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Confronting Incivility in the Online Classroom

Swartzwelder, Kay; Clements, Paul; Holt, Karyn; Childs, Gary

doi: 10.1097/CNJ.0000000000000591
Feature: education

ABSTRACT: Confronting incivility in the online classroom can significantly benefit from spiritual approaches that address behaviors on a continuum of mild to aggressive. This may include the need to intervene when covert or overt threats occur. Electronic communications can lead to misperceptions and misunderstandings between students and faculty. Lack of understanding of diverse cultures, life experiences, and professional and spiritual histories can lead to behaviors that are perceived as intentionally hostile when, in fact, they are not. It is important in the online classroom to differentiate between the two and establish expected virtual classroom behaviors.

Kay Swartzwelder, PhD, RN, is an assistant clinical professor at Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a Family Nurse Practitioner. She is chair of the Ethical Decision-Making course at Drexel University.

Paul Clements, PhD, RN, is a full clinical professor at Drexel University and a Distinguished Fellow in the International Association of Forensic Nurses. He is certified as a Gang Specialist and in Danger Assessment. He oversees the forensics course at Drexel University.

Karyn Holt, PhD, RN, is a full clinical professor at Drexel University and Director of Online Quality. She is the chair of the Online Faculty Fellows and course chair for the research course.

Gary Childs, MS, Library Science, is the Health Sciences Liaison Librarian at Drexel University Libraries. He assists faculty and students in conducting effective searches through multiple databases.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Accepted by peer-review 7/9/2018.



Incivility in online education is an evolving problem that challenges faculty. Harris (2011) describes incivility as any offensive behavior or action that is intimidating or hostile and interferes with the learning or practice environment. Incivil behaviors occur on a continuum from simple disruption to covert or overt threats, which should be dealt with to promote a civil and engaged learning environment. Although most communications do not occur face-to-face (such as on camera) but in written form such as email, discussion boards, group work, and other experiential assignments, incivil behavior in the online classroom can result in reduced student participation, lower student satisfaction, and decreased student retention.

For the Christian educator, incivility stands in stark contrast to biblical teaching. Regardless of the academic climate, the Christ-following educator can model scriptural teachings, such as Psalm 34:13-15 (ESV): “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.” The implications include an accurate contemporary translation that rude and threatening online communications are the electronic format of our tongues and lips. Unfortunately, incivil behaviors continue to escalate, and the encounters range from mild to highly aggressive and can include a variety of threats to other students or faculty. Although the effects of incivil encounters vary, the impact on faculty, as well as students, can be significant, resulting in physical and/or emotional reactions. Examples include decreased self-esteem and loss of confidence in teaching abilities, which can result in a paralysis of faculty performance, ultimately having catastrophic negative effects on the educational process. Cassidy, Faucher, and Jackson (2017) provided a poignant example of the impact on self-esteem and confidence in teaching abilities by sharing a quote from a professor who described her experiences with a student:

Email, text messages making comments that I was incompetent, not accessible, was too slow, workload too difficult, and the words used were “useless,” “lousy,” and “I am reporting you (to the professional association),” “they will take away your license you are so stupid.” Student was not open to feedback. I felt attacked, humiliated, and believed all the other classmates were feeling the same way, as it was veiled in the notes that everyone thought I was a “loser” instructor. (p. 5)

