Tiffany Page says universities must guard against the erosion of professional boundaries in online teaching
While particular cases of online abuse between students during Covid-19 have been documented, less attention has been paid to online sexual misconduct by staff.
When teaching is predominantly taking place in the intimate spaces of our homes, how do universities and educators ensure it is conducted in ways that involve a professional relationship? What is the responsibility of universities to ensure these private spaces are included as learning environments within the remit of institutional policies?
Reviews of the handling of the recent University of Warwick chat group case, which involved students sexually harassing their peers, exposed deficiencies in understanding the severity and impact of the students’ actions and in ensuring a safe environment for the victims and wider student community.
Other evidence also supports the idea that universities are failing to grasp the risks and impact of online harassment. A report by professors Andy Phippen and Emma Bond—Online Harassment and Hate Crime in Higher Education Institutions—published in January 2020 and based on freedom of information requests to 135 universities in the UK, said: “Many universities are unaware of, or fail to acknowledge, the role of digital technologies and social media in students’ everyday lives, and there is a lack of understanding of rights, legislation and social behaviours that can place students at risk of harassment.”
This was written in the context of student-to-student interactions, but this lack of awareness and failure to understand the online environment and its relation to the university means the move to exclusively or predominantly online teaching has presented challenges in terms of addressing professional boundaries, sexual misconduct and online safeguarding in higher education generally.
The issues extend beyond digital harassment, cyberstalking and abuse within peer groups, to how these might materialise in power relations between staff and students, where interactions become less visible. University policies do not acknowledge that the public spaces of education are now by definition private spaces that are not monitored and that exist in the homes of students and staff members.
In August 2019, Universities UK published, as part of its Changing the Culture series, a report called Tackling Online Harassment and Promoting Online Welfare, which outlines a set of principles to help universities prevent and respond to online harassment occurring between students. It recommends that universities should “consider adopting the term ‘online harassment’ in relevant policies and make clear to students and staff that what could be referred to as ‘cyberbullying’ could also constitute harassment or a hate crime”. But it ignores interactions between staff and students during online teaching and supervision.
Physical environments can help maintain boundaries: office hours on campus, meetings in a department office or a meeting room during regular working hours, professional contact via email. Now academic staff need to conduct individual supervision with graduate students via videoconferencing, creating a private space that has none of the spatial and temporal boundaries that a ‘work environment’ helps to create, while time zone differences may make it necessary to hold student meetings in the evening of the staff member or student.
Concerns have been raised in the past about the use of non-campus spaces, including pubs and the homes of academics, for one-on-one supervision and teaching of graduate students that would normally take place in an office or a meeting room on campus.
From our research, we know that staff sexual misconduct does take place online, in spaces that universities have previously deemed to be ‘private’ but where almost all interaction between staff and students is now happening.
Digital environments can be used by staff to groom students, a term that we argue is typified by a power differential between two or more individuals. Online environments can change boundaries and reduce formalities, and there needs to be greater emphasis on how online teaching can erode professional boundaries.
The 1752 Group’s Silencing Students and Power in the Academy reports reveal cases of students being stalked on Instagram and Facebook, of direct messages on Twitter and WhatsApp being used for one-on-one conversations, and of university emails being used to send sexualised messages. However, universities state that the private nature of online interactions means this is difficult to monitor.
The recent QC-led review of the way the University of Strathclyde handled abuse by former lecturer Kevin O’Gorman argued that because his misconduct happened in private and students did not feel able to report it, “there was little reasonable scope for the university becoming aware of it”. But universities need to grapple with how their responsibilities extend beyond the public spaces of learning, to the intimacies of online environments that are increasingly part of the interaction between students and between staff and students.
Many university procedures rely on student reporting of peer and staff sexual misconduct in order for any action to be taken. Culture Shift, which campaigns to tackle bullying and harassment in organisations and has more than 50 universities in the UK and Europe using its Report and Support online reporting platform, notes that it takes time for the number of named reports to increase after organisations start using the platform. It suggests that this is due to institutions gradually building trust with students.
Therefore, universities must both enable and encourage reporting, including addressing student fears of retaliation, and recognise their responsibility to create professional environments that extend across the varied range of formats and spaces where staff and students now interact.
The coronavirus has forced primary and secondary schools to address these issues already. The UK government has produced guidance on safeguarding and remote education during the pandemic, which recognises the need to keep both pupils and staff safe during online education. It notes: “Where education is now having to take place remotely, it’s important for schools, teachers and pupils to maintain professional practice as much as possible.”
Some schools provide parents and caregivers with a checklist of requirements. These include the school recording all sessions for safeguarding purposes, parents ensuring the workspace where teaching will take place meets certain requirements, and everyone removing personal items that can be seen during video sharing. This means the learning environment—staff and pupil—is curated and monitored as a professional place of work.
We are yet to see serious discussion about how to create productive and safe online learning environments and how both staff and students should conduct themselves in these spaces for the coming academic year in UK higher education.
Under-18 education already recognises that inherent vulnerabilities exist for both staff and pupils in learning and working from home. As a starting point, the guidelines and practices used in this area of education could be adapted for higher education.
Meanwhile, departments and schools within universities should agree on how online teaching should take place, how professional environments should be created and maintained, how social interactions should be supported as a necessary part of learning, and exactly what is required and expected from staff and students in teaching and learning in these spaces.
Tiffany Page is co-director of the 1752 Group and a lecturer in University College London’s Institute of Education.