When I created my first online collegiate class fifteen years ago, I read several online teaching standards that set clear design and implementation guidelines for online classes. They offered guidance so that instructors would state clear, measurable learning objectives and would include course assessments that were linked to the objectives. These online teaching standards also advised that instructors broaden their course accessibility and include diverse instructional materials. In those early days of my development as an online teacher, those standards became invaluable tools for my instructional design. In designing my first class, I followed the standards to the letter and incorporated all of the elements in my first course.
One of the standard documents included guidelines for course etiquette expectations. They called these expectations “course netiquette,” so address this standard, I created a list of student expectations for online discussion forums, email, and other forms of communication that might occur in an online course. It’s been such a long time ago, that I really don’t remember if I wrote all of these or whether I searched for some examples and combined and tweaked a few for my use. But here are the “netiquette” policies I included at the time:
“All students pay tuition and deserve a positive and courteous learning environment. Students should be aware that their behavior impacts other people, even when interacting online. I hope that we will all strive to develop a positive and supportive environment and will be courteous to fellow students and your instructor. Due to the nature of the online environment, there are some things to remember.
1. Think before you write and reread your writing before you post anything online. Without the use of nonverbals with your message, your message can be misinterpreted. Sarcasm and humor can be difficult to interpret online and should be avoided.
2. Keep it relevant. There are places to chat and post for fun everyday stuff. Inside a discussion board, stay on topic. Make sure your responses answer the question provided, expand the discussion to other relevant areas, or build on the work from your classmates.
3. Never use all caps. This is the equivalent of yelling in the online world. It is also hard to read. Only use capital letters when appropriate.
4. Make sure that you are using appropriate grammar and structure. Some people in the class may not understand things like “CU L8R,” not to mention it does nothing to help expand your writing and vocabulary skills. Emoticons are fine as long as they are appropriate. A smile ☺ is welcome; anything offensive is not.
5. Treat people the same as you would face-to-face. It is easy to hide behind the computer. In some cases it empowers people to treat others in ways they would not in person. Remember there is a person behind the name on your screen. Treat all with dignity and respect and you can expect that in return.
6. Respect the time of others. This class may require you to work in groups. Learn to respect the time of others in your group and your experience will be much better. Always remember that you are not the only person with a busy schedule, be flexible. Do not procrastinate! You may be one that works best with the pressures of the deadline looming on you, but others may not be that way. The key to a successful group is organization, communication and a willingness to do what it takes to get it done.
7. In discussion boards, do not respond with sentences like “I agree” or “Me too”. These add nothing to the discussion.”
And honestly, for the last fifteen years, I’ve included that policy into every new online class I’ve created. I remember revising them five or six years ago because some of the language became dated, but otherwise, they were mostly a vestigial element from my initial course design. I copied and pasted them into new course shells. I referred to them in my course introduction videos and Getting Started modules and that was about it.
Recently, however, I realized how important netiquette guidelines are. I won’t get into the specifics here, but a student posted something in a discussion forum that didn’t align with the course netiquette policy. Dealing with that situation made it clear that while I state the norms of communication in the course, I don’t clearly discuss any potential ramifications or consequences. I also don’t outline my role as the instructor when dealing with communication that doesn’t meet the netiquette standards. Do I delete a transgressing post? Do I allow students to revise a transgressing post, even though the guidelines weren’t initially met? Do I replace the transgressing post with a message like one that would appear on Facebook or Instagram when their “community standards” are violated? I honestly hadn’t given it any thought prior to this incident, which forced me to create policy on the fly. After the semester ends, however, I plan to think through this more deeply and set a more comprehensive policy for the future. I might not need it for another ten or fifteen years, but I’ll probably be glad when I do.