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Ghost in the Machine: Bullying and the Online University Environment

Heather Rasmussen (Northcentral University, USA)
Additional Authors
Laura Siaya (Northcentral University, USA)
Helen Zaikina-Montgomery (Northcentral University, USA)
Heather Frederick (Northcentral University, USA)
Session Information
October 15, 2015 - 11:15am
Faculty and Professional Development & Support
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Discovery Session
Atlantic Hall
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Discovery Session 2

We will present on bullying in the online environment with a focus on the prevalence of faculty who are bullied by students, faculty, or leadership.

Extended Abstract

This is a proposal to conduct a presentation at the Online Learning Consortium International Conference on Online Learning on the topic of bullying in the online environment with a focus on the prevalence of faculty who are bullied, either by their colleagues, the institutional leadership, or their students. Along with a brief review of the literature and research on academic bullying in traditional institutions, we will bridge the gap between the literature on in-person academic bullying and the cyberbullying literature. We believe that online academic bullying may present unique challenges to institutions and faculty. Our goal is to engage audience members through discussion and encouragement to provide feedback on the links we find, strategies their institutions have implemented to address this issue, and offer advice for further study.
When the image of a bully or the concept of bullying come to mind, traditionally it involves young people, high school age, with the bully being physically menacing and the person who is being bullied as a loner or on the fringe of the social trend setters. A more recent form of bullying has been identified and that is cyberbullying and this includes bullying acts that involve posting hateful messages on Twitter or sharing embarrassing videos or photos on YouTube or Facebook. Again, due to the technology that is involved this has been mainly reported among younger generations. Yet, the anonymity and immediacy of online communication can provide a ready avenue that allows for immediate reactions to prevail over more thoughtful communication regardless of age.
A more recent area of focus has been on workplace bullying which in many ways is viewed as an extension of the high school bullying experience, but one in which there is no graduation that puts an end to it. In a recent 2014 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, 27 percent of respondents said that they have either been bullied and another 21 percent said that while they had not been directly bullied, they have been a witness to it. Thus, almost half of the 1,000 adults who were surveyed had first-hand knowledge of bullying in their workplace. Another study by Fox and Stallworth (2005) looked at the workplace environment over a five year period and found that more than 90 percent of workers had some type of exposure to bullying behavior over that time period.
The impact of workplace bullying on the person being bullied is almost too numerous to recall, but includes decreased productivity, self-esteem, and morale. In addition, bully behavior can cause those who are the targets to experience physical issues such as in inability to sleep, weight loss or gain, and become more susceptible to illnesses. Similarly, the organization suffers too when bullying occurs. A 2007 nationwide poll by the American Psychological Association found that over half of those surveyed indicating that their work productivity suffered due to stress. Another APA report noted that U.S. businesses lose an estimated $300 billion per year through absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and direct medical, legal and insurance fees.
Yet, with all the impact bullying has on the workplace it has only be a recent topic of study among academics, with the first study on workplace bullying being published in 1990 by Heinz Leymann. Perhaps even more surprising is that academics have rarely looked at their own workplace environment as a topic to study workplace bullying. This is surprising because there is extensive research on bullying among students and evidence that there is ample conflict and bullying within the higher education community as noted with some frequency in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education and popular sites such as www.bulliedacademics.com. In addition, there is a gap in the literature regarding bullying in the online workplace.
There is a need then for additional discussion on this topic. For this presentation, we will focus on the prevalence and types of bullying that are experienced by online faculty. Some faculty choose to work within the online environment because they envision that their anonymity will decrease possible stereotypes they may have struggled with in previous work environments. But, as the cyberbullying literature has shown the anonymity can also embolden others to act in hostile and abusive ways.
While there is some existing research on bullying in academia and also research on cyberbullying, there is a dearth of research on bullying in the online academic environment. We propose bridge that gap by presenting the findings of a literature review on bullying in the academic environment and incorporating findings from the cyberbullying literature as a way to conceptualize and approach the bullying in the online academic environment. We also will focus on prevention of bullying in the online environment based on strategies tested in the literature. Our goal is to engage the audience by asking for their thoughts on the review and suggestions for future research. It is our hope that this presentation encourages attention from organizations about this issue, as well as future research in the area of bullying in the online academic environment.