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How to manage the ‘unprofessional’ online behaviour of students: An emerging dilemma in higher education

Xianghan (Christine) O’Dea, York St John University Xue Zhou, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London

‘I can’t have my camera on ’cause I haven’t done my makeup.’

‘I am driving, I can’t turn my camera on.’

‘No way! I can’t do camera. I am still in my pyjamas.’

A recent and yet-to-be-published qualitative study conducted by the authors with 20 academic staff in six UK universities on students’ online professional behaviours, shows that the replies shared above are among the common ones respondents (academic tutors) received from their students when they were asked to switch their camera on during online live teaching sessions. Some students also exhibited other what could be termed as ‘unprofessional’ online behaviour, such as inappropriate use of emojis, disrespectful language and wearing inappropriate outfits (such as pyjamas). These emerging issues identified in the study seem to affect student participation and engagement in online learning, and respondents expressed their concerns about these behaviours.

We all know that education involves two-way communication, and that nonverbal cues, such as body movements and eye contact, are crucial elements for effective communication (Bambaeeroo & Shokrpour, 2017). Consequently, it becomes much harder for academic tutors to assess students’ learning when they keep their camera and microphone off simultaneously, and online learning becomes one-way communication. Respondents also asked, ‘How can we identify the person whoever sits in front of screen is our student?’

Based on the results of our study, teaching to blank screens, and dealing with other arguably ‘unprofessional’ behaviours, seem also to have had a big impact on academic staff motivation:

‘I sometimes lost motivation. I don’t know whether my students are here or not. All I can see is blank screens.’

‘I received a number of disruptive comments [during my teaching]. It was really upsetting.’

These experiences have led to rethinking student online behaviour as a form of professionalism that is expected of them.

What is online professionalism for students?

Online professionalism broadly refers to ‘the way you engage yourself online in relation to your profession, including your attitudes, actions and your adherence to relevant professional codes of conduct’ (Sowton et al., 2016). It can be divided further into four areas: involvement (or engagement); integrity (or honesty); interaction (or respectful behaviours) and introspection (or self-awareness) (Mak-van der Vossen et al., 2020). In the context of higher education, online professionalism should be viewed as a new key employability attribute (Clark et al., 2014), as remote working has become a new normal for many businesses after the pandemic.

Existing students’ codes of conduct in higher education tend to focus on the use of social media and digital footprints, rather than the formal learning environment. This has not been a major problem until the emergency switch to online learning during the pandemic, when academic tutors and students have had to use synchronous web conferencing tools exclusively and intensively for learning and teaching activities.

Why is online professionalism important?

Developing students’ online professionalism is hugely important for future learning and teaching practices. This is partially because students may be expected to participate in synchronous online learning continuously, since it is likely that a blended learning approach will be adopted by many universities in the forthcoming new academic year (Bothwell, 2020). In addition, it is because there is little guidance about how students should behave professionally in online learning at the institutional level.

Students’ online code of conduct

In order to improve students’ online learning effectiveness and sustain their motivation, higher education institutions – in particular those adopting a hybrid approach – should consider updating their existing code of conduct to include a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours in online teaching and learning, as a standardised form of professionalism. For example, the new code of conduct for students should at least address the following areas:

  • appearance (for example classroom appropriate outfits)
  • engagement (for example showing faces when participating in online activities)
  • communication (for example using respectful language, being polite to others, and prohibiting online bullying and harassment)
  • academic integrity (for example honesty, being able to be trusted)
  • ethical issues (for example permission for recording and publication).


Bambaeeroo, F., & Shokrpour, N. (2017). The impact of the teachers’ non-verbal communication on success in teaching. Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism, 5(2), 51.

Bothwell, E. (2020, May 26). UK universities favour blended learning approach for 2020-21. Times Higher Education.

Clark, T. S., Amer, T. S., & Ng, P. T. (2014). Developing professionalism in business school undergraduates. Journal of Education for Business89(1), 35-41.

Mak-van der Vossen, M., Teherani, A., van Mook, W., Croiset, G., & Kusurkar, R. A. (2020). How to identify, address and report students’ unprofessional behaviour in medical school. Medical Teacher, 42(4), 372–379.

Sowton, C., Connelly, L., & Osborne N. (2016). eProfessionalism. University of Edinburgh.