Ensure inclusive teaching and learning: Moderating behaviour and language in online environments

Inclusivity at Brookes

Increasing awareness and reinforcing the importance of appropriate and respectful communication which ensures a safe and inclusive environment for all participants is very important. All forms of discriminatory, offensive, hostile or intimidating language and behaviour should be challenged and addressed. Below is a short outline of help to support you to achieve this in your teaching and learning practice.

Within the framework of a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and bullying, the Brookes Teaching and Learning community is focused on fostering an agreed approach to self- and mutual regulation which encourages and empowers all individuals to take responsibility for their own behaviour and feel supported in challenging others.

What is different about the online environment?

The online environment presents new and different dynamics for communication and interaction within learning groups and with teaching staff, external speakers and facilitators. Synchronous events can involve multiple channels of formal and informal interaction, chat and messaging, and asynchronous events may also involve use of associated discussion forums or informal sub-group attendance/participation.

Additionally students may be making increased use of social media for course-related communications increasing the potential for online peer-to-peer miscommunications or tensions and/or inappropriate excluding language and behaviours.

Most of the time, online interaction is collegiate and positive, but unfortunately sometimes teaching staff and session leaders will need to be comfortable with ‘uncomfortable conversations’ and confident in setting boundaries, defusing tension and adopting strategies to provide constructive learning in the moment, and/or take the issue aside for separate discussion. 

What does inappropriate behaviour online look like?

This sort of behaviour can take many different forms, but here are some common scenarios. It may be triggered by sensitive or challenging content in teaching sessions. 

  • Aggressively challenging someone based on their protected characteristics
  • Involving the wider group in support for this behaviour
  • Undermining the impact of discrimination on individuals including defensive responses which challenge the validity of lived experience 
  • Creating a hostile environment with comments 
  • Sarcastic or inappropriate jokes or banter based on sexist, ableist, racist, ageist, homophobic, transphobic or misogynistic tropes or attitudes
  • Using discriminatory slurs or epithets 
  • Writing offensive comments in a chat stream
  • Distributing offensive material in an online forum.

How can I approach this in my teaching?

There are a number of stages to deal with this behaviour: being alert to content that may be sensitive or challenging for groups of students and heighten the risk of triggering inappropriate behaviour and setting good ground rules will help to reduce the chance of it happening. If you do experience this in your teaching/learning event, ‘call it out’ (at the time it happens) and then, if appropriate, ‘call it in’ (find time to deal with it in a separate space). Here is some advice which may help:

Setting up the group

  • Forewarn students when presenting sensitive or challenging subject matter with ‘content warnings’ or ‘trigger warnings’ shared in writing, verbally or both. 
  • Be up front - set ground rules and gain agreement on these. See link with suggestions here.

During the learning event

  • Adopt a learning approach - move towards questions and deeper understanding rather than shaming mistakes.
  • In the moment - pause and defuse tension e.g. “I would like to ask you to rephrase or withdraw that comment please” (allow for the fact clumsy wording may contribute - enable an apology).
  • Ask questions e.g. “let’s look at that issue more closely” (it is advisable not to try this if the situation is heated).
  • Address the behaviour not the person e.g. “can we move on from that topic now as we need to look at this issue more widely to understand it”.
  • Suggest a solution or desired change e.g. “the discussion will be much better if we are all involved/if we focus on the issues in this seminar etc”.
  • Avoid focusing on students with protected characteristics for their view - you are affected and take responsibility.

After the learning event

  • Make sure student(s) who have been affected are supported - follow up and check that the student(s) on the receiving end is(are) OK and that they are empowered to take things further if that is what they want.
  • Take ‘offline’ as appropriate to reinforce the message with the perpetrator - if necessary involve another colleague in supporting you with this.

Further sources of information and support

The University’s Report and Support Tool is backed by a communications campaign ‘It’s not OK; it’s not Brookes.’ This promotes confidence for students and staff to report incidents of harassment, bullying or hate crime based on protected characteristics and identity concerning students. This includes recognition of subtle and nuanced behaviours and language which may accumulate over time to create an uncomfortable, intimidating and excluding environment.  

By increasing awareness and creating a campaign approach we seek to nurture a culture that prevents the occurrence of unacceptable and unwelcome behaviours and which supports constructive challenge. 

Brookes channels

Some key terminology:

  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Hate crime
  • Hate incident
  • Hate speech
  • Microaggression
  • Micro-inequity

External sources of further information and support

Further Brookes resources

Live now:

Coming up:

  • 'Conversations on Race, Racism and Anti-Racism’, a series of weekly webinars in Semester 1 and 2 are being organised by the Anti-Racism Action Group. These short sessions led by a range of Brookes colleagues will be useful for awareness, support and confidence for teaching staff.
    Written by Sara Hannam and Jane Butcher, September 2020.