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Developing a Productive and Respectful Class Environment

What are the Concerns around Classroom Etiquette in Remote Environments?

Considering the Remote Learning Environment

The location where teaching and learning takes place has drastically changed with remote learning. In the past, the social norms of face-to-face instruction on campus were structured around the architecture and classroom design which had been reinforced throughout students’ prior education. Physical space delivers certain expectations of behaviour, clothing, and of engagement to peers and instructors. The movement to remote instruction has changed the notion of learning space completely; we now exist in a technological space that has its own existing expectations of behaviour, engagement, and presence. The online space is rooted in the discourse of social media as the defining tool of online social engagement and, as education now also occupies this space, we need to engage meaningfully with these assumed norms to develop, communicate, and reinforce clear expectations of what professional behaviour looks like online. Students are no longer entering ‘our’ learning space (campus classrooms and labs), we are entering theirs: their bedrooms, kitchens, and homes. It is their private space, replete with disruptions from roommates, family members, and pets, and with the prospect of having unmade beds, dirty dishes and unique choices of décor on full display for cameras. It is important that this is acknowledged and understood, especially when considering having students turn on their cameras.

As educators, we should not assume that experience navigating the internet will equate with student awareness and practice of good remote citizenship, including remote classroom etiquette. Therefore, it is important to communicate with our students to define this new learning space together, reflect on what we need to be successful, and articulate what respectful, collegial behaviour and engagement looks like in this new arena.

The University of Saskatchewan has developed a good resource around “Netiquette” for students.

Being at Home

The reality of being at home drastically changes the learning dynamic. Within their homes, students may have relaxed expectations about their clothing choices, for example, and may not associate the space with clothing norms that traditionally apply on campus. Given that we are looking into each other’s personal spaces, the remote environment can highlight disparities and inequalities that play out more directly in terms of their home surroundings, like the availability of private, quiet space away from roommates or family. It is often the case that the only place a student may have to connect is their bedroom, and so we need to be flexible about the space students use to connect to any synchronous sessions.

Zoom allows the host to mute individuals’ videos or choose to have all students join the meeting without their video enabled. Allowing students to choose to keep their cameras off can help protect their privacy and actually remove distraction from the learning environment. This is not to say that it must be acceptable for students to lay tucked into bed in pyjamas, but you should consider reinforcing what appropriate, professional behaviour looks like in the remote classroom and why it is important to building positive classroom culture. Discuss what appropriate engagement on camera looks like but give students space to keep their cameras off if they aren’t in a position to meet those expectations.

Respectful and Inclusive Communication

When we consider issues around classroom etiquette in remote instruction, engaging appropriately and professionally in discussions is critical for creating a supportive and inclusive learning environment. It is important to foster this environment by modelling respectful and inclusive communication in your own interactions with your students. Talk about what respectful dialogue looks like in class, emphasize its importance in making sure everyone is included and can engage, and discuss what students need to be comfortable in your discussions. When communicating what professional discussions look like, remember to address:

  • How students can be respectful during synchronous sessions (muting their microphones, giving focus, minimizing distractions in their space).
  • How students engage in the chat and discussion boards.
  • How students engage with one another in small groups and breakout rooms.

When you see inappropriate communication, or discussion that moves away from classroom content and issues, address it and bring the focus back on to what the class needs to be engaging with. You can leverage the tools in Zoom to mute disruptive students, or remove them to the waiting room, but it’s important to address the issue with the student as well as with the class rather than simply booting participants from class. Similarly, when you see positive examples of communication (like students using the “Raise Hand” feature in Zoom rather than interrupting, or helping each other answer questions in the chat), make sure to highlight these.

Be prepared to be repetitive around reinforcing respectful communication so that you can ensure that the behavioural changes that are needed for this new medium of learning can be made in a supportive way. You can make these moments more positive by using them to learn together about what we collectively need to be successful, rather than seeing them as moments of punishment. Be aware that other instructors may be expecting different communication norms than you (like how to ask a question during a synchronous session), and students may need to be reminded more often than you think. The way in which we ourselves communicate forms the basis for how our students will engage with us, so staying calm and focusing on learning keeps the focus on respectful and inclusive communication.

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How do I Build a Productive and Respectful Class Environment?

Having the Conversation

To build appropriate classroom etiquette you need to foreground it in the classroom as an active and ongoing conversation. Starting in the first class is a good strategy and repeating the conversation, or the agreements made, at other appropriate moments throughout the course will assist in creating the environment you are looking for. Frame it as a collaborative conversation with your students so you can define collective expectations. Approaching it this way will allow you more clarity on their experience in the space so you can understand the challenges they have in engaging meaningfully with their learning.

You can ask your students:

  • What do they need from each other to be able to safely work in this space?
  • What do they need from you to safely work in this space?
  • What do they need from themselves to safely work in this space?

