Patch Nineteen: Be Kind Online

A Few Strategies to Promote Productive Online Student Behaviours

by Jessica O’Reilly, Cambrian College

Online courses have infiltrated the post-secondary landscape, and there is no sign that this trend is slowing. However, it is yet to be determined if online learning will lead to the revolution or devolution of post-secondary education. Opinions about online learning are about as varied – where some students love the flexibility that an online course can provide, others will readily admit that they struggle to succeed in what can feel like an isolated, barrier-fraught dystopia. Online instructors confide that they feel disconnected from their online students, suspicious of the efficacy of online courses, concerned about online students’ academic integrity, and nervous about their ability to teach effectively within the online mode. All of these feelings can be supported by recent research, which comes to incredibly incongruous conclusions about the effectiveness of online learning.

The question I face almost daily is what is my role within this complex climate? As an Instructional Designer supporting faculty at a small college situated in Northern Ontario, I too am caught up in the tensions between increased demand for flexible, student-centered delivery modes, tight budgets and aggressive timelines, the desire to incorporate established and emerging best practice into course development processes, and the reality that most of our educators are subject matter experts, not necessarily pedagogical or technological aficionados. 

I tend to work with faculty tasked with the development and / or delivery of fully online courses. When I follow-up with faculty after they’ve taught an online course for the first time, I notice that regardless of subject area, a few key themes emerge. Here are three concerns that I hear from online instructors time and again:

  • Students are far more demanding and even blatantly rude within the online environment when compared to in-class
  • Students assume the online course is a “bird course” and are upset when they learn that the time required to successfully complete an online course is as much or more than the time required in a fully face-to-face environment
  • Faculty strongly suspect that online students are engaging in various types of academic dishonesty to a greater degree within online courses than in-class

Well alrighty then! Since these problems are not unique to my college and are not new, there is a wealth of information available to online instructors that is intended to mitigate these issues. I’m going to try to avoid the more common strategies in favour of ones that I’ve personally applied successfully in my own online courses.  

Problem #1: Students are demanding and even rude online

The major issue with the online environment, is, well, it’s online! The norms of polite, professional discourse tend to disintegrate online, and as a result, online interactions that feel like social media will inevitable look like social media, replete with emojis, internet slang, abbreviations, and incomplete sentences that can tidily fit into a Tweet but don’t fulfill your discussion forum requirements. And I’ve not even touched on the bullying, abusive, downright rude troll-like behaviours that some students exhibit (we’ve all got our stories).  

A strategy that really changed the tone of my online courses is a 1-1 video or audio call with each student, very early in the semester. Granted, my online courses are relatively small so I can connect with each student during week one of the course without it causing me undo stress, and so I make this connection the first mandatory course activity and use the LMS to help me schedule individual phone calls with each enrolled student. I’m open to using Skype, FaceTime, Lync or plain old telephone calls for this session, but each student must converse with me within the first week of the course (sometimes this bleeds into week 2 if I have late enrollments or students reschedule). I have a basic script for this phone call. I introduce myself and invite the student to tell me about him/herself. We discuss the course generally and I probe into any areas of concern. I wrap up by directing the student to my Netiquette expectations quiz and asking that s/he complete it prior to posting in the course. I usually say something like:

“I know that in an online environment things can feel fairly informal, particularly discussion forum posts and emails. Please keep in mind though that this is not only a post-secondary course, but it is a post-secondary communications course. Please write in complete sentences, avoid slang and jargon terms, and craft your emails professionally. Remember that your peers and I can’t read your tone of voice or body language, so we only have your words to create meaning. We all need to be extra careful with our wording so that we don’t accidentally come across as rude or abrupt. Now that I’ve spoken with you I can tell that you’re an awesome person, so please make sure that comes across online and via email as well!”

Sounds corny maybe, but honestly these brief phone calls have totally changed the tone in my online courses, and this extends beyond netiquette. I strongly suspect that my students are more forgiving of my mistakes and are less likely to squabble over marks / appeal grades because of this simple connection made early on.

Problem #2: Students get mad when they figure out the online course will actually require effort

There are many examples of “bad” online courses which are basically correspondence courses that use email. Students have been conditioning to blow through the online course, paying attention only to activities that are mandatory and assessed, and ignoring the rest. While this can feel like a direct insult to a course developer who has spent countless hours fine-tuning the online environment, I really don’t think it’s meant to be personal. Students have many competing priorities and often the online course is hidden away, out of sight and out of mind. I spend time in the first week “strongly encouraging” (forcing) students to make time for their online course. I tell them that to succeed in the course they will need to spend at least four hours a week working through content, activities and producing the evaluated components of the course. I can say this with confidence because I’ve had previous students track their time spent on assignments, and I can leverage LMS analytics to see how long students work within the course. I tell students how long it will take, and the first written assignment in my course asks students to articulate exactly when and where they will work on the course, and what their contingency plans are should something come up unexpectedly. This opens up a conversation about effective study habits, time management strategies and related course policies and seems to, at the very least, negate some of the passive-aggressive “this course is too hard” grouching that I’d see within some of the discussion forums.

Problem #3: Online students cheat more (?)

I don’t believe that the above statement is true, but certainly if any student is provided with the opportunity to cheat, s/he may take it, regardless of whether the course is offered in-class or online. When I talk to academics convinced that online students cheat more than in-class students do, I ask them what they think would happen if, during an in-class test or exam, the instructor announced, “Okay folks, so I’m just going to leave the room for the next two hours. No cheating!”

While every course has its unique requirements and constraints, in my online courses I assume that students are going to use course resources, each other, Google, mom, and any other resource they can think of / afford in order to complete the required assignments. I make sure that my written assignment criteria are overwhelmingly context-specific, so that Google hits aren’t relevant or integrate into the text in a disjointed, easily recognizable manner. I start with smaller written products and heavily scrutinize any suspected collusion or plagiarism. For example, I’ve been known to check document properties and, if the document author name does not match the name of my student, I ask the student who “John Smith” is and ask if “John Smith” wrote the document. I’m fairly brutal at the outset of the course so that students smarten up for the later, weightier assignments. There’s no magic fix-all when it comes to academic integrity, but fair and explicit success criteria mixed in with a fairly punitive approach to suspected plagiarism certainly doesn’t hurt.

Make the Call

As a final thought, if your online students aren’t behaving appropriately, consider making a personal connection via telephone or video conference call. This format tends to add more intimacy to a conversation than can be achieved via email, and while you *may* lose the ability to easily document what was said, I’ve found this practice can really turn things around in a short amount of time. 

 

Featured image: “A dash of carrot, a dollop of stick” created by Christopher Cook, third year Graphic Design Student, Cambrian College

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