Building a sense of community among the students is key to successful online teaching. You can accomplish this by including online communication tools in course activities. These tools allow students to interact and engage in conversations with each other, helping to foster a collaborative environment.
As the instructor of an online course, your role is more of a facilitator and less of a lecturer or "sage on the stage". You will set up and monitor online communication, but not necessarily lead it.
Students in fully online courses typically do not meet face-to-face, while students and instructors in Web-enhanced courses often meet at times throughout the school year. In both types of learning environments, instructors can use online communication tools to:
- Reinforce and review information already presented in the course material
- Provide an additional medium for collaboration
- Encourage learning beyond time and space constraints
- Establish a record of discussion which can be reviewd at a later point
Whether you are teaching a fully online or Web-enhanced course, effective online communication helps students exchange ideas, work collaboratively, and achieve higher levels of learning.
Communication in online and Web-enhanced learning environments can take place in:
Synchronous Environment - Students and instructors have instantaneous or real-time interaction, such as in a chat room.
Asynchronous Environment - Interactions occur over extended periods of time which allow for more flexibility, as well as reflective communication. The Discussion Board and Email are asynchronous tools.
Synchronous communication offers the following benefits:
- Allow instantaneous "conversations" that are similar to face-to-face conversations.
- Elicits an immediate or spontaneous response from participants.
- Encourages decisions to be made in a timely fashion, especially if several participants are involved.
Using synchronous communication requires planning ahead because all participants must agree on the proposed meeting time. This can be a challenge if participants live in different time zones. As an instructor, you can successfully integrate synchronous communication into your online courses. For example, you can hold online office hours, invite guest speakers, and host question-and-answer sessions in a chat room.
Synchronous Communication tools:
Chat - The Chat tools allows participants to communicate in real-time and exchange ideas almost as if they are face-to-face. However, the Chat tool is best used as a supplement to asynchronous communication. It's unrealistic to require students in online courses to attend chat sessions regularly because location and scheduling constraints are a real challenge. Instead, use chat sessions as an optional means of communication.
Virtual Classroom - The Virtual Classroom allows participants to share course work, browse websites, draw on a whiteboard, and conference privately in small groups.
Asynchronous communication offers convenience and flexibility to all participants. Here are the following benefits:
- Does not require participants to be in the same location or time zone.
- Allows participants to carefully consider and reflect on the initial message before responding.
- Accommodates different learning styles. For example, students who are shy about speaking in class may feel more comfortable responding to discussion threads.
Asynchronous Communication tools:
Announcements - Instructors can use the Announcements tool to welcome students and post course news and reminders. In a Web-enhanced course, announcements are useful for notifying students about schedule changes and class cancellations. In general, it's a good idea to post announcements regularly. For example, use announcements to post the class activities and performance expectations for each week, unit, or module.
Email - Email may be the most important tool in an online learning environment. Since email is convenient, most instructors rely on it as the default mode of communication with students. It also lets the instructor and student communicate outside the Bb course.
Messages - The Messages tool is similar to the Email tool, but students and instructors can use it to communicate only with members in the same course. They can also send file attachments and store messages in folders for easy retrieval.
Course Site - The course itself is a means of synchronous communication. The course Calendar, FAQ's, and other documents posted on the course site are readily available to students.
Discussions - The Discussion Board is ideal for encouraging interaction, exchanging ideas, and building a sense of community among students. The Discussion Board is also a key communication tool when students work on group projects and assignments. As the instructor, you can moderate, evaluate, and even grade discussion posts. You can also invite subject matter experts to participate in discussion threads.
File Exchange - The File Exchange is a Group tool which allows members to store and exchange files with their group and the instructor. The groups are defined by the instructor.
Communicating with Students
In an online learning environment, the best solution is to use a combination of communication tools. For example, to relay important or time sensitive news, use email and announcements. To emphasize the main teaching points, create discussion threads for students to consider and deliberate.
Regardless of the communication tool, remember these general guidelines:
- Facilitate, do not dominate, discussions.
- Ask open-ended questions that promote critical thinking
- Ask participants to share responsibility for advancing discussions
- Encourage participants to give constructive feedback to one another
- Be clear about expectations on student participation and how you will evaluate them. For example, list the required number of posts to a Discussion Board forum in the instructions.
- Inform students which communication tools will be used and where to locate them
- Define different types of behaviors and responses in the various contexts students may encounter. For example, define graded vs. ungraded activities or formal vs. informal language.
- Provide a calendar or schedule of communication activities, so students can prepare to participate.
- Identify the minimum number of times students must log in to the course, and the number of hours students need to spend completing course activities and communicating with their classmates.
- Be available, and responsive to your students on a regular basis.
- Establish an environment of respect and acceptance for all participants. Discuss the rules for online etiquette (often called netiquette) to avoid potential problems.
- If possible, you can also use traditional methods of communication, such as the telephone, fax, or postal system. Although these require additional cost and coordination, they can still be an effective way of communicating with students in online courses. Sometimes, a phone call to each student during the term is a good way to establish rapport.
Netiquette, Emoticons, and Expressing Feelings
It is important for online course instructors to require that students behave respectfully toward all class participants. Successful online instructors begin their course with a discussion of the rules for online etiquette, often called netiquette, in order to avoid potential problems.
In face-to-face conversations, social signals, facial expressions, and body language suggest how participants feel about the discussion. Online course participants generally do not have the luxury of seeing or hearing their classmates directly. Instructors must remind students that others may interpret their email, messages, and discussion posts differently due to the lack of physical contact during their communication.
As a result, online communities have developed tools to assist members in sharing their facial expressions, emotional reactions, and other feelings. Please note that many of these techniques may be used in the Blackboard Learn Discussion Board and with the Email and Messages tools.
To show emotion:
- Use bold, italic, or underlined typeface
- Use colored letters, capitol letters or different fonts. For example, in this sentence, HI stands out. (Typing in all capital letters is usually considered the equivalent of yelling in most online communities.)
- Include symbols to display humor.
In both Web-enhanced and distance education courses, many instructors require that student communication conform to the rules of standard English. In particular, participants should:
- Avoid slang (for example, "Sup?", "Yo" and so on.
- Omit profanity, as well as symbols for expletives (#*%$!&*).
- Use standard spelling: you (not u), are (not r), to or too (not 2), you're (not ure), right (not rite), I (not i).
Also, Instructors may wish to remind students to use proper grammar and spelling in their discussion posts, email, and messages. (Note: Blackboard Learn has a spell check in the Discussion Board!) They may require students to write in complete sentences, capitalize the first word of every sentence, and include proper punctuation. Obviously, these depend on instructor preference; however, many instructors see the communication tools as an extension of the classroom and may require classroom standards.
In some instances, facilitators will be more lenient with chat or the virtual classroom where synchronous communications requires very fast typing and less opportunity for spell checks. Consider your own requirements as you move to the activity section.