3 Let’s talk: Effectively Communicating with your Online Students

Sandra Mitchell-Holder

Introduction

While effectively communicating with the students in your online classes aids in the retention of your students, as educators, we should want to do more than just retain our students. We should provide them with a sense of community while enrolled in online classes to avoid the sense of isolation that some online students experience.  The goal of online communications is the same as the goal in face-to-face communications: to bond; to share information; to be heard, and to be understood. Fostering a sense of community in online classes will make the learning experience more meaningful for online students and help them stay connected during the life of the course.  Learning Management Systems (LMS) have built-in tools to assist in communicating with your online students, but there are also many other technology tools to help you bridge the gap between you and your online students.  This chapter will explore several tools and methods that can be used to enhance your communications with your online students.

“For most online students, their primary contact with an institution is through their communication with faculty” Betts (2009).

The above quote emphasizes why it is important that online instructors learn to communicate with their students in ways that will support and enhance their learning experience.  One of your primary goals as an online instructor should be to foster a sense of community within your online class. When and how you communicate with your students helps you foster a sense of community in your class which helps your students feel connected to you and their classmates. As an online instructor, you are expected to communicate with your students in a timely and effective manner. Whether you are new to teaching online or a veteran online instructor, finding the best methods for communicating with your students should be your number one priority.  How you communicate with your students and the methods you use to communicate can make a difference in whether or not a student is successful in your class.  This chapter will examine why effective communication is required in online classes. What it takes to show your presence in your online class.  How knowing your audience can help improve communications. How to make your communications personal. Methods that can be used to communicate more effectively in online environments; and how having a communication plan in advance helps you communicate better.

Why Effective Communication is Required in Online Classes

When we are communicating with students whether in a face-to-face (F2F) class or an online class, we are communicating to give information or get information to gain understanding and build relationships.  Communicating with students in an online environment requires a little more thought and planning than communicating with students in an (F2F) environment due to the absence of body language in the online environment.  In an (F2F) class, you have the benefit of using body language and facial expression to help you communicate and get your message across to your student. When communicating in an online class, since you are limited to using text and/or images to help you get your point across, you do not have the benefit of using body language to help you communicate to your students. Awareness of limitations to communication capabilities within online environments will help you determine how to develop timely and relevant communications and how to effectively communication with your online students.  To determine what would be considered timely and relevant communication in your online class, you first need to decide why and what you need to communicate to students.

Why are you communicating with your online students? To answer this question, you have to know the end result you want to achieve with the communication you are sending to your students. Think about why you need to communicate with your students and what you want to gain from your communication.  For example, you need to send a notice to your online students to let them know that the deadline to complete a test has been extended. Why are you communicating with students in this particular instance? To let students know they have more time to complete the test if needed. What do you want to achieve with this communication? To inform your students that the deadline to complete the test has been extended. Now, if you were in an (F2F) class, it would be sufficient to tell your class that the deadline has been extended and you would probably write the information on the board so that they could copy it down as a reminder. When teaching online, it is up to you to craft the message that you want to send to your students and then determine the best method to use to send your message to your students.

Crafting a timely, relevant and useful communication to your online students is not always a simple task. Here are some guidelines that you can use to help you write a communication that will be timely, relevant, and useful to your online students:

  • Remember, Less is More – When you are composing the message that you will be sending to your online students, try to use as few words as possible while ensuring that your intended message is communicated with your choice of words. Online students are bombarded with communications that consist of mostly text, so the last thing they want is to read a lengthy online message from their instructor. Your students are more likely to read and get the message from a concise, well-crafted communication.
  • Be Clear – Not only should your message to your students be concise, but it also needs to be clear and leave no room for confusion on the student’s part. Using the example above, if you want to let your online students know that the deadline for the test has been extended, the message that you write to them should only talk about the extended deadline for the test. You need to make it clear by giving them all the details they need to know about the deadline extension:

_______Example Communication _____________

Hello, Students:

The deadline for this week’s test has been extended.  You will now have until 7/10/— to submit your test for grading. If you have additional questions, please contact me.  Thank you.

Professor Bee

_______End Example Communication __________

  • Method of Communication – Before you determine how you will send your message to your students you will need to determine how important the information being sent is to your students.  To decide how important your message is to your students, ask yourself these questions?

Do your students need to have the information right now? If the answer is yes to this question, then you will want to ensure that the method you use to send your communication is a method that will contact your students immediately such as a text message because most everyone is attached to their cell phones. You’ll also want to post an announcement in your online class to serve as a permanent record to show that particular information was communicated to your students. Also, to catch the students attention, use bold and capital letters and include “IMPORTANT’ in the subject line of the communication.

