Netiquette: encouraging good behaviour in online classes

Online teaching can blur boundaries between home and university, so lecturers must take steps to ensure a safe and respectful online learning environment through good ‘netiquette’. Sam Smidt and Joanna Stroud explain how

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University College London
15 January 2021
Take steps to ensure a safe and respectful online learning environment through good ‘netiquette’
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With most core university teaching currently taking place online, it’s important that staff and students contribute to, and feel part of, a safe, respectful and connected community when interacting online.

Here we outline how university staff can create a positive, constructive remote learning environment through good “netiquette”.

Ensure that everyone can participate

With the shift to digital learning, we must prepare students for the systems, platforms and approaches they can expect to encounter in their studies. All students should feel able to contribute, regardless of the teaching method being used.

Clarity of resources

  • Clearly inform students about what online resources you will use.

  • Explain what the resources will be used for.

  • Explain to students how you want them to work with and access these resources.

  • Ensure that documents are accessible for all participants.

Teaching live classes

  • Set ground rules at the start of a class and stick to them! Ask participants to raise their hand or use the chat function rather than going straight to a microphone.

  • Monitor the chat periodically, and give people time to use it.

  • Make it clear when you are giving time for everyone to speak by calling on them. Use people’s names so everyone knows whose turn it is.

  • Consider that there might be some time lag when presenting live. Check regularly with students if they are able to follow along, and provide enough time to comment and ask questions when prompted.

  • If you are using online meeting tools such as Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom or Microsoft Teams, you can turn off participant microphones or remove them from sessions if they are being disruptive.

  • Clarify when the live session has ended and wait for all students to leave the session.

Student participation

  • Watch out for students who are not “joining in”. Drop them a note outside the session to see if they are happy sitting back and listening or whether they are finding it hard to break into the session.

  • Be aware that students from some countries and cultural backgrounds might be concerned about joining in an online, and notably recorded, session in case authorities have access to what has been said.

  • If a student expresses a wish to remain quiet, they may have a good reason that is not immediately obvious to you. Don’t push them, and try not to view participation in a discussion as the key evidence of engagement.

Equity of attention

It is easy to give attention to those students and colleagues we are most familiar with and identify with, or those who are most vocal. This can lead to real and perceived unfairness within a group.

  • Encourage communication and queries through general forums or Microsoft Teams groupings for classes to ensure that everyone is informed.

  • Remote working and study can raise feelings of isolation or sidelining in individuals. Try to ensure that praise is not reserved for a few select individuals in a class so that everyone feels valued.

Setting boundaries

Teaching from home, and around your home life, can mean that the boundaries between home and work become less concrete. The same is true for your students, and you’ll need to set boundaries to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

  • Do not give out personal phone numbers or email addresses to students. Similarly, do not expect others to give non-university contact details to you.

  • Online meeting platforms are available for non-email communications should you need it.

  • Let others know that you do not expect replies outside someone’s usual study or working hours. You could add a message about this to your email signature.

  • Try to model this practice of emailing only during working hours or using a delay send function within your email client.

  • Always let your students know when something is being recorded.

Consider personal and family safeguarding when using video. Check what you have around you that might be visible in the shot.

  • Are you happy with family photographs, or indeed family members, being on camera?

  • Perhaps blur your background or use a pre-prepared background.

  • Your students might not want to show images of their workspace. Give them the opportunity to work with their video off to maintain privacy. 

Dignity as part of learning

Everyone is entitled to feel comfortable and included during their study and work at university. For students, the lines between home and university are blurred by remote learning, and there will be many informal interactions taking place between students throughout the working day, often through social media. This means that maintaining respectful conduct within the online learning environment is vital.

  • Although it is acknowledged that a home working setting is not an office setting, no one should display offensive material, and everyone should dress appropriately for class, study and work when visible on video.

  • Do not tolerate any derogatory or stereotypical remarks, or mocking, mimicking or belittling of anyone’s protected characteristics.

  • Do not speculate about someone’s perceived sexuality or gender identity, nor refuse to use someone’s preferred gendered pronoun or continue to use their former name.

  • Nuances of language can be quickly lost in written text. Be mindful of your written informal interactions and how they could be interpreted.

  • Ask for clarification of the pronunciation of peoples’ names.

  • Show an awareness of others’ situations, especially if you are in a position of authority or seniority.

  • Be mindful that students and colleagues might have disabilities and hardships that you are not aware of.

Sharing student guidance

Make sure that you inform new students of your university’s expectations for how they interact online as well as reminding returning cohorts. You could include some general guidance for students’ online conduct on your learning management system (LMS) module pages. All students should be aware of the “netiquette” they should uphold as a community of supportive peers.

Sam Smidt is academic director of the UCL Arena Centre for Research-based Education, and Joanna Stroud is head of online learning at UCL.

More open access resources for university educators can be found via UCL’s Teaching and Learning Portal.

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