Creating an Ethical Online Environment

Written by: Rob Kelly
Published On: January 11, 2014

Because successful communication is essential to learning in an online course, instructors and instructional designers need to foster a respectful, welcoming environment and to prepare for potential problems that can arise, such as cyber harassment, trolling, and flaming. In an email interview with Online Classroom, Steven T. Varela, senior instructional designer/lecturer with Instructional Support Services at the University of Texas–El Paso, offered advice on managing online communication to create and maintain an ethical learning environment.

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Online Classroom: How do you define cyber harassment, trolling, and flaming? 

Varela: In basic terms, cyber harassment is using online tools to bully and/or stalk others sexually or with hostility. Typically cyber harassment occurs through email, discussion forums, and/or social media.

Trolls are online users who look for opportunities to create conflicts with or between other users of discussion forums or social media, while flames attempt to make an already established conflict worse by [exacerbating] a situation. Politics, religion, and sexuality all are usual target points for trolls and flames.

Online Classroom: How big a problem are these in online courses? How does this type of behavior differ from what you might find in a face-to-face classroom? 

Varela: By and large, students who take online courses comport themselves respectfully with regard to classmates and instructors and with the utmost collegiality. The online environment, however, has created an interesting space where cyber harassment, trolling, and flaming can easily occur.

On one hand, having communication forums like discussion boards has empowered students who may be more expressive and participatory online, when in traditional classrooms they tend to be more introverted. Unfortunately, this same “liberation” can come in negative forms through communication that a student would never verbalize in a face-to-face classroom but that they now feel able and willing to express online.

It’s not so much that the online learning environment has contributed to these behaviors, but rather it’s a lack of media literacy on the part of the users. Students feel anonymous hiding behind a user name or avatar, even though they aren’t, and feel less accountable (as they maneuver through a space they see as temporary and transient), when the opposite it true.

Online Classroom: How might these behaviors affect an online course? 

Varela: If left unchecked, these behaviors can be quite detrimental to a class, sometimes effectively shutting down the productive interaction and communication we all want in a course. The goal for any class is to create an environment, whether online or face-to-face, where students feel safe and secure in expressing their opinions, knowledge, and perspectives regarding their learning. We also, however, live in a time where it has become increasingly difficult to know when an emotional argument between students may lead to something far more dangerous. Faculty therefore need to have a strong online presence—offering support and redirection if necessary, and sometimes taking the time to teach and/or remind students of the level of discourse and civility expected in a class. 

Online Classroom: What can be done up front to minimize these behaviors? What sort of
 preparation can students go through to make these incidents less likely?

Varela: It all begins with the syllabus and the parameters set for students and their behavior/participation in a course. Faculty need to be specific about what is appropriate for interactions between faculty and students and between students themselves. It is important to be clear, especially for the online environment, about “netiquette” as well as about the possible sanctions that may result if policy is broken.

In order to prepare students, faculty might present hypothetical examples of different problematic interactions to students the first week of class, on the discussion board. Have them identify problematic behavior using the syllabus as a reference, consider sanctions, propose ways to prevent these types of exchanges, and discuss their expectations for the interactions they will have in the course.

Online Classroom: What role if any does instructional design play in minimizing these behaviors? When incidents of harassment, trolling, or flaming occur, what can be done to minimize their impact? 

Varela: 
Instructional design and course management are integral in minimizing these behaviors. There are some basic protocols I always recommend to faculty: 

  • Get to know your dean of students/judicial affairs administrator. That person is an invaluable resource when faculty face situations with student behavior that they are unsure how to handle. Whether for simple advice or more direct action, this administrator is a good starting point, including for the documentation process.
  • Provide clear expectations/netiquette on the syllabus. These should be reiterated throughout the course and not as a one-time “read the syllabus” directive. The syllabus should not be a document used in isolation but rather should be a map for student success that is integrated throughout the course—for what they will learn but also for expectations of their collegiality.
  • Educate first! When a concern is raised, refer students back to the syllabus, or perhaps the university’s student handbook, and use it as a teaching moment to explain why the student’s behavior/communication was an issue.
  • Save documentation—NEVER delete anything. Use your learning management system to hide problematic discussion threads, and save all communication with the student. You want to be able to show a process of intervention and attempts at finding a solution if institutional intervention might be needed.
  • Don’t ignore the situation. It would only serve to demonstrate that there was nothing wrong with the behavior/interaction and/or that your syllabus policies are not to be taken seriously.


Online Classroom: What authority does an instructor typically have in these situations? Can an instructor kick a student out of an online course for these behaviors? What are some possible sanctions for these types of behavior? 

Varela: When clear policies, standards, and expectations are identified in the syllabus, sanctions can range from warnings to a loss of participation points to preventing the student from participating in communication forums like a discussion board if necessary (thereby losing the points associated with it). In extreme cases, it is possible to remove a student from the online course; however, strong documentation is needed, as well as evidence that opportunities were afforded to the student to correct his or her behavior.

In addition, every university has some form of a student handbook of policies and procedures governing student behavior at that university. Typically, there is a “disruptive acts” policy, stating something to the effect that the obstruction or disruption of any teaching, research, administrative, disciplinary, public service, or other authorized activity on campus (or under the authority of the university or on property owned or controlled by the university) is prohibited and will subject the student or group of students to disciplinary action, which again, depending on the severity of the infraction, can include removal from the course or even expulsion from the university.

Online Classroom: When is institutional intervention needed? 

Varela: The best advice I ever received on this was from the dean of students at my university. He said, “If you feel you should have come to see me, you probably already should have.” It’s a judgment call by faculty, but we shouldn’t hesitate to seek outside help to gain additional insight and perspective about issues like this. Some issues are greater than what can be handled through classroom management strategies, and offices like judicial affairs (or whatever it may be called at your institution) are there to work on behalf of faculty, students, and the institution itself—and to seek the best reconciliation for all three.

Steven T. Varela is currently a senior instructional designer/lecturer with Instructional Support Services at UTEP who specializes in course development and implementation, teaching with technology, and blended and online learning. His research and teaching interests include the areas of gamification and game-based learning, social media, and gesture-based/immersive teaching and learning. Steve has been a lecturer for the Department of English and University Studies and was a recipient of the UT Regents Award for Outstanding Teaching.


This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom 13.1 (2013): 3, 4. The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.