10 Netiquette Needs for the Online Classroom
With online schools and programs continuing to grow, it’s crucial for students to effectively and politely communicate with each other and their professors online. Discover the tips, expert advice, and resources students can use to hone their netiquette skills and prosper in the online classroom.
Last Updated: 02/03/2022
Meet the Expert
Andrew Selepak, PhD is a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, and Program Coordinator of the graduate program in social media.
Online learning has been mainstream for several years now, especially for college students. With the arrival of COVID-19, however, it’s become a necessity for students at every grade level to engage in some form of distance learning.
Since everything from lectures and discussion groups to meetings between professors and students can take place online, the ways that students gain information and communicate with each other is changing in significant ways. Our communication and learning styles need to rapidly adapt to a heavy online format, which has been a serious adjustment. There is quite a learning curve there, both in terms of how students digest and retain course content and how we communicate with one another.
The goal of this guide is to outline the key basics of communication in the online classroom, and to highlight 10 netiquette needs that everyone involved needs to know and follow.
The 10 Needs for Healthy Netiquette
Know Your Audience
In all cases, we need to be sure that we understand the audience we are communicating with and what type of language is appropriate. Think about how differently you’d communicate with a small group of close friends or a family member as opposed to a recruiter for a job. The expectations are quite different.
Know the Platform
Are you writing an email to one person or posting a comment in a public forum? Similar to knowing your audience, you need to know if the content you’re creating is more or less going to be private or public.
Maintain Your Boundaries
One of the biggest hurdles for internet and social media users today is limiting their exposure and online connections to other users. Try to keep a sense of “personal space” when it comes to your online interactions and avoid connecting with others unless there’s a positive or productive reason for it.
The Internet is Forever
Sure, we don’t always know if, how long, or where our online information is being stored, sold, or distributed. It’s best to use good judgement at all times and avoid posting anything that could be considered compromising information.
Face-to-Face is Still the Priority
It’s insulting when someone in the room with you is more interested in their phone or computer than interacting with you. Avoid accessing your device when there’s a social expectation for you to interact with others.
It’s not only the words we use online that are open to interpretation, but also the photos and graphics we post. Think about the implications and how something might be understood by others before you post or send it. Add captions if you need to provide some context for the image.
Respect Others’ Words and Content
Do not forward emails or information that’s sent to you without checking with the original sender first. Email threads contain a lot of information, often including the quoted text from previous emails in that thread. It’s easy to forget what was typed throughout the duration of a thread, so don’t assume that nothing sensitive is in there.
Fact Check Ahead of Time
Whether you’re posting to social media or sending information over to a friend, it’s important to not spread misinformation from non-credible sources. It might sound like a lot of effort but it’s essential to maintaining any semblance of integrity online. When you choose to share articles or information online, we recommend sticking with stories published by well-known and respected outlets, such as the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and the like. For publications outside of news sources, consider articles written by known experts, scientists, college professors, and others who have the credentials and experience to speak on the topics.
Respond to Personal Emails
If you consider email to be a good way for people to contact you, be sure that you respect that. If someone sends you a personal email, you should do your best to respond within a reasonable amount of time. You can use an auto-response away message if you wish, which will let them know when you’re away from the computer for an extended period of time.
Respectful Language is a Must
No matter the location, it is a good practice to always use respectful language. When needed, you can still make effective arguments without using profanity or hurtful speech.
Where Netiquette Matters
There are four main ways that you’ll communicate with teachers and students in your online classes: discussion boards, Zoom meetings, text/small group apps, and email. Let’s take a look at each of these mediums and how to be mindful when you’re on them.
