The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the transition to digital education

Online spaces, such as Twitter for knowledge mobilization and email for communication, are tools of the scholarly trade. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of technology use in research and teaching. This has accelerated pre-existing trends towards the digitization of higher education, leaving many experts expecting that various technologies adopted over the past year will continue to be used long after the pandemic is over.

The use of technologies such as video conferencing, social media platforms, and virtual discussion groups have heightened scholars’ online visibility, unfortunately also opening the door to new experiences of abuse and harassment, including zoom bombing and doxxing. Most universities and colleges have policies designed to protect their community members from harassment and discrimination; however, these policies have limitations that restrict their usefulness when abuse or harassment occurs online.

We examined harassment and discrimination policies at Canadian universities and colleges to identify areas that require updating for an increasingly digital research and education environment. In this article, we detail the limitations of these policies and recommend ways to fill the gaps. We have also spoken to and surveyed scholars who use online spaces in the course of their work to identify the kinds of support they need so that we can better understand how existing policies fall short.

Workplace harassment and discrimination policies are primarily analog

We searched the public websites of 232 universities and colleges across Canada for their workplace harassment and discrimination policies. We identified policies at 129 (56%) institutions. Of these, only 41 institutions acknowledged online abuse and harassment in some way. Next, we analyzed those 41 policies to understand how university and college community members might be protected from online abuse and harassment within the context of their institution’s policy. Overall, we found that the policies did not align with what scholars who have experienced online harassment have told us they need in order to feel supported by their institutions.

The scope of these 41 policies fell short in two ways: First, the main objective of many policies is to protect members of the university or college community from abuse and harassment from other members of the same institution. While this stipulation is reasonable in the context of a postsecondary institution, it precludes perpetrators of online abuse and harassment that are unknown, anonymous, or not part of the institutional community. This limited scope poses serious problems because the online abuse and harassment that academics receive often involves people outside of or unknown to the university community.

Second, policies often define their scope in relation to campus spaces. In the policies we examined, the ones that define their scope in relation to place typically limit harassment to spaces such as sanctioned events, events related to work and study, or any other place needed to fulfil duties to the institution. This provision opens up the possibility for policies to cover individuals who are not related to the university or college community but ignores the fact that scholars’ online abuse and harassment is not always directly tied to institutional spaces. Examples include media appearances or receiving harassing messages on personal social media accounts (as opposed to, say, receiving harassing messages on an institution’s Learning Management System).

Defining harassment and discrimination policies in terms of campus spaces or institutional personnel excludes acts of harassment that occur outside of institutionally-sanctioned platforms (such as social media). While some policies might cover some online spaces, such as email or video conferencing apps for teaching, there are many other spaces that scholars use for teaching, learning, and research that fall outside the scope of current harassment policies.

These limitations are particularly problematic in a world where higher education institutions are integrated in society’s fabric and engage with stakeholders beyond the halls of academia. When faculty appear on radio or TV, produce Tik-Tok videos, or write for mass media to engage broader audiences, they go beyond institutional spaces. Without finding ways to address the multiplatform and multimodal nature of academic work, harassment policies risk leaving scholars unprotected from online harassment.

Time for an update

In a time of digitization and online education growth, it is more important than ever to protect students, faculty, and staff from online abuse and harassment. However, current harassment policies at higher education institutions are not all up to this task. We were glad to see that there were mentions of the fact that abuse and harassment can occur online in the policies for 41 postsecondary institutions, but we see further room for development and growth.

Harassment policies should aim to consider what happens when a perpetrator outside of the community takes online harassment into the university or college space, for example by coordinating a mass email campaign to a dean or department chair demanding the expulsion of a student or the firing of a faculty member. These policies need to adopt frameworks that reconsider rigid boundaries of work and non-work life both on and offline.

Institutions need to ensure the safety and well-being of their members in online spaces as much as they do in physical classrooms and lecture halls. Simply acknowledging that work sometimes necessarily occurs outside of campus spaces would be a great step. Additionally, to truly address online abuse and harassment, policy procedures will need to account for the presence of online harassment and devise ways to respond that go beyond predominantly disciplining offenders. Such policies need to protect and support scholars. This change in focus will help create a safer work environment for scholars’ whose abusers cannot be identified and whose abuse stems from incidents outside of the institution’s physical spaces.

Creating or revising harassment policies to account for digital environments is no easy task. However, given the wide variety of adverse negative impacts that harassment has on scholars, it is important to foster safe work environments that are conducive to students and faculty thriving. We recommend universities and colleges develop procedural frameworks for working through the inevitable challenges created by new technologies and modes of work and learning. We cannot know what risks new technologies will bring, but we can create policies that allow for more flexibility in scope and definition to accommodate multiple modes of work and education.

Jaigris Hodson is a Canada Research Chair in Digital Communication for the Public Interest and Associate Professor in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University.

Chandell Gosse is a Media Studies Postdoctoral Researcher in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University.

George Veletsianos is a Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and Professor in the School of Education and Technology at Royal Roads University.