Is the information concerning an imminent deadline? If the answer is yes to this question, you can use additional methods to communicate with your students to increase the chances that they get the message quickly.  Once again, because everyone is literally attached to their cell phones, you can use this to your advantage by tweeting, texting and emailing them to communicate your message regarding imminent deadlines or you can go old school and call them.

Be Courteous: Reread your communication to make sure that it sounds the way you intend it to sound. Check the tone of the communication and check for clarity and completeness of your message. Invite your students to ask questions about your message if they don’t understand it. You want your messages to be professional and let your students know that you welcome their questions.

Robinson, Segal and Smith (2015) stated that “Effective communication is also a two-way street. It’s not only how you convey a message so that it is received and understood by someone in exactly the way you intended, it’s also how you listen to gain the full meaning of what’s being said and to make the other person feel heard and understood.” I think the previous statement illustrates why it is important to utilize different ways to communicate with your students. To effectively communicate with your online students, you have to think outside of the box, the text box that is. Everyone does not like to communicate using the same methods, so you have to be prepared to use different types of communications and different methods to communicate. Your communications with your online students can and should go beyond the written word. Since you will already have several communication options available in your Learning Management System to you to help you communicate more effectively with your students, you should start by using the communication tools most readily available to you. You are not limited to using only the communication tools included in your LMS to communicate with your students, there are numerous online communication tools that you can easily use to help you get your message across to your students. Some of those other online communication tools will be discussed in more detail later in this chapter. Because the success of your online class relies largely on how effective the communications are between you and your students, you will need ways to determine if your students are getting your message.  Some of the ways I use to determine that my students are understanding and responding to my communications are:

  • Message Receipt – Did my students get/acknowledge my message?
  • Did my communication achieve the desired outcome for me?
  • Did my students follow the instructions in my communication?
  • Did my students ask follow-up questions?

Know Your Audience

Flahavan (2001) writes that “When communicating online, your tone will be communicated to your students through your choice of words, your sentence structure, the punctuation that you use and the order of the information that you present.“  When you are communicating with your online students it is important to remember that they may be ethnically diverse and of varying ages. These factors may affect how they perceive your communication. First, as stated before, keep your message short and to the point. Do not use acronyms or slang terms unless you are sure that everyone reading the communication will know what you are referencing. Your communications may be important to you and your students but go easy on the punctuation that you use to show this. Your students will get your message without the use of emoticons and exclamation points. Even though it is best to keep your communication brief and to the point, you will always want to give your students the opportunity to ask you additional questions if they do not understand your message.

Make Your Communications Personal

Venable (2015) state “Personalizing your communications will help you connect with and build positive relationships with your online students.” The students in your online classes want to feel connected to the instructor and to their classmates. That is the primary reason why you should make your communications personal and why you should encourage your students to make their communications with each other personal. What does it mean to make your communications personal? Making your communications personal does not mean that you get to ignore good netiquette or that you get to judge your student’s personal feelings.  Making communications with your students personal means that you should communicate with your students in such a way that they know that you feel that they are a real person and that you respect and you value your communications with them. Here are some tips to use to help your keep your communications personal with your online students:

  • Make a personal connection early. Provide an instructor bio which includes a picture of you early in your class. Providing your students with your information will help them get to know a little about you before the class gets started and help start the bonding process.
  • When responding to a student’s communication to you, always start by using their name:

_______Example Communication _____________

Hi, Janet:

Thank you for letting me know that you will be late submitting quiz #5. Please email me once you have completed it, so that I can grade it.

Professor Bee

_______End Example Communication __________

Use Introductions.  Using an introduction assignment can be a fun way to introduce yourself to your online students and to have the students introduce themselves to each other.  The introduction “icebreaker” assignment can give your students a chance to bond and learn things about each other.  The first requirement in my online class is the introduction assignment. I used to set this assignment up as a discussion board where I would ask my students to share three things with the class:

  1. Tell us a little about yourself.
  2. Which degree are you seeking and why you choose that degree?
  3. What do you like to do in your spare time?

I ask my students to get to know their classmates by responding to at least two other student’s posts. The instructor should always participate in this assignment so that the students get the sense that the instructor is a part of the class and is a real person.

More recently, I have my students use VoiceThread. VoiceThread is a collaborative tool that allows you and your students to create a video message such as a class introduction and then share the message with their classmates. Their classmates can then respond to their introduction by leaving a text, audio or video comment on their introduction.  VoiceThread offers a free account for anyone who is 13 or older and has a valid email address. You can use the free account to create up to five VoiceThreads, leave comments by microphone or text and then share your VoiceThreads via the share link provided. You can check out VoiceThreads at http://voicethread.com. Video messaging is a tool you and your students can easily use to make class communications more personal and more meaningful. Seeing the person who is communicating with you adds another level of connectedness to the conversation.