Having students address these questions shows them where their peers stand, creates community, and helps them to understand what is needed from the class as a whole. Students’ answers allow you the space to discuss what you expect from yourself in supporting them, and what you need from them so that you have the appropriate space to support them. The key is that the discussion must begin early and continue throughout the course. The classroom is a social setting, and a class is a social group that needs space and support to create dialogue about behaviour and engagement. As remote learning continues, and social norms for remote classrooms will become established and more implicit, these conversations will get easier and take less time, but as the remote classroom is still new, we need to prioritize these discussions so that we can develop the necessary environments that best foster learning.

There are tools that can help facilitate ongoing conversations about a respectful classroom environment. Instructors can leverage tools that promote respectful dialogue like:

These discussions, class contracts, or representatives, all help students engage in their learning and assist in developing key skills like debating, negotiating, critical thinking, and building consensus. Participating in these reflective activities gives students seamless access to develop a broad range of skills.

Building Community Focus

Students are part of a classroom community, in-person or remotely, and building an understanding of behavioural and conduct norms is a useful way to ensure that these conversations develop positively and lead to outcomes and accountabilities that can be understood by the entire class community.

Building classroom etiquette, similar to promoting academic integrity, is best done through developing trust through open communication and dialogue. Maintaining your focus on the classroom as a community, of which you are a part, and seeing your students as equals in developing and maintaining respectable norms of behaviour will assist in ensuring students feel valued throughout the process and are comfortable sharing their views. For students, knowing that you are listening to their feedback and incorporating it into their learning experience leads to the most productive and honest conversations.

The Role of Class Contracts

Class contracts are a creative way to develop civil learning spaces and build collective understanding. The classroom contract is a collaborative agreement that all parties, student and instructor, negotiate around accepted standards of behaviour, engagement, discussion, and integrity. In a classroom contract you negotiate not only the norms of behaviour, but the rules that you collectively agree to, and the consequences for breaches in the agreement.

The strength of this tool is that it gets the conversation out in the open and develops a formal outcome that everyone has been involved in creating. The class contract eradicates confusion because it is written and available to the whole class, who now hold collective responsibility to ensure it is upheld. Class contracts are a formal, democratic approach to issues of etiquette and promote honest open conversation around issues so that students and the instructor can all be aware and actively participate in creating and maintaining their learning space.

Some steps for developing a classroom contract:

  1. Ask students to brainstorm the issues they face in remote education, the course, and when engaging with one another;
  2. Ask students to brainstorm how these can be addressed;
  3. Summarize the ideas shared by students and add your own expectations;
  4. Turn these ideas into rules that can be agreed on;
  5. Develop and sign the contract shared through the class page on MyLS; and
  6. Review contract intermittently to ensure agreed rules are being followed.

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How Can I Respond to Negative Behaviours?

Stay Calm and Address the Moment

In moments of inappropriate behaviour from students it is important to remain calm and address the moment rather than the individual. Concentrating on your breathing and taking a moment to calm yourself before responding can help with this. Knowing how to use the tools available in Zoom to give yourself a moment to compose yourself is important. When you do respond, address the behaviour as openly and honestly as possible. Explain what happened and why it is not appropriate. Doing this openly allows students to see that these moments will be engaged with and that they will be addressed. This builds safety and comfort for all of your students, showing that you will be managing the space so that it is productive. When addressing the behaviour, do so calmly and explain how the whole class can help ensure that it won’t happen again: What can we do collectively and individually to ensure that we move forward productively?

Using the Tools Available

Within the Zoom learning space there are tools that you can use when addressing negative or disruptive behaviour. The chat can be restricted so that participants can only message you as the host, only chat publicly, or the chat can be turned on or off entirely using the Security tab in Zoom. Remind students that chats are being saved and are included with recordings (and remember to turn on auto-saving chats in your Zoom configuration settings).

Understanding how to change your chat settings (using the “...” more menu at the bottom of the Chat window) is critical for managing participation through the chat. You can mute all participants at once or one-by-one and turn off students’ videos in the Participants window. The security tab can prevent students from unmuting themselves. You could send disruptive students to the waiting room or into a breakout room, give the class a task to do, and then go into the breakout room to address the behaviour with the student. This way you can deal with disruptive behaviour privately before returning to the class to discuss it collectively. In extreme cases, you can remove the participant entirely using the Security menu or “…” menu on the thumbnail. In this instance, you should consider following up with the students after the class to talk through the behaviour, your response, and class etiquette moving forward.

More information about managing your classroom in Zoom is available in the Teaching section of this guide.

Communicating with Your Students

It is important to use any moment of classroom disruption as a learning opportunity for your students. Talk through the issue, why it is not appropriate, and how it hinders the learning environment. If you have a class contract, review the document as a discussion in class so that it becomes more active and they can participate in reinforcing these norms. It is critical that negative behaviours are discussed openly and not just ignored with students thrown out of class without clearly communicating to the student and the class as a whole. The same can be said for positive classroom etiquette moments. Take the time to validate good behaviours to make positive moments visible for everyone. If we only address negative behaviours, we risk framing all conversations about classroom etiquette in the negative.

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