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Managing Student Behavior Online

The range of students in an online class is typically much like the range you would have in a face-to-face class.  There are quiet ones, noisy ones, take-charge types and those needing hand-holding.  You can have class clowns and disruptors, as well as procrastinators.  In other words, typical students!

Noisy Students

Much like their traditional counterpart, noisy online students expend a lot of energy raising issues that are only tangentially related to the topics under discussion.  The nice thing is that in asynchronous situations online, this is not as disruptive as face-to-face.  Other students learn and just ignore threads from this individual.  But in synchronous web conferences, this can be disruptive.  The key is to respectfully channel this conversation offline.  You can give this person the attention they desire by email, and you can control the flow of conversation in a web conference by disenabling all microphones and then controlling who can speak.

Quiet Students

These are sometimes even more problematic, in that you may not notice the lack of participation.  This suggest that it is a good idea to actively use Course Statistics to keep track of course hits and postings, and to use private emails to contact a student if they are not participating.

Disruptive Students

On rare occasions, a student will display behavior online that is offensive to you or others in the class.  It helps to provide a policy in your class on behavior, such as a Netiquette guide, like the one below.  If this occurs, deal with it immediately and professionally.  Make their posting in the discussion board unavailable to the public until you discuss the situation with this student.  In many cases, you can turn around negative behavior into a positive teaching moment.

What is Netiquette?

It is important to use the Internet and email responsibly.  Respectful communication with others and a cooperative attitude when taking advantage of the many resources available on the Internet are indispensable.  This is why the essential practice of Netiquette (net etiquette) has developed over time. 

Netiquette is a set of behaviors that should be adhered to when you travel down the Information super-highway.  It is also termed as a professional code of behavior for electronic communication.  Generally speaking, there are very few actual “Net Laws”, and the Internet community itself generally devises those that exist.  Therefore, the job of policing the Net is up to those who use it. 

Here are five guidelines some faculty have used to explain to their students how to become a welcomed member of the electronic community:

  • Remember that you’re communicating with another human being
    Because of the lack of non-verbal clues, it’s easy to misinterpret the other person’s meaning.  Remember that the recipient has feelings more or less like your own.  Stand up for yourself and your beliefs but be sensitive to other people’s feelings.  Never write something to someone on email or in a discussion group that you would not say to those persons in a face-to-face encounter.  Avoid sending heated messages (called “flaming”) even if you’re provoked.  As many users have learned to their dismay, email can be misaddressed or forwarded, sometimes with devastating consequences.

    Also bear in mind that even thought you may delete a message from your computer system, chances are that the message remains, perhaps for years, on your computer network’s backup tape.

  • Behave ethically
    Standards of online behavior are simply different from, but not lower than, those for personal behavior. 
    • Do not use a computer to steal.
    • Do not use a computer to bear false witness.
    • Do not use or copy software for which you have not paid.
    • Do not use other people’s computer resources without authorization.
    • Do not appropriate other people’s intellectual output.

  • Lurk before you leap
    When you enter a discussion group that’s new to you, take time to look around.  Read messages for a few days to get a sense of how the people who are already there act.  The go ahead and participate.  Bad information spreads like wildfire on the Internet.

  • Respect other people’s time and bandwidth
    When you send a message via email or a discussion group, you’re taking up other people’s time.  Therefore, make sure the time they spend reading your message is time well spent.  You’re also taking up bandwidth, the information-carrying capacity of the telephone lines or networks used to transmit your message.  Don’t copy more people than necessary in an email note, don’t include a copy of the original message in your reply unless necessary, and be careful about posting the same message to more than one newsgroup. 

  • Finally, be tolerant of other people’s
    Electronic communication can be a scary place for novices, and we were all network newbies once.  So when someone makes a mistake, whether it’s a spelling error, a stupid question, an irrelevant comment, or an unnecessarily long answer, be kind.  If you want to be helpful, point out errors by a private email message, not by public posting to a newsgroup.  Give people the benefit of the doubt.

Other Hints

The written word is a powerful tool in terms of communication, so caution should be taken in how it is used on the Internet.  Remember: the email message will almost always be taken at face value.  Keep sarcasm to a minimum or delete it altogether. 

Some E-Mail Netiquette Hints and Tips:

  • Using all capital letters gives a word very strong emphasis.  It can also have the effect of SHOUTING
  • Enclosing a word with asterisks has a different effect.  Asterisks indicate a mild emphasis and serve the same purpose as italics.
  • Signature “smileys” can help to indicate mood or tone of voice:
    • :-)         I’m happy.
    • ;-)        Just Joking.
    • :-(          I’m unhappy.
  • Be careful when replying to a message.  If your reply is to be automatically sent back to the originating address, verify that the address if not connected to a list or groups.  As personal response intended for a specific person may end up in the hands of many.
  • Common Net acronyms include:
    • FAQ                Frequently asked questions
    • FYI                  For Your Information
    • BTW               By the way
    • IMHO             In my humble/honest opinion
    • RTM               Read the Manual
    • LOL                Laughed out loud
    • YMMV          Your Mileage May Vary
  • Electronic mail is not protected and not private.  Your message can be forwarded or copied to anyone, anywhere.  
  • Never send chain letters over the Internet.  They are annoying and forbidden by some ISP’s and have no place in a class. 
  • Angry or heated messages are called “flames”.  They are childish and never necessary. 
  • Use the subject RE: line to clearly state the topic of your message.
  • Keep messages concise.  Message should have lines that are not more than 65-70 characters in length and generally no more than 12 lines.
  • If you send a long message, it is a good idea to tell the recipient at the beginning of the message so that they have the option of downloading it to read later. 
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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