The Ten Rules of Etiquette for the Online Classroom


     Well, the new year has begun and look at all the class offerings turning up in your email!  It’s an online buffet of knowledge and inspiration just waiting for you to show up, fork and knife in hand. There are plenty of seats available. (All of which offer the best view in the house, of course.)  You choose the music, the décor, and the dress code. Guess what? There’s also a private chef who will greet you at the door, syllabus in hand, and welcome you personally.

Of course, with all the star treatment, it’s easy to forget that you are not alone in the restaurant. Other people are participating in the experience. You’re most likely sharing your private booth with up to sixty strangers. All of them paid for their seat. All of them are hoping for the same wonderful experience. All of them expect to have a personal relationship with the chef.

Okay, maybe not all of them. Some might be there to prove a point or, to pull a few old clichés out of the closet, they might be there to:

Grind an ax, preach from the pulpit, raze the dog, or spit in the wind.

In the past twenty years I’ve attended hundreds of online classes. Some classes have been momentous events that have led to breakthroughs in my writing. Others have sent me running for the exit, vowing never to register for a class using my real email or name ever again.  In the majority of instances, the defining incident that ruined my class experience involved the behavior of other students.

Unfortunately, the same intimate atmosphere that draws many students to the online classroom can also lead to a collapse of classroom etiquette or open battle. It’s what I call “The Jerry Springer Effect” and the posts of those involved might as well be titled, “When classmates go rabid.”

Respect and tolerance fly out the window. Out come the scary emoticons and the decorative punctuation symbols that visually impart the intent to humiliate, discredit and maim another student or, in some cases, the teacher. Suddenly, that private booth is turned into a front row seat at “Battle of the Gladiators.”

Some people find this chaos entertaining. I do not.  My money is precious to me. When I register for a class, I do so to learn from the teacher. Classroom discussions conducted with mutual respect are beneficial to learning. Classroom discussions that belittle other students or discredit the teacher and her/his methods are not.

Here are some rules of etiquette that can promote an environment conducive to learning in online classrooms:

  1. Respect the teacher. There’s a reason she/he is standing in front of the class while you are seated in the audience.
  2. Respect other students. In class, everyone is equal, regardless of who is and isn’t published.
  3. Remember the classroom is not a forum for debate in which one person must win and another lose. It’s a place to share ideas.
  4. Don’t use the classroom discussion board as a personal soapbox.
  5. Be forgiving. Comments can be misunderstood. Be the bigger person. Let it slide.
  6. Keep personal conversations off the boards. Use the emails available in the class member list to chat about pets and other personal things.
  7. Don’t allow yourself to be sucked into classroom drama.
  8. Be mindful of the feelings of others, especially when it comes to feedback. Just because you wouldn’t mind being skewered through the gut with a wooden stake and basted over a campfire doesn’t mean everyone else is open to a similar experience.
  9. Be friendly. You never know who is sitting next to you. It could be your future editor.
  10. Keep your eye on the ball. This is your dream. Don’t let anyone distract you from achieving it.


Have you found yourself in the middle of a classroom battle? I’m opening to hearing about exit strategies and other suggestions about how to deal with unpleasant classroom conflict.

In the meantime, keep your head down and pay attention to traffic lights. It’s dark out there.



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