TLO 10: How to Teach Online: Establishing the Ground Rules

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.

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
From 2015–2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He has coauthored and coedited around 200 publications and worked with more than 50,000 language educators in more than 100 countries. His current research is focused on the New Peace Linguistics. He is an online professor in the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as an independent language education consultant for organizations worldwide.
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One Response to TLO 10: How to Teach Online: Establishing the Ground Rules

  1. Dear Mr. Curtis,

    I am a newcomer to Online Teaching so your series “How to Teach Online” important to me. The sum of my teaching experience so far, while rich, has been 3 years of teaching EFL at Sichuan University ILTC, and tutoring vis-a-vis through LEAs and private referrals.

    Reading your article “Setting Ground Rules” challenged me to examine my own teaching model and reflect upon what I can contribute in the effort to understand how to create a positive classroom culture or learning environment, and how that would translate to online teaching.

    The majority of my educational and research background has been within the field of psychology and so, for better or worse, I am fated to filter my perceptions and organize my reality based upon those principles. Hence, I tend toward a group process orientation including ideas from Knapp’s (1984) relational development and Berger’s (1986) uncertainty reduction theories when first entering a classroom full of new students, and which I feel are worth referring to here.

    The basic idea being that in most new interpersonal interactions there is generally a feeling of social uncertainty which is experienced as unpleasant or causing some degree of anxiety which can be aversive to communication (especially with a multi-cultural group). People can, and customarily do, reduce social uncertainty through a communication process that involves stages of relational development.

    This then for me is my primary task as language facilitator. I can either choose to address this topic in a modified lesson format or I can dispense with the meta-cognitive component and simply direct my classroom through the stages by modeling it myself and explaining what I am doing. More specifically, this means that I must establish ground rules or create a classroom culture that inspires trust and acceptance.

    Interestingly, the EFL classroom is an ideal place to exercise this process because the praxis is straight forward, pan-cultural and can increase in complexity in proportion to language acquisition.

    The function of reciprocity itself is the reduction of social uncertainty – we all naturally use self-disclosure and information seeking as a method to create value judgments of the people we are interacting with. So to create a healthy interactive classroom culture I choose to focus on reciprocity first. When I say focus on I guess I really mean inculcate (but in a nice way). I begin each class with the rule set that defines reciprocity and continue to remind the participants throughout our time together through modeling and role-play. By following this principle we can generally move through the stages of relational development within a few sessions. Quite happily I have found that the prescribed activities effective for the stages of relational development typically follow the content of conversations one would find in a good quality EFL conversation text!


    Knapp, M.L. (1984). Interpersonal Communication and Human Relationships. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon

    Berger, C. R. (1986). “Uncertain Outcome Values in Predicted Relationships: Uncertainty Reduction Theory Then and Now”. Human Communication Research,

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