Panic in an Online Class: A Message to My Students

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

This is the start of the second week of instruction, and already the online classroom trolls are spreading their fear and panic among unsuspecting classmates. As a group, educators tend to think of trolls as infectious agents that prowl professional discussion forums. We seldom think of them as a problem in the completely online class. But they’re there, and all we need to do is look for the symptoms.

The most common e-student troll is one who posts misinformation about class activities and policies. The perpetrator can be male or female, but in this example, let’s say it’s a male. He posts an emotional message in a forum, claiming that the directions for completing learning activities are confusing and misleading and cites misinformation to support his claim. Before the instructor can respond or even after s/he does, a large number of students react with panicky posts and comments as well as email to the instructor. In short order, the class is in chaos with fear and panic spreading like wildfire.

Ironically, before the panicky post, all the students were in the process of completing the activity without any problems. They understood what needed to be done and were doing it. All it took was the one flaming message to create instant pandemonium. The fact that this can happen says something about the online learning environment. It’s vulnerable to trolling.

In a very real sense, being in an online classroom is like being in a dark crowded auditorium. Sensory information in the environment is limited, making it easier to succumb to unwarranted fear. In the absence of a range of information, we tend to overreact to any stimulus. Thus, we would panic when someone yells “Fire!” even if we don’t see any flames or smoke.

The student troll may seem innocuous at first. We give him the benefit of the doubt and try to help him. In nearly all cases, the student has not been keeping up with class activities and has failed to read directions and guidelines. His confusion is based on his own ignorance, and he tries to place the responsibility on the course and the instructor. The problem is that his classmates take him at his word and begin to question their own understanding of the assignments. In a word, they panic. And the result is class-wide chaos.

Trolls or, more specifically, trolling needs to be dealt with before it becomes a problem. Once it’s allowed to take hold, stopping it is nearly impossible. It will run its course regardless of any action that the instructor takes. Again, it’s like yelling “Calm down!” after an audience has turned into a mob.

Thus at the first sign of trolling this semester, I distributed the e-blast below, “Panic in an Online Class,” to all my students. I’m hoping that it will help them remain calm in the face of posts that are intended to create panic and chaos.

Panic in an Online Class

All of us are aware of the danger of yelling “FIRE!” in an auditorium full of people. Most of us would never do that.

However, most of us aren’t aware that posting panicky, frightening messages in a class forum is just as dangerous. All it takes is for one student to post such a message in a forum to spread confusion and fear through the entire class. Thus, be very careful when posting.

For example, if you’re confused about how to do an activity and post incorrect information or your frustration in the forums, many will panic and believe that they, too, must be confused. Once the panic begins, it will spread like wild fire and everyone will be confused.

In the vast majority of cases, the poster who is causing the panic has not been keeping up with the readings and is devoting little or no time to this class. S/he is deliberately creating fear and panic by posting misinformation. In discussion forums, they’re called trolls. They usually drop out or disappear after the first week or two of classes.

Unfortunately, we cannot stop these irresponsible posters. However, we can minimize the damage they cause by not panicking. Don’t panic! Just remember that if you begin to yell “FIRE!” too, you not only become part of the problem but you escalate it.

Remain calm and don’t reply to or comment on the panicky post. You must trust your own interpretation of what’s expected in the various activities that make up this course. Don’t succumb to self-doubt just because some in class are panicking. Don’t send email to me asking if the panicky post is correct. Assume that if you do, everyone else will, too, and the result is an overwhelming flood of email in my box.

Learn to judge the poster. First, a responsible student won’t post a message that might incite panic. S/he will first check with me, via private email, to see if he can’t get clarification. If there’s a problem. I’ll quickly fix it and, if necessary, send an announcement to the entire class. Second, if the poster is one who asks questions about activities that are clearly explained in class schedules, guidelines, posts, etc., assume that he is not making an effort to do the readings and is expecting the rest of us to do it for him. When this student says he is confused or posts misinformation, you’ll know why and won’t fall for his ploy. Finally, judge the poster by his previous posts: Do you get an impression of a diligent, thoughtful, rational, responsible student? If not, then disregard his posts as misinformation.

Look out for trolls — for posters who are intent on creating chaos by posting misinformation or messages designed to spread fear and panic. Don’t respond to them and, more importantly, don’t become their unwitting accomplice by spreading the panic. Remain calm and trust your own ability to understand information in this course. And when you encounter a possible problem, email me privately.

