Ethical Behavior Guidelines for Online Students

Ethical Behavior Guidelines for Online Students

What is ethical behavior in an online class? When I ask online students this question, the answer that frequently comes up is centered on issues about cheating. Many students relate ethics to “doing the right thing” and describe how they are guided by an internalized sense of right and wrong. But that is only one component of ethical behavior and students need to consider the other forms, as some are unique to interactions within a technologically-enabled classroom environment.

Defining Ethical Behavior

Ethics and morals are often discussed interchangeably; however, there is a distinct difference between the two terms. Doug Johnson summed up the challenge of making a distinction between the two terms in Developing Ethical Behaviors in Students: “Any discussion about ethical behaviors is challenging because human beings usually place actions on an ethical continuum rather than simply judging them as ethical or unethical.”

Ethics are a set of standards that each of us follow, guiding our behavior and interactions with others. For example, your school has a set of behavioral standards that students are to adhere to while interacting with others, which allows you to make ethical decisions. You will decide to either act ethically or unethically, which means you will follow the standards or disregard them. In contrast, morals are what we use to make a determination of right and wrong. You will decide that an issue is morally right or wrong, based upon your belief system and what you have been taught by society, religious affiliations, and your upbringing.

Your actions in the classroom can be evaluated as ethical or unethical, based upon the school’s code of conduct; whereas, morals are personal in nature. In an online classroom you will find students with diverse backgrounds and differing opinions of what is right or wrong. While you may not be able to reach a consensus on what is morally right or wrong, you can agree upon what constitutes ethical or unethical actions. Let’s consider the ethical choices you may have to make as an online student.

Academic Honesty

One of the first topics that come to mind when students are asked about ethical choices is academic honesty. In my post What Academic Honesty Means for Online Students I discussed the issue of plagiarism and defined it as follows: plagiarism occurs if you use the words of an existing author without acknowledging or giving credit for that source of information. Because online schools have an academic honesty code, a plagiarism incident becomes an unethical action because it violates the school’s expectation of honesty. You make a decision to act ethically by acknowledging sources used in your discussion board postings or written assignments – whether you paraphrase that information or use a direct quote.

Classroom Behavior

Your behavior in class, or the manner in which you conduct yourself, is also an ethical choice. One of the most common set of rules for interactions within a technologically-enabled environment is called Netiquette, which is important because “the distance imposed by computer networks disrupts our interactions so that people may become more vocal (mostly a good thing), but also more careless.” What I’ve noticed during class discussions is that students may forget that their classmates are people and can read, interpret, and misinterpret what has been posted. That’s why I remind students to read their messages aloud before posting them and consider both the content and possible tone of the messages. I also encourage students to find specific elements of their peers’ responses to focus on when they are posting messages – in other words, keep it academic, not personal. 

Another ethical choice to make, concerning your classroom behavior, is related to the issue of cyber safety, which involves how you behave or act towards others online. Cyber safety for students “includes the language they use and the things they say, how they treat others, respecting people's property (e.g. copyright) and visiting appropriate websites.” Also related to cyber safety is cyber bullying. Forms of cyber bullying can include:
•    “Insulting: Posting or spreading false information about a person that will cause harm to that person or that person’s reputation.
•    Targeting: Singling someone out and inviting others to attack or make fun of her or him.
•    Excluding: Pressuring others to exclude someone from a community (either online or offline).
•    Harassment: Repeatedly sending someone nasty, mean and insulting messages.”

It is your responsibility as a student to act ethically in your class. Instructors know the importance of monitoring online interactions to ensure that students have a safe classroom environment to work in. For example, if I observe a message within the discussion board that may be perceived as threatening or hostile, I’ll address it right away with that student and should the problem continue I can file a Student Code of Conduct violation with the school.


The issue of privacy is often considered from the perspective of a school’s responsibility. Academic institutions must abide by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), which mandates privacy and “protects from disclosure ‘education records,’ broadly defined to include all records directly related to a student and maintained by an educational institution or someone acting on its behalf (e.g., contractors).”

What ethical consideration do students have regarding privacy? You can make a conscious choice or ethical decision not to disclose the email address or phone number of your classmates or students. Even though there is an element of anonymity associated with the online classroom it is possible to learn about personal information from class rosters and messages posted within the classroom – and having access to this kind of information does not imply permission to use or distribute it.

Proactive Approach

How do you know if you have not made a correct ethical choice? Students often find out when they are alerted by their instructor or school officials that a violation has occurred. What can you do ahead of time to help you make the best ethical decisions? Take a proactive approach. Here are my suggestions:
•    Read your school’s privacy policy.
•    Read your school’s policy concerning academic honesty.
•    Review your online posts. What would you want other classmates and instructors to know about you?
•    Develop a personal code of ethics for yourself, which can be a statement or set of rules to follow that establishes how you will interact with others in the classroom.
•    Make a decision that you will be a good digital citizen by following netiquette guidelines and avoiding any form of inappropriate online behavior.

How do you establish ethical behavior guidelines? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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