Sexual misconduct and online teaching environments

Dr Tiffany Page          @t_haismanpage

1 September 2020

Sexual misconduct by staff towards students happens in physical environments and it happens online. When teaching will now happen predominately and privately in the intimate spaces of our homes in the coming term, how do we as educators conduct teaching and learning for students in ways that engage a professional relationship?

While there has been some discussion about relationships mattering even more online than on campus, there has been an absence of analysis about what this might mean for staff sexual misconduct in universities. While many academics are used to working from home, many of us are less used to teaching from home – letting students into these intimate spaces of family life where we might live alone or with partners, parents, children, and in other forms of kinship. This means these spaces are seldom only ours, and the strength of the internet connection in each room in the house may literally dictate where we can teach. Academic staff might be conducting a class in their bedroom, living area, or at the kitchen table, or if we are fortunate, a study or private room. Equally this is the same for our students who are now predominately studying in their homes – with the familial distractions of spaces shared with friends, siblings, adults and relatives leading to the fact that their bedroom may the only quiet or solitary space in the house. These compressed, private spaces are bringing into contact our everyday, physical lives in ways that are both creating and changing forms of intimacy – we can now see into the houses of those we video call – without invitation or context – this is very different to the public space of classrooms, lecture halls, departmental meeting rooms and offices.

Universities, especially those with few existing online taught courses, must consider how teaching, supervision and learning will take place in home environments, to consider the ways in which these private spaces may make both students and staff vulnerable to a range of misconduct, and to have policies in place to ensure professional boundaries and online safety. We know this is new territory for many staff, but we also have to remember this will be new for students, without necessarily understanding professional and learning expectations or past experience to draw upon, especially for those attending university for the first time.

A report by Andy Phippen and Emma Bond ‘Online Harassment and Hate Crime in HEIs – report from FOIs’ published in January 2020, was based on two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests with 135 universities in the UK and stated that:

“…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” (2).

While this is written in the context of student-student interactions, 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 presents new challenges in relation to addressing professional boundaries, sexual misconduct and online safeguarding in higher education. The issues extend beyond digital harassment, cyberstalking and abuse within peer groups, to how this might materialise within power relations between staff and students where interactions become less visible.

Phippen and Bond’s research uncovered that for those investigating student complaints about online harassment from peers, 60% of respondents said that they had received no specialist training about online harassment and abuse, while of those investigating staff complaints 62% had received no specialist training. While this study is not on staff-student online sexual misconduct, this points to a sector that does not have training, policy and procedures or a clear understanding of the range of online sexual misconduct behaviours that may occur, and their impact, nor specialist knowledge as to how such harassment may occur. The majority of the work being done is focused on student-student online harassment, and abuses relating to student image sharing during lectures but the potential for staff to abuse their power when teaching and supervising online and the forms of vulnerability that exist should not be overlooked.

From research conducted, including our Silencing Students report and Power in the Academy, we know that sexual misconduct by staff already takes place online outside of specific physical teaching environments, such as students being stalked on Instagram and Facebook, Twitter DMs and Whatsapp being used for one-on-one conversations, and university emails being used to send sexualised messages. When university teaching is no longer taking place on campus, are current policies incorporating the changes to intimacy and interaction that may occur? While some university policies reference the appropriate use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and email, there is little reference to teaching online. How do our new teaching environments provide both the needed social connection between academics and students, while maintaining professional conduct?

For example, Goldsmiths’ Policy and Procedure on Sexual Violence, Sexual Harassment, Stalking, Domestic Violence and Sexual Misconduct states:

The behaviour listed in this policy can be perpetrated in person or online. Members of the College Community are expected to adhere to this policy while using social media and any other form of online interaction including email communication.

While broad in definition, the specificities and requirements of teaching and supervision online are not the same as interactions on social media and email communication, and they are officially sanctioned as modes of educational delivery. And yet they will all be taking place in private spaces. Currently there is a lack of guidance on how teaching should occur, and on conduct for a means of learning and teaching that few universities have developed.

Physical environments help in maintaining boundaries: office hours on campus, meeting in a department office or meeting room during regular working hours, and professional contact via email. Now academic staff need to conduct individual supervisions with graduate students via video conferencing, creating a private space that has none of the spatial and temporal boundaries a “work environment” may help to create. Due to time zone differences it may be necessary to hold student meetings in the evening of the staff member or student. For graduate students, where one-on-one supervisions and teaching that would normally take place in an office or meeting room on campus, the use of non-campus spaces including pubs and in the homes of academics has already been raised as a concern.

Due to coronavirus, the under-18 education sector has had to address these issues with regards to primary and secondary school teaching and learning conducted online. The UK government has produced Safeguarding and remote education during coronavirus guidance, which recognises the need to keep both students and staff safe when promoting online education. It notes that “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 providing parents and caregivers with a checklist of requirements. This includes the school recording of all sessions for safeguarding purposes, having parents ensure the workspace where teaching will take place meets certain requirements, and the removal of personal items that can be seen during video sharing. This means the learning environment – staff and student – is being curated and monitored as a professional place of work for teachers, including both the space in which it takes place, and required dress and behaviour of staff and students. Further, schools are asking parents to be aware of reporting procedures for complaints about staff conduct. Students also have to follow rules of engagement in order to be part of the learning taking place. It does not appear that higher education has been thorough or timely in thinking through these issues, which also impact teaching environments for over 18s.

In August 2019 Universities UK published in its Changing the Culture series the report ‘Tackling Online Harassment and Promoting Online Welfare’, which outlines a set of principles to support universities to prevent and respond to online harassment occurring between students. It recommends universities “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.” Again, a gap emerges: what is online sexual misconduct between a staff member and a student? How might this particular context involving the move to online teaching and the needs of students create situations where specific professional boundaries need to be established, are required to be enforced?

We are yet to see serious discussion and consideration of how to create productive, safe environments of online learning, supervision and teaching for the coming academic year in the UK, and how both staff and students should conduct themselves in these spaces. The actions of the under-18 sector recognise that current policy is insufficient and there are inherent vulnerabilities for both students and staff in learning and working from home. As a starting point these guidelines and practices should be discussed, adapted and used for the higher education. Departments and schools within universities should agree on how online teaching will take place, how professional environments will be created and maintained, how social interactions should be supported as a necessary part of learning, and what is required and expected from staff and students in teaching and learning in these spaces. Students should be notified how to raise concerns, and key support contacts. For one-on-one supervisions and teaching, creating guidance would enable students to know what expect from this professional environment, and enable staff to create boundaries that support learning.