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Author: Jessica Harris and Sami Lange

As every instructor knows, whether it's shouting in class or shouting online, a student's rude or aggressive behavior can have unfortunate consequences in the classroom. Two online instructors decided to explore how face-to-face classroom management skills can translate to the online environment. Reviewing a series of community college courses, the authors identify four common disruptive behaviors and present a tool kit of proactive measures that instructors can take to facilitate a productive online learning environment.

Disruptive behavior

Disruptive student behavior such as laughter, outbursts, and foul language can prove a challenge even for the experienced instructor. While unanticipated behavior may require pulling a student aside for a private email or discussion, instructors can avoid much of this unpredictability by taking the time to establish credibility, authority, and expectations at the outset of the class.

An introduction forum is a popular first online assignment in which students share details about themselves and demonstrate familiarity with the class site. Why not use the forum as an opportunity to convey your credentials and model the language, tone, and type of critical thinking expected throughout the course? Think of the introduction forum as your first stop in reinforcing the online codes of conduct you will have already included in your syllabus and other introductory materials. Keep in mind that forums are also good tools to call attention to good work. An early and well-considered reply to a student post can help nurture desired behaviors and communication among peers.

Student questions

Ever wake up to a flurry of emails from the same student each morning? In the face-to-face classroom, an instructor may pace the lesson to accommodate questions at predetermined points; however, in the online environment, students may (mistakenly!) think they have 24/7 instant messaging rights to contact the instructor. Again, proactive measures can help counteract this assumption. Providing office hours, online or otherwise, is a given. Consider designating particular days for responses to email inquiries; this approach not only assures students you will address concerns, but also allows them time to fully consider the material, avoiding premature questions.

Peer forums, such as Q&A or Tips & Tricks, can also help minimize duplicative inquiries (technical challenges, for example) and encourage the peer interaction and support typically seen outside the classroom. Some instructors offer extra credit points for students answering other students' questions on these boards (of course, with instructor monitoring). Finally, sending out a weekly email can act as a helpful reminder of the full range of tools and support available.

Lack of engagement

Have the opposite problem? Have your students checked out? A healthy volume and diversity of student participation contribute to a lively and dynamic class environment. When it comes to the seemingly apathetic student, the absence of body language and verbal cues can make it difficult to decipher the lack of motivation. While some students in the face-to-face classroom eagerly speak up in class, others may be more inclined to express themselves in small group discussions. The same is true in the online environment. While some students may appreciate the opportunity to express themselves in a public forum, others may be quicker to respond to activities such as a small group wiki project or a one-on-one peer review. Be sure to include varied materials, such as readings, videos, and interactive lessons or projects, that will address the diverse learning styles and interests of your students.

Late/incomplete assignments

“So … I can hand this stuff in any time before the course ends, right?” In the online environment, poor class attendance can make an appearance in the form of a late assignment or incomplete coursework. Students may assume that online courses offer flexible deadlines or a lighter workload than do their face-to-face counterparts. Including language regarding anticipated workload, deadlines, and late assignments in a pre-class “Welcome” email and syllabus can help enlighten misinformed students.

To reiterate these requirements, consider including this information as a standard addendum in a weekly email. Persistence will prevail! If you do decide to accept a late assignment (everyone can be a softie), reminding the student of the deadlines going forward can save aggravation and misunderstandings later down the line. However, what if a student's coursework is late simply due to the unanticipated technological savvy required by an online course? Again, highlighting the technological prerequisites, requirements, and resources in your introductory materials will go a long way to helping alleviate frustration on the parts of both students and instructors.

Last thoughts? It's an online class. Don't be invisible. Be known. Be real. Whether it's a funny line in a lesson or an email (isn't humor always a common denominator?) or feedback that highlights a specific detail in a student's work, establishing a personal connection is critical to engaging students in the online environment. When students feel relevant and connected, they contribute. Taking the time to think about how you can proactively help your students better navigate and interact with the online environment can be the key to supporting a productive and dynamic online classroom.

Jessica Harris is a librarian at Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, California, and the former director of research services at Bain Capital. Sami Lange is a full-time librarian and instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, Petaluma, California.