Presentation Abstract

Considerations of Ethos in Internet-based University Courses

Ethos is central to all teaching situations. At the post-secondary level, the ethos of the teacher derives in part from the ethos of the institution itself, which bears the ethos-laden name “college” or “university,” and by the titles Professor and Doctor. Indeed, the very fact that university instructors are not called “teachers” adds to the prevailing post-secondary ethos of higher education. Furthermore, this ethos is enhanced by the lecture situation itself, and in the majority of small classrooms as well. Professors walks into the room after the students have assembled (the majority of them, at least), and proceed to the front of the class, speaking to the students as they stop talking and look to the lectern or the desk. The configuration of the room suggests authority, which the students have learned throughout school and possibly in other public situations as well (political speeches, church sermons, music concerts), and this authority, combined with the respect accorded a professor’s title and (presumed) credentials, in addition to the obvious authority over grades, provides a fundamental ethos under which the class operates.

When we move from the physical university classroom to the university course offered over the Internet, the notion of ethos changes significantly. For the student logging into these courses, the institutional ethos exists through the domain name (for example, and through the inclusion of the university’s seal on the home page (, but these are scarcely as powerful as the physical campus when it comes to asserting the institution. More importantly, the rhetorical power of the physical classroom, with its ethos-centered arrangement, disappears completely, and with it the central symbol of the institution’s ethos, the professor at the front of the room. And still another disappearance occurs, the student’s colleagues themselves. In a very real sense, there is no college; there is only the student, the computer, and the information and communication that comes from somewhere out there.

Two essential problems must be surmounted if Internet-based courses are to achieve any of the traditional ethos of the on-campus lecture hall or seminar room. The first is the problem of presence; the second is the problem of identification. In rhetorical theory, of course, these terms come from Perelman and Burke respectively, and we will examine them according to the original treatments by the two theorists. In the on-campus setting, presence is assumed and identification is gained by, in large part, the simple fact of bodies in the room engaging in spoken communication, and they are confirmed by the written assignments as well. In the online course, however, neither exists as the result of a physical proximity of bodies, but if we accept their importance to the on-campus learning environment then we should try to ensure their existence in online courses as well. But how? What rhetorical principles and techniques, combined with what technological principles and techniques, might guide their inclusion? How are course designers already ensuring them? How do we judge their success? This paper will approach these questions and others surrounding the creation of ethos in the online course environment, by analyzing existing online implementations and offering guidelines for future designs.

Neil Randall teaches multimedia design and rhetorical theory in the Rhetoric and Professional Writing program in the English department at the University of Waterloo (Canada). He is the author of The Soul of the Internet (International Thompson Computer Press, 1997), Using HTML (Que-Macmillan, 1996), and Teach Yourself the Internet (Sams-Macmillan, 1995), and co-author of Special Edition Using FrontPage 98 (Que-Macmillan, 1997), The World Wide Web Unleashed (Sams-Macmillan, 1996), and MBONE: Multicasting Tomorrow’s Internet (IDG Books, 1996). He writes the bi-monthly Tech Tutor column and other feature articles for PC Magazine, and has contributed hundreds of articles and reviews to a range of other computer magazines over the past decade.

Isabel Pedersen holds a Master's degree in Language and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo. She co-owns a publishing company called Lawthority that specializes in electronic legal information. She has written several technical manuals for Northern Telecom, and she consults to law firms and publishing companies.

Author: Neil Randall and Isabel Pedersen


Target Audience: Intermediate

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