How to Ensure Civility in the Online Classroom

How to Ensure Civility in the Online Classroom

The online classroom should be a relatively neutral environment since there isn’t direct contact or vocal communication; however, as students know, this is not always the case. Just because the form of classroom interactions has changed doesn’t mean that the potential for acts of incivility has lessened. In some ways, it can become more difficult to remain civil and develop effective working relationships online due to the lack of face-to-face exchanges, which allow students to clarify their communication. Students and instructors have a responsibility to recognize what constitutes incivility and take proactive steps to prevent it, and one of the most effective methods students can use is to develop their virtual emotional intelligence.

Incivility in the Online Class

Dr. P.M. Forni, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct and professor at Johns Hopkins University, shared a definition of civility in Ethical Action and Relational Competence – Why Manners and Civility are Good: “civility is linked to the Latin word civitas, which means city and community.  Thus, civility implies a larger social concern.  When we are civil we are members in good standing of a community, we are good neighbors and good citizens.” The online classroom is a community of students who are working towards common academic goals – collaborative participation in discussions and completion of their classwork. To be civil in class is to maintain respect for other students with all exchanges, along with appropriate behavior, so that meaningful collaboration can occur. The converse then becomes true – any form of inappropriate behavior constitutes incivility.

Within the Journal of Adult Education (2010, p.4), the article Understanding Incivility in Online Teaching provides a specific list of behaviors and acts that represent the most common forms of incivility within online classes:
•    Challenging authority
•    Demanding special treatment
•    An “I paid for this mentality”
•    Making offensive remarks
•    Missing deadlines
•    Reluctance in answering questions or participating in online discussion
•    Challenging the instructor’s credibility
•    Taunting or belittling others
•    Challenging the instructor’s knowledge
•    Making physical threats to the instructor
•    Engaging in academic dishonesty (cheating and/or plagiarism)
•    Making harassing, hostile, or vulgar comments
•    Sending the instructor inappropriate emails  

From my teaching perspective, I do not consider all of these items to be a form of inappropriate or uncivil behavior. For example, missing a deadline or failing to participate in the class discussion may indicate a lack of proper time management or self-motivation. Behaviors that are unacceptable are those that interrupt the class and are clearly addressed by the Student Code of Conduct. Some of these inappropriate behaviors could be classified within one main category, called flaming messages or “hostile and aggressive communicative behaviors.” This can occur in class through discussion board posts and email, when students are overly aggressive in their response to others. It is up to the instructors to assess the situation and develop a plan of action.

How Instructors View Incivility

Instructors often consider incivility as disruptive behavior when those actions interfere with the learning process or become a threat to another student. Offensive posts are those that include “hate speech; racially, sexually, or gender-biased offensive language; or offensive speech regarding religious views” (Mechenbier & Prescott, 2009). The most common reasons why incivility occurs in the online classroom includes the following:
•    Students are not “visible” in online courses as they are in the classroom and are therefore emboldened, believing they can be anonymous behind the computer.
•    Students may have had little experience with civil behavior online.
•    Students view education as service-based, and as “consumers” they expect entitlement.
•    Students fear being powerless, challenged, or feel threatened by new ideas, causing them to act defensively through incivility (Mechenbier & Prescott, 2009).

The primary proactive approach that instructors often take is to provide guidelines and expectations of appropriate classroom behavior within the course syllabus, which is considered to be a contract between the instructor and students. For example, I include Rules of Netiquette or appropriate online behavior within the syllabus to establish parameters for posting and sending messages. I also include information about the Student Code of Conduct at my institution, which further outlines acceptable behaviors and establishes the school’s policy for handling misconduct or inappropriate behavior. Just as important as stating the policies, is enforcement of the rules, which means I am actively monitoring discussions and responding quickly to any inappropriate behaviors. In addition to providing guidelines, I also emphasize the need for managing emotions as a means of dealing with and preventing disruptive behaviors.
A Need for Virtual Emotional Intelligence

In my post, Why Emotional Intelligence is Needed More Than Ever, I addressed college students in general. However, online students are also in need of emotional intelligence. At the beginning of that post I talked about digital communication. From my experience, online students learn that communication in an academic setting is different than using the abbreviated forms of communication that are present in text messaging because they need to clearly communicate their thoughts in a way that can be easily read and interpreted. Class posts also determine how relationships are developed because they carry a tone that students recognize perceptually as they read them. Students read and interpret messages, filtering the intent and tone through electronic means. This requires what I refer to as a need for virtual emotional intelligence.
In his article, The Other Side of Civility, Dr. P.M. Forni talks about emotions from the perspective of being kind to others and demonstrating empathy, as a means of strengthening our relationship skills. Forni believes that “good manners prove crucial when it comes to establishing and maintaining connection and rapport.” During class discussions I’ve observed the lasting effects that incivility can have and more importantly, the relationship between students. After students have engaged in flaming posts between each other their relationship becomes damaged, often irreparably.

Author Edward Hallowell talks about positive emotions being good for our health and our thinking skills. Hallowell states that a person who manages their emotions can “think flexibly; perceive shades of gray, subtlety, complexity; bear with the frustration of not knowing the answer, and allowing conflicting points of view simultaneously to balance in his mind without either overpowering the other; wait, before bringing premature closure; ask for help; empathize with others; give to others; put the needs of others before his own; give help; inspire others.” Most of these qualities are transferrable to communication within the online class. For example, the perceptual tone of students’ posts is evident through their word choices. Students who have strong emotional intelligence are supportive of others; ask follow up questions without being threatening, and when they disagree, they do so in a respectful manner.

MindTools provides tips on Improving Your Emotional Intelligence, and the list includes observing your reactions to others and stressful situation, taking responsibility for your actions, and considering how your actions affect others. When I talk to students about managing their emotions they agree that it is the key to being civil in class because most inappropriate behavior occurs after they have read something posted by another student. I also suggest that students create their responses first offline, read it aloud to determine how it may be interpreted, and if necessary – due to an emotional reaction – put it aside and return to it again later.

Online and Civil

As an online student you are going to interact with students who have diverse opinions, beliefs, and backgrounds. If you want to work effectively with your classmates you need to be civil and avoid inappropriate behavior. Incivility not only violates school conduct policies, but can permanently damage your future interactions with students and your instructor. Work to develop your virtual emotional intelligence and you’ll discover that you become less reactive to class conditions and discussions, and more proactively involved in the learning process because you are successfully collaborating with others.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

Photo © Ronnen Eshel/CORBIS

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