clear expectations from the start and include ground rules for online classroom discussions in your syllabi.
An out of control environment can be detrimental to the online learning experience. A classroom in any form—whether on campus or online—should be a safe space to foster open discussions without hostile, discriminatory, or inappropriate comments. 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. Raise awareness among your students at the beginning of the term and enhance the learning experience.
Connor 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 ground rules for online discussions he suggests including in your syllabus:
Ground Rules for Online Discussions
1) Participate: Students must contribute to conversations. No stalkers or cyberspace lurks allowed. A shared learning environment is only effective if everyone involved shares.
As instructors, offer points for participating in conversations. Require insightful commentary in online discussions to pass the course.
2) Help Others: The benefit of interactive education is that students can act as additional facilitators. Good teachers allow themselves to learn from the students. No one is an expert in all things technology. If some of your students have more experience than others 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 other students up to speed.
Many students use apps to stay organized and productive. Ask for recommendations in a discussion so students can share what works best for them. Students who receive help will appreciate it and help other online 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 have your students do the same. Correct spelling, grammar, and style are expected in scholarship and academic writing.
Don’t lose your voice behind a series of jargon and citations. Remember your audience. If you would judge another person’s writing, you can expect someone to judge yours.
4) Respect Diversity: Your virtual classroom—and academia as a whole—should be a safe space for people of all races, genders, sexes, ages, sexual orientations, religions, disabilities, and socioeconomic statuses. Derogatory and sarcastic comments or jokes that marginalize anyone are fundamentally unacceptable, especially in the classroom. Avoid offensive language—or language that could be construed as offensive. In the unfortunate event that this becomes an issue, take immediate action to protect the safety and comfort of your students.
Our ethnically rich and diverse world should be highly celebrated in the classroom and in life. Examine your own biases before you begin teaching. Treat every person with the respect and compassion they 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, make sure your students avoid profanity. Keep it classy.
Read Connor’s complete list. Let us know other suggestions you have in the comments below.
Originally published April 2015, updated in 2020.