  • Send audio messages.  I have used audio emails or audio messaging to provide feedback to my online students and I have found that they like to hear the messages.  Some of the students have commented that the audio messages added a more personal touch to the feedback and made it more meaningful to them.  I also like to use the voice podcaster feature in my LMS to create voice podcasts that I use to introduce each learning module in my class. Allowing your online students to hear your voice will also help them form a bond with you and help them to feel your presence more firmly in the class.
  • Provide Timely Feedback. Because your online students are learning from a distance, it is important that they receive timely and consistent feedback regarding their progress in the class. If a student asks you a question regarding an assignment, you should first provide that student a personal response to their question and then if you feel that their question is important to the rest of the class, you should address the question with the rest of the class and thank the student for bringing it to your and the class’s attention.
  • Keep your Virtual Gradebook Current. Your online gradebook should be the place where your students can consistently go to assess how they are progressing in your class. Your gradebook is the most important tool you have as an online instructor to help you communicate a student’s personal progress in your class.
  • Go! Live and synchronous. Hosting online office hours using Blackboard Instant Messaging or Chat Quick can make a more personal connection with your online students. During virtual office hours, students can ask questions and get an answer in real time. I also like to use Blackboard Collaborate to hold online study sessions. I use the web conferencing tool to provide my students with extra learning support and to enhance my communications with them. Blackboard Collaborate allows real-time interactions and you can record the session for those students who are not able to attend the live session.
  • Ask for their opinion. Asking your students what they think adds another personal touch to your communications. I have found that students appear more interested in the class when I use surveys or short opinion polls to get a feel of how they think things are going in the class. Students like to give their personal opinion and their feedback helps me improve the course content for future students.

Methods that can be used to communicate more effectively in Online Environments
Hranstinski suggests that “Social support is desirable as a way to foster knowledge work and collaborative learning; it provides an environment where communication is encouraged; e.g., anecdotes and personal experiences encourage trust, which foster receptive and creative learning environment” (2008).  The ways we communicate with online students should mirror the diversity of our students. There are many synchronous tools available to help increase the effectiveness of your communications with students.  You can start by using the communication tools included in your LMS to get a quick start in communicating with students, but your class becomes more interesting with more innovative communication methods. Wardlow (2014) wrote that “communicating with your students is now possible “24/7-anytime, anywhere.” Technologies like email, texts, websites, electronic portfolios, online surveys and video chat applications like Skype and Google Hangout have made communication between instructor and students more timely, efficient, productive, and satisfying for both parties.”  Some of the methods that I have explored using to communicate with my students are:

  • VoiceThread –  http://voicethread.com is a web-based platform that allows teachers and students to upload images, video, or documents, record audio, video, or text comments, and then invite others to record comments as well. You can use VoiceThread with your students in a variety of ways such as a live introduction assignment, for peer reviews, or to create a presentation using images, video, and audio.
  • Google Hangouts –  https://plus.google.com/hangouts is a messaging, video, and voice application. With the messaging feature, you can have a private conversation with one of your students, a small group, or you can talk to all of your students at once. Using the video feature, you can turn your conversation into a video chat.
  • Wikis – are a collaborative tool that allows users to contribute to and modify pages of course-related materials. You can use this tool for group assignments because it is easy to see which students have been participating and contributing to the project.
  • GoToMeeting – www.gotomeeting.com is a video conferencing software that allows users to collaborate in real time. You can use GoToMeeting to host study sessions. You can use the whiteboard to share your screen or illustrate learning concepts. Students can use computer audio or their phones to connect to the meeting. GoToMeeting also allows you to record the session viewing at a later date.
  • Podcasting applications like www.spreaker.com – Podcasting, a series of audio files, can be distributed on a regular basis for summarizing learning content and be distributed to your students to use as a study guide.

The online tools mentioned above comprise the top five communication methods I use to increase the effectiveness of my communication with online students. There are so many other synchronous tools that you can use with your students. When you are making a communication plan in advance, be creative and think outside the box to find your top five communication tools.

