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“Respectful interactions in a digital environment”

Code of Conduct for Digital Courses at Freie Universität – campus.leben-Interview with Vice President and Professor, Verena Blechinger-Talcott about the Code of Conduct

Jul 10, 2020

A woman is shown busy working with her smart phone and her laptop.

For positive digital interaction: In addition to the usual academic standards and general manners, special rules of conduct apply to online teaching and learning.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

A lot is different this semester than usual, but one thing applies to online teaching just as in face-to-face events: the principle that teachers and students treat each other with respect. Freie Universität has laid down further rules derived from the usual academic standards as well as relevant laws and guidelines, and some that apply explicitly to digital teaching. They were published online in the Code of Conduct. Campus.leben spoke about the new code of conduct with Professor Verena Blechinger-Talcott, the Vice President of Freie Universität Berlin responsible for international affairs, diversity, and equality issues.

Professor Blechinger-Talcott, why do we need a code of conduct?

At the beginning of the digital semester, we received valuable input from various groups, such as the Deans responsible for teaching and learning, the gender equality officers, and the university-wide working group on digitalization of teaching and examinations. They pointed out that for successful implementation of digital teaching, we needed a new orientation framework for digital teaching applicable to the entire university.

As the Vice President responsible for international affairs, diversity and equality, it was important to me and the entire Executive Board to ensure that all members of the university community communicate with each other on the basis of respect, appreciation, and non-discrimination.

How did the Code of Conduct come together?

The Code of Conduct was developed under my leadership in cooperation with the administrative unit in charge of teaching and learning. We took into consideration suggestions from the academic departments and the central institutes as well as the expertise of the Office of the General Counsel, the Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS), and the working group on digitalization of teaching and examinations.

What is in the Code of Conduct?

The Code of Conduct deals with respectful cooperation in the digital environment, i.e., the basic rules of cooperation in a virtual space.

Above all, it was important to specify the principles of respectful interaction in digital space. For example, when the participants in a course are sitting alone in front of the computer and using the chat function to send private messages that are only visible for individual users, it is important to protect individuals from inappropriate communication, such as spam or discriminatory or annoying comments.

It is also important to communicate clearly the ground rules for digital classes and the sanctions for non-compliance. Anyone taking part in digital courses must know their rights and obligations and be informed about the complaint procedures and the consequences of undesirable behavior. Violations of the rules set out in the Code of Conduct can lead to exclusion from the course.

Privacy and the protection of participants’ individual data must also be respected. Many of these points could already be found elsewhere, such as in the Cisco WebEx Terms of Use or the FU-Wiki. They are bundled in the Code of Conduct and thus made much more visible.

On a more mundane note, to avoid disturbing other participants with background noise, everyone who is not speaking should mute their microphones.

Before the Code of Conduct was published, were there indications that there were sometimes problems with maintaining respectful behavior in digital teaching formats?

Yes, members of the Executive Board had received reports of inappropriate behavior, such as spamming or sexual harassment, in digital courses. Some institutes had therefore already set up their own codes. In our view, there should be university-wide rules for Freie Universität – in order to underscore the importance and seriousness of these issues.

With the Code of Conduct, we can address issues that are legally required as well as a matter of common courtesy and thus create a good basis for all the members of the university for teaching and learning in a digital environment.

Melanie Hansen conducted the interview.

The original German version of this interview was published on July 6, 2020, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.