In the previous blog (posted December 4), we looked at some of the ways in which course participants, including the teachers, can get to know each other in spite of not being in a physical classroom, and in many cases never having met each other face-to-face. Following-on from that, “ground rules” need to established, which can be thought of as a set of standards for behavior and interaction, in this case, in a teaching and learning environment online.
In physical face-to-face classrooms, these ground rules are sometimes negotiated and agreed on by the teachers and the students, then written-up and put up on a wall in the classroom. However, courses online are not usually conducive to such negotiation, partly because such courses are often relatively short, so as much time as possible needs to be spent on interacting, rather than on agreeing how to interact.
As Anaheim University, which is based in California, has been offering TESOL courses online for many years, and more than most, a set of 15 guidelines for every course has been developed over time, under the general heading of “Effective Communication in the Classroom.” As stated on the front page of all courses, the guidelines are to promote: “successful communication in the Online Classroom in the interests of improving communication in our virtual community. Students, faculty, and staff are expected to follow these guidelines at all times.”
Interestingly, many of the guides to teaching online that I’ve read do not highlight the importance of such ground rules, or even do not mention them at all. That notable absence may reflect an assumption that everyone already knows how to and wants to behave politely, positively, and professionally in the classroom. However, over the years, I have met and worked with a number of people who appear not to know and/or not to care about behaving professionally! Furthermore, these kinds of ground rules can be especially important in courses that are being taken by participants from many different cultural and linguistic groups, which is often the case for MA TESOL courses.
The first AU ground rule states that course participants should: “Welcome all newcomers including faculty, students and staff. Help them to feel they are accepted and that their opinions and participation are important to our community.” Related to that first rule, and aware of the power of language, the second “rule for school” asks that participants: “Try to make a positive impact on others offering words of support and encouragement whenever possible.”
The diversity of participants in courses online is often greater than in physical face-to-face classrooms, as people from all over the world can attend the same class at the same time, without ever having to leave their home (as discussed in TLO Part Four, on the Pedagogical Paradoxes of TLO, posted 25 September 2013). To minimize misunderstandings—”minimize” because they can never be completely eliminated, especially in multilingual, multicultural online environments—the fourth ground rule asks participants to: “Welcome differences in opinions. Take into consideration the fact that other students and faculty may have different communication styles, learning styles, cognitive patterns, beliefs and/or values than your own and recognize that these differences help to diversify the program and contribute to the overall experience.”
Such guidelines may seem somewhat obvious to those of us who spend much of our lives in multilingual, multicultural environments, but I have seen many examples, including some from experienced language teachers and learners, of a lack of this kind of awareness and sensitivity. One reason for that absence is that, in a physical face-to-face classroom, a great deal of diversity and differentness can be immediately noticeable from Day One of the course. But in TLO courses, these important differences can be “hidden,” or at least can take a long time to manifest themselves, by which time the short course might be nearly over, or worse, the damage may have already been done.
We’ll look at some more of these important ground rules in the next of the blogs, but in the meantime, please feel to free to post and share any of the guidelines you have for your TLO classes and courses.