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This is a cogent plea to establish Performance Standards for Distance Education.


An Online Educators’ Obligation:
Holding the Virtual Self Accountable

Brett Hicks

Keywords: Accountability, Distance Education, Virtual Self, Online, Self-paced, Convenience, Professional, Hicks, Agger, Worldly Self


Online educators enjoy a unique and rewarding experience. From their computers, they develop the personal and professional skills of students worldwide. The educator/student relationship is an honored arrangement. The student comes to learn; welcomed by the educator.

In his book, The Virtual Self, Agger coined the phrase “worldly selves”. He states that an individual “…plugs into the world via extensions such as the Web and cell phones. The “more” they learn about things that come and go, the less they know about what really matters. Information and entertainment trade off against real depth of insight, the ability to reason and skeptical inquiry.” I believe this description epitomizes today’s online student. These extensions allow students a vast amount of access to all the information they desire – when they desire it. I believe this on demand authority can create a complex educator/student relationship.

Today’s virtual students have decided to include formal education in their hectic lives. They accept the role of student among their daily multi-tasking duties as parents, leaders, workers and members of their community. Online education appeals to them because it is convenient and offers self-paced learning; learning that fits into the busy schedules of today’s professionals. However, a small percentage of students may bring a “worldly self” lifestyle/attitude to the classroom by believing that self-paced is code for when I get around to it. Educators must be aware of and proactive towards dispelling this belief.

Most troubling are students that are upset with the professor that deducts points for late assignments that have not been pre-approved. Often, these students are experienced online students. These students are not just starting out; they are undergraduate junior/senior year equivalents and graduate students. This is where educators must ask themselves some tough questions. Have educators taught or encouraged this behavior or even perhaps fostered it? Have they educated students on proper academic etiquette? Are educators to blame for this general disregard for timeliness? Have they reinforced students’ behavior by not holding them accountable?

Distance Learning presents unique challenges for educators. For example, without face-to-face interaction between faculty and student, students present only their virtual selves to their professor and classmates. This makes accountability difficult. Educators must judge attendance and intent in a virtual world where students provide unverifiable reasons for absence or late assignments via e-mails, phone calls or text messages. Without body language or eye contact, the professor only has a student’s previous performance in the course to gauge sincerity.

For the student, the virtual self provides an opportunity to stretch the truth. “My dog ate my homework” takes on an entirely different meaning when a student does not have to present himself or herself in person. The ability of some students to hide behind their virtual selves adds a tricky complexity to the educator/student relationship. Therefore, in this environment, a professor must adopt an all-or-nothing approach to classroom attendance and participation. If faculty members do not universally apply this approach, the hard-line professor runs the risk of alienating these students over a perceived unfairness due to a departure from the norm established during the student’s tenure at the University.

Accountability is critical for online education. Many of the detractors of online education argue against asynchronous learning based on a triad. The points of this triad are a lack of academic rigor, qualified faculty and accountability. If we design this triad in the shape of a pyramid, accountability would represent the base.

In my opinion, student accountability is paramount. In order for distance education institutions to overcome the stigma of online education, faculty must act as gatekeepers; protecting the integrity of their respective institutions. This defense begins in the classroom. Distance education institutions distinguish themselves in the same manner as traditional institutions of higher learning. They produce educated, student professionals – even virtual ones.


Agger, B. (2004). The virtual self: A contemporary sociology (21st century sociology). Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishing.

About the Author

Brett Hicks is a Professor in Homeland Security, Emergency and Disaster Management and Public Health departments at the school of Public Safety & Health at American Military University. He has over 17 years of professional health care, emergency/crisis management experience from all over the world. He can be reached at bretthicks58@gmail.com.

Brett Hicks, CEM, SEM, CHS-V
Professor, American Public University System


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