Discussion boards in online courses give you the chance to engage with and learn from other students’ posts about specific topics. Your professor will usually post weekly discussion board assignments or prompts that require you to post a response, informed argument, or an original idea. It tends to be based on some kind of reading or information you needed to digest that week. You’ll know in advance how much of your final grade is based on your discussion board participation, and how many times you’ll need to post each week or semester. The University of Texas offers a variety of discussion board samples on page five of this guide, including, “How might life in the year 2100 differ from today?”, “Suppose that Caesar never returned to Rome from Gaul. Would the Empire have existed?”, and “What do you think are the advantages of solar power over coal-fired electric plants?” You see, these questions are quite open-ended, but they do require you to apply things you’re learning in class while stating your position or opinion.
Quick Tips for Discussion Boards
Don’t dominate the conversation. You’ll want to engage with others’ posts, but don’t overdo it unless the professor encourages this type of heavy correspondence.
Avoid making jokes or trying to keep it light. You’re on there to discuss the course material and learn from one another, and joking just adds irrelevant content to the feed.
Write in a way that invites feedback and comments. The whole point of the board is to provide a space for others to exchange ideas, so present your writing in a way that fosters that sense of openness and community.
Don’t get too personal with your information. While it can be helpful to drop an anecdote or two along the way for context, try your best to leave personal details or issues out of it.
Shorter posts may be better than longer ones. Unless your professor requires a certain word count, a shorter post can be more engaging than a long-winded one.
Zoom is one of the most common platforms for students and professionals to have video meetings. For online classes, Zoom gives schools the chance to have dozens of people in one “virtual classroom.” Your professor will let you know ahead of time what the expectations are for your participation over video chats. In some online classes, you won’t need to have your video camera and audio on. Rather, the professor just wants to see that you’ve logged in and joined the online class. In other cases, especially in smaller classes, you might need to engage with students and your professors as if you’re all sitting at a conference table together. Graduate students can expect more of the latter, given the smaller class sizes and specialized nature of the course content.
Making Your Zoom Calls a Success
Make sure your space looks presentable. At least some of your personal space at home will be visible in the video. You should pick up a bit ahead of time so it doesn’t look like your Zooming in from a disaster area.
Stay professional and courteous. When interacting with both students and professors, distance learners need to use professional language and be respectful of others’ interjections throughout the Zoom call.
Mute your mic when you’re not using it. This ensures that any background noise that may be occurring at your place, including sound coming from a dishwasher, lawnmower, or noisy roommates, is not broadcasted over the call. Some of these interruptions may be unavoidable while your mic is one when you need to speak, but muting the mic is the best way to keep the sound clear for others on the call.
If your professor gives you the option, you may be able to join a Zoom class without using your video camera. In this way, you will still be able to listen in, respond to questions, and see others using their cameras, but your face won’t be visible in the chat. Some learners prefer this feature, as it makes them feel more comfortable. Be sure that your professor is okay with it though.
Get familiar with Zoom’s collaboration features ahead of time. Your teacher might ask you to use one of the program’s features such as a breakout room, screen share, or the whiteboard.
Text/Small Group Discussion Apps
Some online classes require you to use student collaboration tools, often in the form of a texting or small-group discussion app. These technologies help bridge the distance gap between remote learners by giving them the chance to offer one another feedback, brainstorm ideas, work on group projects, and exchange information about what they’re learning. Some popular apps in this area include VoiceThread, Markers Empire, Drawp Unlimited, Spiral, and Parlay.
Tips for Texting
Be sure to remain professional and use acceptable language when using apps. You don’t always know when and how data is being collected and if it will be visible to outsiders.
When dealing with more than one student through these apps, avoid making inside jokes. They can be misinterpreted and make others feel excluded.
Respect others’ time by not overusing the app. Especially if a lot of students are using the same app, you don’t want to be constantly sending messages that are generating notifications on their devices. Sure, they can probably turn off those notifications but you need to respect the fact that people need time away from their screens, too.
Some of the texting or small-group apps have extra features, including calendars, reminders, and to-do lists. You can take advantage of these aspects and cut down on the total number of apps you use to keep track of your schoolwork.
