Communicating with Your Students
Communicating with your students is the core of an online class. Active and timely communication supports teaching presence and when instructors participate supportively and frequently students perceive the instructor as both enthusiastic and as an expert in the field. It’s also more than student satisfaction on course evaluations. The US Department of Education has defined the difference between “distance education” and “correspondence education” based on the “regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor.”
If interaction is not substantive or is primarily initiated by the student it will be categorized as a correspondence course and students may not use federal financial aid to pay for correspondence education . Online courses, for which students may use financial aid, must have significant faculty-student interaction. Simply posting recorded lectures or textual materials online, along with exams or quizzes, will not meet the federal and HLC guidelines.
Starting out as you mean to go along by communicating in a welcoming and supportive manner from the beginning with a personal and course introduction, an approachable syllabus, and an interactive introduction discussion sets the tone for the class. However, once you get into the semester, faculty can have questions about response time and whether to use individual or group communication. Generally speaking, response to emails and other student questions should occur within 24 hours. Some faculty prefer to disconnect over the weekend, however, that is the time when most students are working and questions may arise. In that situation, you may want to indicate that you will respond to urgent questions only over the weekend. If you are getting the same questions repeatedly, instead of sending an email response to each student it is often more efficient to post an announcement to the entire class addressing the question. If what you are communicating would be helpful to more than a handful of students it is more efficient to share it to the entire group through an announcement or a Q&A discussion.
Moderating Discussion Forums
Class discussion in a live classroom – either as a whole or in small groups – is a great way to get students to interact with one another and with the content. In an online course, discussion forums are often the main means of whole class communication. Whether you use formal discussion prompts or provide informal opportunities for collaboration or topical discussion, moderating these forums is different than moderating a whole class discussion in an in-person classroom.
Despite rumors to the contrary, it is not necessary to reply to every post every student makes in your discussion forum. Excessive faculty posting can preemptively close down conversations. The question becomes “how much is too much and how much is not enough?” The answer to that question can vary based on the course content, the level of the students, and the interest of the instructor, but commenting on around 1/3 of all substantive posts is a reasonable place to begin. Making sure to spread your comments over the course of the week is also important to encourage students to actively and consistently participate over time.
As a good rule, if you will not give participation credit to a student for simply posting “I agree” or “good job,” then it’s not helpful to model those sort of posts in your own discussion forum participation. As the expert in the subject, you will surely have additional thoughts, further data, or reflective questions to add to any discussion. You can also pull together threads of ideas or themes that you see across several students’ posts and make connections back to the course text or primary concepts. Many faculty use some form of Socratic or reflective questioning in their face-to-face classes and similar strategies can also work well online. If you publicly value substantive discussion by giving points for it and modeling it in the forums, students will do the work. Just make sure that when you post additional thoughts and questions you’re scaffolding their learning and not talking over their heads.
In addition to moderating, another – often overlooked – aspect of fostering substantive discussion is to make sure your discussion prompt is actually a discussion prompt and not a regular assignment in disguise. ”List three reasons why X happened. Justify your answers from the text.” isn’t actually a discussion prompt. It’s a question that the student answers and then walks away having proved to the instructor that they read the book. If you just want to know that they read the book, try a reading quiz in the Quizzes tool. If you want students to discuss why X happened, phrasing the prompt in a way that opens the door for discussion, such as “Based on the text, what do you think is the most logical reason that X happened? Explain your reasoning. Reply to at least two other classmates who suggested different reasons and explain whether or not you think that both reasons could have influenced X. Make sure to reply appropriately to anyone who replies substantively to any of your posts.”
Instructions like this provide a rationale for replying to one another and provides a reasonable avenue for interaction. It also provides you with easier opportunities to participate by highlighting the complexities of pointing to one single antecedent to an event or movement. For more on using discussion forums, see Discussion Board Assignments: Alternatives to the Question-and-Answer Format . (Faculty Focus Article)
When discussion goes bad: Conflict in an online course. Conflict – whether overt or covert – is something no one enjoys dealing with in the classroom. In a face-to-face class you may be able to quell inappropriate behavior with a sharp look or a quick word of warning after class. In an online class inappropriate behavior may be harder to spot and harder to combat due to the text-based nature of most communication. Managing Controversy in the Online Classroom provides an overview of proactive and reactive ways to avoid controversy and handle it when it does appear.
To avoid conflict that stems from incivility, beginning with Core Rules of Netiquette is a good place to start. Reminding everyone that there is another human being on the receiving end of each message can help students calibrate their reactions to the context. Asking students to participate in discussions by posting video comments also reinforces the reality that they are talking to other real people. Mintu-Wimsatt, Kernek, and Lozada (2010) suggested a list of netiquette items for a graduate online class which includes:
- Do not dominate any discussion.
- Never make fun of someone’s ability to read or write.
- Use correct spelling, grammar, and plain English
- Keep an “open-mind” and be willing to express even your minority opinion.
- Think before you push the “Send” button.
- Do not hesitate to ask for feedback
When conflict occurs, Horton (2006) recommends some options for instructors:
- If you have taught the course before you may be able to anticipate problems and have a consistent, thought-out response ready.
- Include netiquette requirements in the syllabus and course introduction. any learners may not know the conventions and expectations for online learning. Enforce policies consistently.
- When you come across unacceptable behavior, do not respond without taking a moment to think about the behavior in context. For example, if students are experiencing frustration with the course or the tools respond to both the usability issue and the way they expressed it.
- Differentiate between first-time violators and serious or repeat offenders. That can be used as a learning experience versus what requires disciplinary action?
- Help students learn to disagree professionally and politely. If they are used to the sort of disagreement and “debate” that occurs on Facebook, instructions and modeling appropriate ways to give and respond to legitimate criticism may be helpful.
The content found here was designed by Indiana University and adapted for use by the Institute for Faculty Development at Vanguard University. This material is offered under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license and should be considered under this license unless otherwise noted. The original content was imported from “Designing and Teaching for Impact in Online Courses” from within Canvas Commons.