Although many incivil behaviors are deliberate, sometimes they are a result of miscommunications and misunderstandings. A misunderstanding based on the student's culture, prior faculty experiences, professional or spiritual history, may lead to behaviors that appear hostile but are not. For example, a student from an Asian culture may not be inclined to actively participate in a faculty-driven discussion board, as his/her level of engagement may be based on a perception of respect and deference to the professor. Such paucity of participation could easily be viewed as a lack of respect by others. Without a specific cultural reference, accurate understanding can become challenging for the faculty, as it is impossible to assess the student's intent based on lack of participation. This is reflective of the nuances of electronic communication that lacks nonverbal cues, leading to misperception and misunderstanding about intent. Often, communicating directly with the student may clarify for the faculty and student the misunderstanding. In other cases, a simple reminder of course expectations will establish appropriate communication and interpersonal boundaries. The syllabus, which serves as the contract between the student and faculty, along with the policies in the student handbook, should be readily available, clear, and easily understood. Therefore, the tenets contained within these documents should be enforced by all faculty. Proverbs 12:18 (ESV) states, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Instructors' attitudes and behaviors can significantly affect student perceptions and responses; therefore, faculty should model appropriate conduct and communication (Kelly, 2014). An instructor's positive attitude and enthusiasm for the course, along with consistent engagement in the online classroom, sets the tone for the entire class.

Empathy, which requires the ability to understand, experience, and appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others, is a foundational principle for scholarly and civil discourse in the online setting. This topic should be regularly and repeatedly addressed. This directly relates to 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV), which reminds us that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

To date, no federal law directly addresses incivility in the academic setting. Incivil behavior may overlap with discriminatory harassment, which is covered under federal civil rights laws and are enforced by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Educational settings are obligated by these laws to effectively intervene when conduct is severe, pervasive or persistent, or creates a hostile environment that is sufficiently serious enough to interfere with, or limit, a student's ability to participate in, or benefit from, the services, activities, or opportunities offered by an educational setting.

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In the last 2 decades, scholars have noted an increase in the intensity and frequency of incivility among elected officials and citizens, which has been partially attributed to 24-hour news cycles and social media (Smith & Bressler, 2013). Likewise, Crosslin and Golman (2014) reported the incidence of cyberbullying in college students as ranging from 8% to 21%, but noted that students surveyed indicated that they often failed to report instances of cyberbullying, due to a perception that as adults, they should be able to handle it. McNeill, Dunemn, Einhellig, and Clukey (2017) noted that ongoing incivility experienced by students in the learning setting may have a potential impact on graduates entering the professional environment.

Mark 12:31 (ESV) states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” This spiritual underpinning seems lost in today's fast-paced environment. As a result, for example, the University of Arizona created the National Institute for Civil Discourse, after representative Gabby Giffords was shot in 2011 (Tumolillo, 2011). According to Smith and Bressler (2013), the overriding theory among scholars is that people must choose to control impulses, such as aggression and self-interest, which can lead to violent behavior, such as the Giffords shooting. Most would agree that civil discourse is crucial for effective communication. A faculty member at a university posited that in a genuine conversation, it is important for participants to remember that the position they're most sure of might be wrong; otherwise, it's not genuine conversation. The faculty member adds that humility is an important virtue in the search for truth. If there is absolute certainty that the truth is already known, then it precludes learning from each other (Smith & Bressler).

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Another form of incivility that occurs in the virtual classroom is the growing problem of cyberbullying. Jesus instructs, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, ESV). This is far removed from what is happening today. Cassidy et al. (2014) conducted research to examine the impact of cyberbullying in the university setting, on both faculty and students.

Selkie, Kota, and Moreno (2016) report, “Given that college students have a high prevalence of technology use, it is conceivable that they will witness cyberbullying behaviors as much as, if not more than, other age groups, with females having greater exposure than males” (p. 279). Females were also found to be much more likely to be on the receiving end of cyberbullying than face-to-face bullying (Faucher, Jackson, & Cassidy, 2014). Emails were found to be a common method for cyberbullying (Donathan, Hanks, & Dotson, 2017), along with websites such as Rate My Professor, YouTube, and Facebook, where derogatory comments about professors are posted (Spathis, 2017). Minor, Smith, and Brashen (2013) reported findings from a survey of 68 online instructors and found that 33.8% of respondents stated they were cyberbullied by students. Most of these respondents attempted to handle the situation themselves, and only about one-third reported the incidences to an immediate supervisor. A surprising 60% did not know what resources were available in the case of cyberbullying. Participants expressed concern that reporting the incidences would impact further teaching opportunities and found the time requirements to report the occurrence prohibitive; the paperwork necessary to report an occurrence may take upwards of an hour, depending on the incident. This is in addition to the resultant time necessary to respond to any subsequent inquiry that may ultimately impact a student's academic standing.