Don’t feel pressured to use an app if it’s not required. As a student in today’s digital world, you have plenty of screen time each day. If you choose not to engage with others over an app, and your professor isn’t expecting you to use it for anything, then that’s okay.
Of course, email will be one of the ways you most frequently engage with professors and students. We’ll talk about the specifics in greater detail later on. Email also serves as an information bureau, for all things class- and school-related. You can set up automatic reminders, receive updates whenever a change or post has been made to an online class site, and much more.
How to Make Your Emails Successful
Use a Descriptive Subject Line: Let them know what your email is about. There’s no need to date it but if you’re referring to something on the syllabus, it might be good to use something like, “Nonlinear Equations Week 3,” so you’re on the same page. A short but concise subject line, without spelling errors, makes your message more easily searchable in the future, too.
Identify Yourself: Your teachers might have a lot of students each semester. It’s good to let them know who you are and which class you attend so they know exactly how to respond to you. Remember, treat your email interactions with them with importance and professionalism, as your email is one way your teachers form an opinion about you as a student.
Avoid Unnecessary Details: It’s okay to provide context for your questions in an email, but your teacher doesn’t need to know irrelevant details. This keeps your emails shorter and easier to digest. Remember that they get a lot of emails and they’ll appreciate your conciseness.
Ask for a Video Meeting or Call if Needed: If you feel like your questions warrant a conversation rather than a series of long emails, you can set up a video chat meeting or attend their virtual office hours. This might actually save you both time and energy.
Make it Easy-to-Read: When emailing your professors, one way to keep it professional is to break it up into logical paragraphs. Nobody enjoys reading emails that are one giant block of text. If you need to show them something, like a graph or a screen shot, it’s better to attach it as a small file than trying to insert it into the body of the text. Don’t use strange fonts or colored text, either.
Some professors will use social media platforms to help their remote learners connect with current and exciting resources. Twitter, for example, is widely used among educators because of the hashtag feature that allows you to see posts categorized by user-assigned categories. You can also use social media to connect with your fellow students even if your professor doesn’t use it officially for class. Bear in mind:
Privacy on social media continues to be an issue today. It’s a good practice to remain professional and avoid offensive language of any type when posting on social media, even if you believe the platform to be secure and your settings are set to a private mode.
Connecting with your fellow students on social media may reveal details about your life that would have otherwise been unknown to them. You need to be okay with the information you share online, especially if with people and students you don’t really know.
You might consider creating separate social media accounts that you’ll use only for school purposes. This way, your non-school social media information and activity doesn’t tangle with your academic work.
If your professors are connected with you on social media, bear in mind that they also may have access to more information than you realize. If you post a photo of yourself on vacation when you told them you had to visit a family member in the hospital, that could be an issue.
Your social media history probably predates the online class you’re in. If you’re using an existing account, search through your posts and history to ensure your previous posts won’t be interpreted as offensive or insensitive. When in doubt, delete the post.
Clear and concise communication with your online professor is an essential aspect of your remote learning going smoothly. With solid communication throughout the course, you can build a strong rapport with your teachers, garner a level of professional respect, and save time and energy.
Communicating with Your Professor: Do’s and Don’ts
- Know how your professor likes to be addressed. If they hold a Ph.D. and prefer to be called “doctor,” be sure to use that in all of your communication with them. Secondly, when referring to them in other online platforms, like discussion boards or in a Zoom meeting, you should use that title then too.
- Be proactive and ask questions as they arise. Unless your teacher tells you to post your questions in a common area online so all of the students can learn from their answers, go ahead and email them directly if you have anything pressing. This is especially true during the first weeks of the semester.
- It’s okay to send follow-up emails if you haven’t gotten a response after a couple days. Your professor might tell you from the start of the class to follow-up with them after a certain amount of time, but it’s usually the best practice to wait 48 hours before emailing them again. They’re busy and get tons of emails, so it’s likely that they’re not ignoring you and just missed it.