I will deal with irresponsible posts and posters. My first response is usually to ask them to carefully reread the material or guidelines that they find confusing. If they’re emotional and upset, I’ll ask them to calm down. In most cases, this is all that’s needed, and the person doesn’t do it again.

However, if the problem persists, I’ll take stricter measures to make sure that the problem stops.

If you encounter a troll or irresponsible poster, please email me as soon as possible and let me deal with him/her.

10 Responses

  1. You are absolutely right about “Trolls or, more specifically, trolling needs to be dealt with before it becomes a problem.”, Jim, and the way you are doing it is great – for university students.

    Younger students, though, might not be aware that they are trolling, just think that they are expressing a problem. So if your message were to be adopted, say by middle school teachers in the intranets for their class, it might cause rejection, and even migration to another private online group where the students would then be even more at risk of spiraling panic, without any possible control by their teachers.

  2. While I do agree on everything said about the results of the panicked email, I am less sure about the precise cause, especially about the intentionality of the act. I do agree that the initial cause is a student who has not been doing the work, but I think the rest of the causality relates more to what Tom Preskett recently talked about. In my experience, students who have not kept up with the work are doing so because they have learned that they normally do not have to–they can come in at the last minute, skim for the “answers” and finish up quickly. If the course is set up for interaction and a more constructivist approach, that doesn’t work. Skimming does not reveal easy answers, and the student is genuinely confused. Not really having previously encountered classes which require such activity, the student naturally blames the class for being different from what he or she expected. The student is acting on a genuine belief about the class.

    Next, I have long observed an interesting phenomenon in such social networking environments. Even when there is an easy source for good information available, the person who is confused will go to peers first, often in the attack mode Jim observes. I see this in my role with a social networking site devoted to scuba diving. We have a private forum for scuba instructors, and you will regularly see instructors start threads in which they will ask their peers simple policy questions that could have been directed just as easily at the agency itself, thereby gaining a definitive answer rather than the flood of misinformation that regularly follows. It is even worse when the instructor starts a thread attacking an agency policy about which he or she was ill informed. This starts the same sort of chaos Jim describes. Responders assume the poster knows what he or she is talking about and respond without thinking. “How stupid this agency is to have such an inane policy!” they shout, never checking to see if this inane policy actually exists.

    Before long, another instructor will go to the agency, get accurate information, and make a post that clearly reveals the inaccuracy of the initial post and early responses. You would think that would solve the probelm, but it often does not. That is because people who come to the thread read the first post and panicked responses and then make their own panicked response before they get to the clarifying post. Sometimes they then continue and get to the clarifying post, but in my experience, once they make their own response, they stop reading.

    So I don’t think those actions are usually designed to cause trouble. I think it is normally due to some perversity of human nature.

    On the other hand, such actions are sometimes intentional, but I think there is a way to tell when it is. In my experience as an administrator of an online program with thousands of students, the student who has totally screwed up by being late and is looking to get out of the resulting jam will not act so openly. That student trolls more maliciously–by going to the administrator supervising the instructor and lodging the complaint privately. The administrator will listen to all those tales of confusing directions, lack of information, etc. and then act. The wiser administrators will begin an investigation; the less wise will act just as the rest of the students in Jim’s classes do–assume the student is telling the truth and go after the “offending” teacher. The less the administrator knows about online education, the more likely the latter course of action.

    I don’t think

  3. I read your post with great interest, Jim. I’m wondering if these are students who are enrolled in a degree program? I have trouble seeing my students who are enrolled in online MA and BA programs doing something like this deliberately. Yes, they are all concerned that they get the assignments “right,” but their questions are much more polite and a bit self-denigrating, assuming they are the only one who didn’t “get it.”

    On the other hand, I could see one of the students from my hybrid class–where we have 2 face to face classes a week and one online discussion–pulling something like this when they fall behind. The saving grace here is that I will see them all in class the next day (or two) to deal with the “mess.”

    I’m not sure about preventive action. I’d be concerned that someone who hadn’t thought of it might think it was a great idea for a day when s/he hadn’t done an assignment!

  4. Judith, John, Claude — thank you for your thoughtful comments. Hopefully, others who have actually experienced the type of student trolling I’m referring to will step up and share their thoughts. Best, Jim S.

  5. Jim,

    This type of thing also happens in face-to-face classrooms, too, and can be as tricky to handle.