Several studies reflect that students and faculty engaged in online learning environments have been cyberbullied at least once (Cassidy et al., 2017; Johnson et al., 2016; Kopp & Finney, 2013). An exploratory study of the cyberbullying experiences and factors related to victimization of students at a public liberal arts college identified that rates of cyberbullying were higher among students and faculty over age 35 (Minor et al., 2013). The most commonly reported types of cyberbullying were via emails and online discussions. Less than half of the respondents reported these incidents for the following reasons: doubt that authorities could help, uncertainty as to where and how to report, and fear of retaliation. Clark, Ahten, and Werth (2012) conducted research on online incivility using the Incivility in Online Learning Environments (IOLE) survey to measure faculty and student perception of these behaviors. The findings identified suggestions from faculty and students to confront incivil behaviors that have an impact on online discourse. Suggestions included: providing clearly defined course and behavioral expectations, civility orientation for all students, faculty role modeling of professionalism and civility, limited use of group assignments, and immediately addressing incivil behaviors. Several challenges were identified by faculty and students. First, lack of face-to-face contact ultimately led toward difficulty in establishing a supportive teaching–learning environment and, second, a deficient sense of community, which in some cases counterintuitively encouraged incivil behavior. Although students appreciated the flexibility and convenience of online learning, they reported sometimes struggling with the self-discipline required to remain focused and complete assignments. Students also struggled with uncertainty of online communication, proper online behavior, and misunderstandings that arose from the two-dimensionality of text-based interactions. Without the visual domain, which enables participants to see facial or other nonverbal expressions of the sender, it is easy for the receiver to misunderstand intent. Students and/or faculty may receive an email, text, or discussion post that appears aggressive or blunt, but when asked about intent, the sender is surprised by how the message was perceived. Both faculty and students discussed how perceived anonymity of online interaction encouraged rude or aggressive behavior, which is consistent with previous studies (Clark, Ahten, et al., 2012).

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Cassidy et al. (2014) mentioned the impact of academic entitlement on incivility. Academic entitlement includes the belief by students that they should expect educational success, without a commensurate level of work. Rawlins (2017) discussed this phenomenon and how this creates an environment where faculty are providers of service and students are the payees. This perception of deservedness, without valid justification, is a conclusion formulated by some students for reasons that include aggressive incivil student behaviors, grade inflation, compromising university policies, and dissatisfaction with the university by other students, faculty, and administration (Jeffres, Barclay, & Stolte, 2014; Kopp & Finney, 2013; Zhu & Anagondahalli, 2017). University students now expect that faculty will be available via email or the online course room 24/7, without regard to other responsibilities, such as other students, multiple classes, and, additionally, a lack of respect for faculty work-life balance. When these faculty–student exchanges occur, a decrease in formality and respect is noted.



Students often become increasingly dissatisfied and reach out to a dean or vice president rather than following delineated chains of authority and, by doing so, trigger further tension between faculty and administration. A phenomenon has developed regarding the belief that as students are paying tuition, they deserve good grades, regardless of the product produced or the amount of work put into the assignment (Cassidy et al., 2014); specifically, faculty are supposed to operate within a fee for service model. It is often this expression of academic entitlement that is at the core of incivil behavior. Each of these behavioral manifestations contrast with Romans 12:18 (ESV) that instructs, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This guiding Scripture can frame faculty discussions with students regarding behavior and promote appropriate interaction.

