How good is your netiquette?

30th November 2007 at 00:00
If you're running a virtual learning environment to support any of your groups, you will know that it can feel a bit like having two classes instead of one - a living, breathing group who meet in a formal, controlled environment; and a shadowy group who meet, chat and party in cyberspace whenever they fancy. The first group is right under your nose, like teenagers tucked up safe in bed by midnight. The second: you wait and worry.

All the research tells us that students who have access to platforms like Blackboard, which allow a seamless connection between home and college, feel more committed to their course and to their college.

If we want to recruit and retain students successfully in future, we will have to offer them the kind of second-life internet facilities they are used to privately - those which go beyond Blackboard coursework and include social networking pages where they can post pictures and personal information and communicate with other students.

How do you organise that safely? It's something we're mulling over. At the moment, my students have a modest and controlled platform for socialising in cyberspace. They have access to email and to a discussion board. I visit the discussion board occasionally to post a notice and regularly to monitor postings. I know that sounds like sneaking into your child's bedroom and reading "My Private Diary Keep Out" - but the students are aware it's a public forum and that I will be snooping.

I'm usually quietly relieved that there's nothing worse there than bad grammar or atrocious spelling. All credit to Joanne for starting off a discussion thread about poetry - if only she hadn't asked for feedback on "poems you wish you had wrote".

I console myself with the knowledge that our pages are not half as bad as some. If you want a snapshot of the level of literacy in the country, browse through discussion boards for strange and wonderful items such as "chest of draws", and "petrel lawnmowers". Forget those corny old classified howlers, such as "we do not tear your clothing with machinery: we do it carefully by hand".

The postings on the internet will have you weeping with laughter, or tears, depending on whether it's actually your job to teach grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Finding out that your class hasn't in fact grasped the use of the apostrophe isn't the end of the world. What you're snooping for, obviously, is an inappropriate posting. With a class made up of students from late teens to retirement age, and who come from a huge variety of backgrounds, it's easy to see how one student's idea of a witty rejoinder or really funny joke can cause upset to another.

And if you discover something? I haven't yet found the right balance between scaring the wits out of them about improper postings and encouraging them to make full use of the facility and make it their own.

On the odd occasion that a student has been upset about a response, I have removed the posting and given the class a caution about netiquette. The result is usually a swift cessation of all postings. In most cases, the upsets have been caused without malice and a lesson is learnt. It can, however, take a little while before confidence grows again and the students use the site freely and happily.

And so my students and I continue in a halting manner, shadows stumbling through cyberspace, creating our new world as we go along.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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