- Be polite and professional in your email correspondence and other online interactions with your professor. Think of it as part of the class. Your professionalism and attention to detail will positively impact how a teacher thinks of you and your enthusiasm for education.
- Use your school email address or a dedicated professional-sounding account when emailing your teachers. This gives both you and a professor to search through previous emails without having to sort through multiple email addresses. Using the same address also helps teachers build name recognition, even though it’s an email address.
- Don’t waste their time with rambling emails or unnecessary information. If you have questions or need guidance on a course topic, think through it, and decide what you need to say specifically, before dropping them a note. Don’t use the email as a way of thinking out loud. You’ll be more likely to get a useful response if you offer clear and concise communication in these scenarios.
- Avoid asking your teachers for help with things that are your responsibility or on the syllabus. For example, it’s not your teacher’s job to give you the thesis or argument for a paper. Unless there are specific directives for an assignment, there is a creative and academic aspect to that work that is your responsibility. You can ask for their feedback on 2-3 thesis ideas after you’ve given them plenty of thought.
- Don’t feel like you are being a nuisance when you have legitimate questions or need guidance. Your tuition dollars go toward paying a professor for their time, and that includes office hours and any other additional time that your professor decides to make themselves available. You just need to communicate clearly and be prepared for those interactions.
- Don’t make up excuses or stories as to why you didn’t complete an assignment on time. Your teachers have probably heard every excuse in the book. If you need an extension, simply ask for it. If you feel the need to provide some additional context, such as “Something came up that was out of my control,” or “I had a family emergency,” that’s fine. It’s best not to lie or go into major details, however.
- Don’t email them to attack their teaching style, syllabus, or assignments that you take issue with. In most cases, your criticisms will be taken quite negatively unless there’s been an obvious oversight or misstep on their part. Do not whine about the length of assignments, the reading workload, or any of the other clear demands of the course. Your tuition dollars only get you a spot in the class and don’t guarantee you a high grade just for participating. You have to do the work.
Insight from the Expert
Andrew Selepak, PhD is a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida, and Program Coordinator of the graduate program in social media.
As a professor with extensive experience teaching online classes, what are 3-5 things you expect from students in terms of online communication in general?
Students in online classes need to understand that communicating with their professors online is not the same as communicating with friends or family online. They should treat it like a professional setting. If nothing else, this is good practice for when they start their careers and are communicating with their boss or coworkers.
In an online setting, students can’t ask questions in-person to the professor before or after class or knock on the door and come to office hours. Any communication will be electronic, and most likely through email, so there is an expectation for a more formal interaction where students check their spelling and grammar before sending off an email.
To you, what does “good communication” between professors and students look like over email, on shared discussion boards, or another aspect of online teaching/learning that you use?
Discussion boards in an online class are intended to allow the students to interact with one another and replace the in-person discussion that would occur in the classroom. So, discussion boards are a little less formal than email communication between a student and the professor. In discussion boards, students can add videos, images or .gifs to argue their point and make their post more interesting. But this is obviously something they would not do when emailed their professor, and it does not mean that discussion boards are the equivalent to text messages between friends. In discussion boards, students are still expected to use proper netiquette and avoid swearing or using text language like LOL. Even though discussion boards are discussions, they are still taking place in a virtual classroom environment and what would be expected of students in a classroom in terms of language, demeanor, and respect for other students and their professor is the same in an online discussion as it would be for an in-person discussion.
When it comes to Zoom meetings and classes, how can online students put their best foot forward? What are your expectations for one-on-one office hours over Zoom?
I have taught online classes since 2012. I have taught live classes and taught asynchronous classes with recorded lectures where students could watch lectures at their own pace and at their own schedule. Just as with in-person classes, there is a difference between a large online class and a small online class. In a large class, the professor cannot tell who is there without taking some form of attendance. But in a small class, it is much easier to tell who is and who is not there, and who comes late or leaves early. In small classes, the worst thing a student can do it show up late or not show up at all, because the professor will notice. Students don’t have to travel to campus for online classes and may still be in bed with their laptop on, so there is very little excuse to be late to a live online class.