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Although incivil behavior is not necessarily a symptom of mental health issues, McNaughton-Cassill (2013) expressed concern that some cases may be related to the student's mental health. A survey by the American College Counseling Association (Edwards, 2011) found that 44% of students who seek counseling have previously been in some type of psychological treatment. This is due, in part, to changes in disability laws, enabling equal access and accommodations for those with mental health disorders. The stress of leaving home, meeting new people, and academic expectations can exacerbate symptoms, which lead to more students seeking counseling on college campuses (McNaughton-Cassill). However, it is difficult for faculty to recognize, particularly online, existing mental health issues. Signs of mental distress could include inappropriate emotional reactions, disclosing too much personal information to the class or professor, showing disregard for the rights and feelings of others, poor impulse control, memory and attention problems, and expressing thoughts of harming themselves or others. Other indicators could involve deterioration of work, missed or late assignments, or an obsession with the professor, such as hostile or sexual comments or repeated electronic contact. Although difficult, learning to differentiate between incivil behavior and a manifestation of impaired mental health is paramount to both students and faculty (McNaughton-Cassilli).

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The nature of the online classroom should, by policy and practice, provide for a relatively neutral environment—particularly because contact is typically asynchronous and generally driven by the lack of a three-dimensional tone. However, faculty and students typically realize that this is not always the case. Just because the structure of classroom interactions has changed from the face-to-face setting does not preclude equivalent dynamics for acts of incivility in the online setting. It can become more difficult to remain civil and develop effective working relationships online, when compared with face-to-face exchanges; specifically, as the online environment typically precludes body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone, students may not be able to clarify their communication in real time. Students and faculty have a responsibility to recognize what constitutes incivility and take proactive steps to prevent it (Johnson, 2012). This can be actively promoted by establishing clear policies in the student and faculty handbooks and specific guidelines and expectations in course syllabi that serve as a contract between the faculty, student, and peers. Foundational principles, such as, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, ESV) must be discussed at the beginning of each course so that students understand expectations of the online environment.

As research and anecdotal reports reflect a growing occurrence of incivility in the online classroom, including challenging, disrespectful, aggressive, and, in some cases, even threatening behaviors, it is imperative to proactively address these dynamics. This can lead toward students not only learning and embracing successful strategies for the online class, but also providing peer role-modeling (Clark, Ahten, et al., 2012; Clark, Werth, & Ahten, 2012; Galbraith & Jones, 2010). It is significant to note that successful behaviors do not inherently indicate appropriate methods of navigating the online class environment. Specifically, for some, bullying and incivility, by history and experience, have resulted in accomplishing what they are seeking and continue to perceive it to be the best method for success (Antoci, Delfino, Paglieri, Panebianco, & Sabatini, 2016). These factors directly underlie the need for clear and concise expectations to be set for all online courses.

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Incivility is minimized when students are engaged in the learning experience, rather than being “talked to” or “talked at” (Clark, 2013). A study by O'Shea, Stone, and Delahunty (2015) noted that online students perceived that they were treated worse by faculty and the university than face-to-face students. Subsequently, in either setting, the most effective way of preventing incivility in online courses is to explicitly detail in the course syllabus behaviors that will be unacceptable and to include basic Christian principles. In addition, instructors should provide an explanation of why these behaviors are unacceptable. Some faculty may require reading an overview of Netiquette (etiquette governing communication on the Internet) standards for the online classroom as an assignment during week one. It is imperative to have a formalized record of the associated consequences for engaging in incivil behavior. The value of the syllabi for providing these expectations for online learners cannot be emphasized enough (Galbraith & Jones, 2010).

Faculty often consider incivility as disruptive behavior when those actions interfere with the learning process or become a threat to other students. However, just as important as it is for faculty to recognize incivil actions, it is just as important to understand what is not incivil. For example, missing a deadline or failing to participate in the class discussion may indicate a lack of proper time management or self-motivation versus incivility. Not all incivility is intentional. A lack of understanding of diverse cultures can lead to behaviors that seem intentionally hostile but are not. Lack of participation can be the result of a student's apathy or difficulty understanding the course content. Understanding why a student engaged in certain behaviors is critical in properly addressing the issue. Galbraith and Jones (2010) noted that responding to incivility is a human relations activity. No single approach will work for every incivil behavior problem encountered. Although the recommendations by Galbraith and Jones (Table 1) are presented as four things to do in the online environment for every incident of incivility, it is posited that incivility in the face-to-face setting is based on the same foundational underpinnings, and as such, these approaches could also be applied.