    Case in point – my grad students read an article for class and they were in small groups discussing it. The groups were talking about the issues raised in the article and mostly agreeing with them. Suddenly, one student made a comment totally dismissing the legitimacy of the author to make his point in the way he did. Suddenly, the other students in the group, agreed . Yes, you’re right. What right does he have?

    It is my policy in these discussions to stay out of them because the students generally talk themselves back around. In this case, they did not. By the time I did intervene, the damage (in my opinion) had been done.

    There were several reasons this may have happened in this way, and I am speculating that one reason it did is that the student who “started it” was a school principal and the other students were teachers. I couldn’t help but wonder if they follwed her lead because she was in a greater position of power than they were. It also may have been that her phycial presence was commanding and her voice sounded authoritative.

    My point is that even though there are trolls in the online environment who can run amok and create havoc, they exist in the face-to-face classroom as well and can be as difficult to manage. They may not always be mean-spirited, as the name troll implies. They may just be unaware of how they are impacting their environment.

  6. Querying the legitimacy of something offered for reading is not perforce bad, Lynn – provided the querying is argumented and not an axiomatic statement.

    In secondary school reading comprehension classes, I always told students to apply the “Why” question not only to the content of assigned texts, but to their authors’ motivation (Why did s/e write this, beyond the need to earn his/her chow? What is s/he trying to do to me / make me do?).

    Some students found it a bit baffling at first: if a teacher told you to read something, it meant that the teacher considered the content should be learned unquestioningly, they thought.

    So we further widened the reach of the “why” question to: “Why did the teacher assign us this given text?”. Asking these motivation questions may sound like a waste of time, and it can be in some cases, but on the whole, it seemed to help students get a better grasp of the content.

  7. I, too, am a little puzzled by the problem in Lynn’s class. Perhaps a more detailed explanation would be helpful. The challenging question does not seem out of order. It does not appear to be a troll. If it is a legitimate question with legitimate support, it seems like an ideal opportunity to have a meaningful discussion on what in Greek rhetoric was called ethos–the legitimacy of the speaker. Ethos was one of the key elements of rhetoric, and it certainly needs to be considered.

    I turned on the Today show briefly and saw a former TV comedy star promoting her latest book on nutrition, a book that contradicts conventional thinking by expert nutritionists. Although this star has no credentials as a nutritionist whatsoever, her book, like those she published preciously, will outsell any work written by true experts, because Americans believe that TV stars are more likely to be correct on matters like this than people with Ph.Ds.

    And you don’t even have to reach star status in one TV show, as this person did, to wield such influence. Recently a single study that some time ago indicated that autism was caused by vaccinations was shown to have been deliberately false, an attempt to mislead the public in support of a commercial enterprise. After that false report first came out, study after study after study after study was done, and every one of them showed that the initial study (now known to be deliberately false) was wrong.

    Yet all across America (and other countries as well) mothers are refusing to vaccinate their children, swayed by the anti-vaccination crusade of a former Playboy centerfold who failed in her only attempts to make it in TV and movies. These parents are eager to put their children (and other children) at risk for potentially deadly and easily avoided diseases because they readily reject controlled scientific studies and instead accept the word of someone whose only claim to expertise is that she looked pretty good when she posed nude for a magazine.

    So, I would say that questioning the ethos of someone is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It must be done intelligently, though. In the examples I gave, the public has questioned the ethos of the scientific community and accepted instead the word of icons from pop culture. That may be because no one has ever taught them how to evaluate the credentials of a speaker intelligently.

    • I agree. I try to give students readings that will promote a pro/con type of discussion. The problem in this situation was that the student derailed any further discussion with her comments and how she said them. It had the same effect as what Jim was saying just in a different context and in a different way.

  8. Hi John,

    About the vaccine/autism scare you mention: PBS made an educational dossier around Jon Palfreman’s “The Vaccine War” documentary:”: video nicely divided in chapters to facilitate upload, transcript, proposals for classroom activities, online discussion, etc.

    I hope this and other PBS dossiers are widely used in schools. Are there any data about this use?

    PS I saw Palfreman’s documentary in French, when it was shown on Jan. 6, 2011 by’s Temps Présent news magazine.Ironically, whereas Temps Présent normally publishes online the videos of past broadcasts, their page for this one says: “Pour des raisons de droits cette video n’est pas disponible sur notre site.” (for copyright reasons, this video is not available on our site)….

  9. It occurs to me that the impact of a “Troll” on a moderated resource is a moot point if the moderator is screening before broadcasting the input. Secondly, the instructor/moderator controls grades, ergo the student’s conduct.

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