Distance Learning Etiquette: The DOs and DON’Ts of Taking an Online Course


(photo: Cat Clymer)

Rebecca Anderson

Nathan Zook awoke one morning to find a distance learning class discussion had spiraled out of control during the early hour of 3 a.m.; by this time, the dialogue had progressed to personal attack, leaving behind a documented instance of inappropriate classroom behavior, and several students who were either enraged or distressed.

A professor of political science, as well as the International Studies Program Coordinator at Montgomery College, Dr. Zook has twelve years experience teaching distance learning courses and sixteen years collegiate teaching experience total.

Drawing from his experience and perspective, students can not only distinguish the differences between online classes and campus classes but recognize certain skills and behaviors that are necessary to succeed in a distance learning environment- being the “discussion troll” is not one of them.

This is not meant to discourage students from participating in an active discussion, or even a spirited debate, but to encourage students to be active on the discussion board the correct way.

Zook offers instructional advice stating, “Read the expectations- I do have expectations that I put in my syllabus about how to have respectful dialogue, and I know people are going to disagree on a lot of these [political science] issues, but if they’re talking about the issues and disagreeing that’s fine. Where I really draw the line is talking about another person’s intelligence, calling names- you know, that’s where it goes downhill pretty quickly.”

In other words, keep a professional demeanor, and refrain from taking class discussions personally. If you would not say something during an in-person class discussion, then do not say it during an online class discussion. Remember, professors can see all online student activity- all the more reason to treat Blackboard as a classroom, not a twitter feed.

There are also instances in which misunderstandings arise due to miscommunication. Professor Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, states that 55% of communication stems from body language, 38% from tone of voice, and just 7% from the actual words being used. Therefore, interaction exchanges that occur in online classes are absent of nonverbal reinforcement, which accounts for 93% of communication technique. Poorly worded statements, emails, or messages are not always clear, having a higher potential of seeming hostile or aggressive. In order to communicate effectively, students develop written communication skills, as well as an ability to construct a professional email.

Always read everything you have typed before you send post a statement or send a message, looking at your own words as if someone else had sent them to you. Become familiar with the format in which to write a professional email, and use this to communicate with professors. Remember to use correct punctuation, and never refer to your instructor as “dude”- it’s disrespectful.

However, these skills are only as valuable as how they are applied, in order to stay successful in an online class; one must pair a professional demeanor and effective communication skills with an independent work ethic in order to really get the most out of any online class. Zook elaborates on this topic stating, “In my course, I typically have five discussion posts per week, and less successful students do it all in one night right before midnight; more successful students stay engaged throughout the week and are not cramming to find discussion material at the last minute.”

In many online classes, midterm and final exams are taken at assessment centers, not online. Staying engaged throughout the week not only shows your professor that you are a dedicated student, but continuously reinforces the subjects being learned, and those students have a higher probability of acing the exams. Think about it this way, will getting those discussions in and homework completed by midnight each week really matter if you fail the exams?