Table 1

Table 1

When dealing with a learner who has engaged in some form of incivility, it is imperative to be consistent in the approach to the situation and maintain behaviors that are polite, respectful, gracious, considerate, kind, courteous, and cordial; however, these approaches do not supersede being matter-of-fact, calm, firm, and active with consequences. Table 2 provides a specific list of behaviors that represent the most common examples of incivility within online classes. In the best scenario, 1 Peter 3:8-9 (ESV) states, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” This approach can facilitate the potential for the online instructor and student responsible for the incivil behavior to address the situation in a respectful manner. This can be accomplished via an online synchronous meeting requiring the use of cameras, or documentation via recording of the meeting, both of which will enhance communication. Even in the most proactive approach, it is important to implement consequences as set forth by university policy and course requirements. However, this does not negate a loving stance or approach; rather, it demonstrates the importance of civil behavior to all.

Table 2

Table 2

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It is imperative for faculty to establish and maintain a culture of civility in the online environment, based on Christian perspectives. This should establish the expectation of all learners accepting a shared set of basic beliefs and values in the learning environment. When these beliefs or values are not accepted, a counterculture is present and can result in incivility from individual students, or the very disturbing phenomenon of mobbing, where a cohort of students combine their incivil efforts to derail a course or to disregard the expertise and authority of faculty (Eskey, Taylor, & Eskey, 2014). These behaviors can ultimately become overt in nature and manifest in various forms of incivil behavior by online learners. It is the incumbent role and responsibility of faculty to be proactive in this endeavor and for academic administrators to be supportive.

A course syllabus, with the goal of establishing clarity of desired and expected outcomes, is needed. By explicitly detailing what actions or activities are expected and prohibited, explaining how these actions are based on Christian perspectives, and providing information concerning the consequences for such actions, faculty take the first vital step in establishing leadership within the course. One must be mindful of the current generation of students, who are sharing responses, results, and discussion at levels that are nearly instantaneous. Within the syllabus, the timeline for email responses and grading should be clearly noted. For example, if email is checked once per day, let the students know that; this can proactively reduce incivility, as students are aware of what they can expect. Establishing the timeframe for scoring discussion boards and scholarly papers will help develop the desired culture within the online classroom and will set a standard to which students become accustomed. Students may become frustrated in waiting for an instructor response; hence, frustration is one of the primary causes of incivility (Rawlins, 2017). By eliminating student expectation of receiving the instant response to which they have become accustomed, such proactivity can promote a reduction or, potentially, an elimination of incivility (Galbraith & Jones, 2010).

As technology continues to cause an evolution in the educational setting, one cannot discount some of the negative consequences that result from ever-changing technological advances. When considering communication, for example, the shift in communication style of the student population is evident. Academia has transmuted from a world of face-to-face dialogue, to the smart phone, text, and instant messaging. Faculty need to be willing to navigate toward these techno-culturally accepted forms of casual conversation; however, they simultaneously have the responsibility to mandate academically appropriate discourse within the online setting. Another consequence of technology, perceived as negative by some, is the expected timeliness of responses.