I do live office hours online by appointment. So, if a student wants to meet with me, they have emailed me, and we have setup a time to meet online to discuss something related to class or their career. The worst thing a student can do is show up late or not at all without any prior notice. I understand that things come up, especially with everything going on these days, but it is still important to let the person know you are going to be late or not be there at all. While it seems like common sense to let someone know if you can’t make it or will be late, some people tend to treat online meeting times as more of an abstract concept and will show up late without any notice. This is disrespectful to the person waiting and does not set a good tone for the meeting.
In my syllabuses, there is a section on proper netiquette behavior and being respectful of the instructor and other students. Even if students don’t read the syllabus, it is there, and something to refer back to if a student does become difficult or disrespectful. Thankfully, I have never had this issue in a class, although it can happen, and when it does, it takes an instructor who is skilled at classroom management to handle it whether it occurs in-person or online.
When students are communicating via discussion boards what are some good practices to follow?
Discussion boards are a great way to get students to interact in an online environment. It is important that students know early in the semester that it is ok to disagree with one another in the discussion board but that they still must be respectful of the other person’s opinion. It is also important to let students know that while personal experiences can add to an argument, their statements should be based on facts and sources. Essentially, even in an online environment, students need to show their work. They should not just argue that some source supports their point, they need to include that source in their post.
As someone who would sometimes dominate classroom discussion when I was in school, I know that this can be unhelpful. There are times when an instructor is grateful for someone to be active in a discussion because it can sometimes bring other students into the discussion with a response, you don’t want one person to constantly be the largest voice in every discussion. This is where the instructor needs to jump in. One tactic is to email the students who are dominating the discussion and gently remind them that the discussion board is for everyone to voice their ideas and when one person dominates it too much, it can cause others to not participate. Another tactic is for the instructor to be involved in the discussion as well and use what is being said in the discussion to draw in students who might be a little quiet. This of course requires the professor to know the students and know where a student might have some expertise, experience, or background in an issue that they would be comfortable talking about, but this is why knowing your students is valuable in an online environment.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to online privacy and security lately. What are some tips for students using social media platforms or third party apps as part of online learning
I talk about social media and online privacy in all my classes. It is an important issue and one that does not receive nearly enough attention. The problem is that most students don’t care enough about their online privacy. But to be fair, most people don’t care enough about their online privacy. Over the years I have shown students examples of the data being collected on them, how that data is being used, and how it could be used in the future. I also show them how easy it is for the content they post on social media to be found even when they think they have all their content set to private. Sometimes, you have to use a fear appeal to get them to understand how their data and content is being collected and used, and then you can grab their attention before showing them ways to protect their online privacy.
But the most important thing for students when it comes to online privacy is to first be aware of the issue. Once they have a better understanding of online privacy, then they can at least make more informed decisions about what they do online. Awareness can sometimes lead to action with students doing more to protect their privacy online whether it is using a search engine like Duck Duck Go, using a VPN, not sharing their location on app like Snapchat, or simply deciding to not tweet something and instead keeping it to themselves. Online privacy is often about simply not doing something online rather than what you do online.
Netiquette and Online Communication Resources
Agnes Scott College, “Communicate with Your Professors”: ASC offers some good tips for both online and on-campus learners when it comes to getting to know and working with professors.
California Community Colleges Virtual Campus: Here’s a great example of what many online programs offer, including online learning and preparation resources
EduOpinions: This website offers some additional tips on the do’s and don’ts of emailing professors.
HITC.com, “What is Zoom for Online Classes?”: This Zoom 101-type site can get you up to speed on the latest Zoom features that benefit online learners.
University of Waterloo, “Online Discussions: Tips for Students”: This site offers some additional tips and strategies for responding to posts and keeping a positive tone on discussion boards.