Have a Communication Plan in Advance
Planning how, when and why you will communicate with your online students in advance is a great way to ensure that you are able to provide your students with meaningful, timely, and consistent communications. It would be useful if you wrote out your communication plan and kept it handy for future use, that way you will always know what your communication plan is for different situations. Your communication plan should include:

  • Methods you will use to communicate with your online students such as email, announcements, messages, podcast, video messages, video conferencing or even phone calls. It is important that you decide how you will contact your students so that when the time comes, it will be easy for you to choose the right method to contact them. It is also equally important for you to tell your students which methods you plan to use to contact them so that they know where to look for your communications. You don’t want your students to miss any of your communications because your communication to them is the lifeline between you and them.
  • How often you will communicate with your students. For routine communications such as announcements, you need to plan in advance how often you will post announcements for your class. Will it be bi-weekly, weekly, or once a day?  It’s up to you how often you want to make class announcements, my only suggestion is that you be consistent with the timing of your announcements, so if you choose to make announcements weekly, always make announcements weekly so that your students expect and look for your weekly announcement.
  • How do you want your students to communicate with you? Do you prefer to be contacted via text, messages, email, or phone? Whatever your preferred method of contact, make sure that you clearly communicate so your students know how to contact you. It is also a good idea if you give them another way to contact you in case the first method of contacting you does not work. I make sure that I tell my students what my preferred method of contact is in my course syllabus, in my course bio, in my course introduction, in my first class announcement, and then I also remind them periodically throughout the class.
  • Which communications method will you use for the different types of communications to your students?  I like to use weekly announcements for general announcements to the whole class to comment on how the past week’s assignments went or to clarify a learning concept. My students know that they can find general class announcements on the announcements page. I use email or messages if I want to send my students a personal communication and video or voice messaging to provide personal and sometimes group communications to my students. I use my class grade center to provide my students with timely feedback on their course progress. My students know that I may use any of these communication methods because I tell them in advance and remind them throughout the course of my class.
  • How will my student and I communicate in emergency systems if the regular communication methods are not available? I always give my student several ways to contact me and I like to have more than one way to contact them. I let my students know at the beginning of class about a planned Hierarchy of contact:
    • Messages – I like to use the LMS messages function because it provides a permanent record of communications within the class. I have my students use this when they need to ask personal or general questions.
    • Email – I have my students use email if they need to contact me fairly quickly because I check my email every day.
    • Text – I have my students text me if it’s an emergency. I always have my phone handy.
    • Phone Call – I have my students call if it is an emergency that must be addressed quickly.

Know what type of communication methods you choose to use since it’s important for your students to know how you will be communicating with them and how they can communicate with you.

Summary
Using different methods to communicate with your online students can aid in their retention in your class. Personalizing your communications can help foster a sense of community in your class and help avoid the sense of isolation that some online students experience. It’s important to know your audience so that you are able to effectively communicate with your students to get your message across. Planning your communication strategy in advance will help you be prepared to efficiently communicate with your students in a timely and relevant manner.

References

Betts, K. (2009). Lost in translation: Importance of effective communication in online education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, (12)2.

Flahavan, L. and Rudick, M. (September 28, 2001). “5 Tips to a ringing email tone” http://www.inc.com/articles/2001/09/23688.html

Robinson, L., Segal, J. and Smith, M. (July 2015).  “Effective communication: Improving communication skills in your personal and work relationships.” Helpguide.org http://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships/effective-communication.htm

Venable, M. (July 22, 2015)  “Make a personal connection in your online classroom.” http://www.onlinecollege.org/2013/07/22/make-a-personal-connection-in-your-online-classroom/

Wardlow, L. (November 14-2014) “Using technology for effective parent-teacher communication” http://www.digitalpromise.org/blog/entry/using-technology-for-effective-parent-teacher-communication#.VbZwrVnpuLA.email

Additional Reading

Tannen, D. (2011). “That’s not what I meant!” New York: Harper Collins Publishing.

Carvill, M. and Taylor, D. (2013). “The business of being social: A practical guide to harnessing the power of Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Youtube for all businesses.” Great Britain: Crimson Publishers.

Wang, H. (2-18-2010) “Eight ways to increase social presence in your online classes.” Faculty Focus.  http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/eight-ways-to-increase-social-presence-in-your-online-classes/

Junk, V., Deringer, N. and Junk, W. (2012). “Techniques to engage the online learner.” research in Higher Education Journal.  http://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/10597.pdf

Hrastinski, S. (2008). The potential of synchronous communication to enhance participation in online discussions: A case study of two e-learning courses, Information & Management, 45.

Key Words

Communication – an exchange of information to facilitate understanding.

Community – a sense of fellowship with others.

Conversation – a casual exchange of thoughts.

Effective – producing the intended result.

Instructor – a person who teaches something to another person.

Online Learning – education conducted in a virtual environment;  connected by a network.

Social network – an online application that facilitates social interactions.

Education – the processing of teaching someone to do something.

Synchronous – actions occurring at the same time.

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