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The discussions surrounding incivility in the online learning environment require all to bring civil discourse and respect to our conversations and encounters (Clark, 2013). Clearly, behaviors that interrupt learning should be addressed by the student code of conduct and/or student handbook. The primary proactive approach that instructors often take is to provide guidelines and expectations of appropriate classroom behavior within the course syllabus, referencing university policy, along with a biblical perspective (where permitted), which is a contract between the instructor and students. Just as important as stating the policies, is the enforcement of those policies, which means faculty are actively monitoring discussions and responding quickly to inappropriate behaviors. In addition to guidelines, it is also significant to emphasize the need for managing emotions to prevent disruptive behaviors. This requires education, experience, and practice to produce faculty confidence and competence in these skills; consequently, the need for faculty training in these areas. Other strategies include an active awareness that the attitudes and behaviors of the instructor can affect attitudes and behaviors of the students. As noted in Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV), “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Faculty must model the behavior they expect from students. Avoiding authoritarianism and using matter-of-fact interpersonal communication can promote avoidance of emotional overreaction and defensiveness when confronting an incivil student (sidebar, Online Incivility: Case Studies).

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Incivil online encounters occur in many classrooms and range from mild to aggressive. Identifying their presence, providing callouts for those who have not identified them, and providing corrective action to stop the behavior is imperative to decreasing the occurrence of incivility in the university classroom. Academic entitlement, the term used to describe students feeling they deserve academic success without action other than the payment of tuition, is a common denominator to incivil behavior. Lack of understanding of diverse cultures, life experiences, and professional or spiritual histories, can lead to behaviors that are perceived as intentionally hostile but are not. Ensuring the development of university policies to address incivility, faculty and student handbooks with this same information, and establishing expectations for civil and acceptable online classroom behavior based on a Christian perspective, are great starts to negate incivil behavior.

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Online Incivility: Case Studies

Liam is a junior nursing student enrolled in an online class. Prior to the first class, students were required to read the university's student handbook and online expectations documents. Completion was required prior to online access. These documents clearly outlined appropriate and inappropriate speech, conduct, and behavior for the online setting. Four weeks in, Liam was behind schedule, with many assignments missing. Stress took its toll, and Liam lashed out at his classmates in an online group discussion. The instructor moderating the discussion realized what was happening and responded quickly. She put the class on hold, while writing offline to Liam. His incivil behavior was addressed, and he was reminded of expectations. The instructor set a high standard and held to it. By so doing, students got the picture that incivil behavior would not be tolerated. This created a sense of safety and set the tone for the remainder of the semester. Liam apologized for his behavior during the next class discussion, explaining that he had let recent personal issues cloud his judgment and that he was sorry for what he had posted. The other students were gracious, giving encouraging words to Liam, which in turn helped him share some personal struggles with the group.

Another instructor experienced personal incivility, as a student lashed out via email and made rude remarks, telling the instructor (who was an international leader in the course topic), “You don't know anything about this topic” and “What makes you think you are such an expert to give me a poor grade? I have worked for a year in this area.” In her desire to give the student the benefit of the doubt, the situation escalated, unchecked. The student wrote to the dean, expressing how poorly the class was being taught, accusing the instructor of playing favorites, and demanded a new instructor.

The dean reviewed the situation, including several emails the instructor forwarded. It was determined the student was acting in an incivil manner. The instructor and the dean both wrote to the student, stating the dean's support and noting that further incivil behavior would not be tolerated but would result in being removed from online access and an automatic failure. The student, although angry, adjusted her behavior and completed the class.

In situations like these, clear guidelines and expectations allow the instructor to quickly address and enforce rules for dealing with incivil behavior. Every college and university that offers online courses needs to have a policy for addressing incivility included in the student handbook. Students should read and sign the student handbook before taking their first course. By instructors actively monitoring discussions and responding quickly to inappropriate behaviors, the integrity of the classroom can be upheld and emotions managed before they become disruptive.

Additionally, Title IX federal legislation prohibits any sex discrimination, including sexual harassment (such as can potentially occur in online courses), in education (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). Universities will have a designated representative appointed in charge of Title IX complaints, and faculty are held accountable for reporting any breaches in the standards. Read more about Title IX from the U.S. Department of Education at

—Cathy Walker, Associate Editor and Kris Mauk, Senior Editor

U.S. Department of Education. (2018). Title IX and sex discrimination. Retrieved from

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    communication; empathy; incivility; nursing education; online classroom; online learning environment

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