Plan your use of email communication carefully. One of the biggest complaints of online instructors is that they get inundated with email messages from students.
How can you communicate with your students? Students in your regular class have questions about assignments, due dates, and more, and your online students will, too. If a student emails you individually, how can you respond to them and let the rest of the class know the answer, too, in case they have the same question?
“Online instructors must thus find ways to support these needs [communication expectation, when to cite references, etc.] by, for example, providing more context for content and assignments, more specific information about expectations, and greater use of audio/visual aids (e.g., Liu et al., 2010).”
One message to the whole class can answer questions all at once. This strategy is also great for notifying students of important changes and sharing current news related to the class. Most LMS tools will send students an email notification when an announcement is sent.
Emails are used to respond to students about personal matters. Emailing students individually or as a group can get their attention even if they are not active in the LMS or on the course website. Emailing is helpful for contacting an individual student about their performance or notifying a group about their assignment. If a student emails an instructor a question that could benefit the entire class, the instructor may choose to post an announcement to the class answering the question but leaving off the student’s name, instead of replying by email.
Office hours can be held via video using applications such as Skype, Google Hangout, or WebEx. Making a quick YouTube video can help you communicate with students in a personable manner. Useful when demonstrating a skill, sound or sight that would be more difficult to observe through writing. You can do these after an assignment, after a unit, or anytime. Helpful to post this in the LMS or send out the link in an announcement or email. If using video, be sure to follow ADA regulations by providing a transcript or closed captioning.
Some systems, like Canvas, let you record a video or voice recording to share with individual students. This can be done after they have submitted an assignment, and it can be a more personable way (that saves you typing) to respond to their work. Long recordings are not recommended, or students may become disengaged.
Useful for sharing information that is best when written. Students will see your response to their colleagues and learn from that interaction, so you don’t have to send the same message to each individual student. Also helpful to be able to have a record of comments for the future. Students can also see each others’ responses and learn from one another. Images and files can be attached to discussions if needed. You can set up ongoing discussion threads such as “Technical Support” and “Questions for the Professor” for students to chime in during the course.
For tips on communication, visit the bottom of the webpage from UNCG College of Arts & Sciences site on Instructional Design.
From the start of your course in the syllabus and introductions, emphasize the expectations you have for communication with the students. Establish your plan to respond to them too in a timely fashion, such as within 48 hours. You are expected to respond to all of their emails within the week at least. This response time is important, since students need to know answers from you so they can proceed in their work. You can email to them as the emails come in, check it periodically throughout the day, or set aside a time you will sit down to reply to emails.
To reduce the need for them to email you individually, you may consider setting up a discussion board for miscellaneous questions, such as general questions, technical help, questions about course logistics, and more. Students can reply to each other, thus saving you some responses. If you send announcements or post to a discussion board the whole class can see, you will save yourself from replying to some individual emails.
Consistent and Concise
The key with each of these communication tools is to be consistent and not overwhelm the students. For example, having more than three announcements per day would become tedious for most people. Instead, consolidate your messages and send them at a regular time each week if possible.
Weekly update videos are simple to create in Canvas, YouTube, or other free video tools, and they can help you be more personable in the online class. Watch the video to see how one professor creates them.
Just because you’re protected behind the relative anonymity of your computer screen, don’t think that etiquette falls by the wayside on the Internet! There are dos and don’ts of proper online behavior so you present your best self.
- Salutations: “Good morning”, “Hello,” “Thanks,” etc. are all appropriate to use when communicating online, whether you’re writing an email or recording a quick video to a student. Stay cordial.
- Punctuation and capitalization: Commas, quotation marks, periods, and proper capitalization all make your online content easier for students to digest.
- Citations: As with any other written work, properly cite sources and include quotes in quotation marks. Otherwise, you are plagiarizing.
- Read thoroughly: It can be tempting to skim emails or other web-based communications, but carefully read all of the content before replying. This will keep your communications more efficient and avoid cluttering up students’ inboxes.
- Excessive slang and acronyms: LOL, y not uz slang & acronyms? Excessive slang and acronyms can be difficult to read and may alienate your students. A few abbreviations may be appropriate for your material, but keep it to a minimum. And of course, don’t swear or use obscenities or other offensive language.
- All CAPS: On the Internet, ALL CAPS EQUATES TO YELLING, WHICH IS NOT VERY NICE. It may be off-putting to students to receive communications from an instructor in all caps. There are other, better ways to emphasize text, like bold, italics, and other formatting ideas. If you’re using all caps as a way to enlarge your text, stop! Try checking your email settings for text enlargement options.
- Steal content: It can be tempting to do a quick Google Image Search and snag whatever images pop up first, but always check to make sure you have copyright permissions to use the content. Search for images in the public domain or that are available under a Creative Commons license.
Developing Useful Discussions
In class, you ask students questions to ensure they are engaged and prompt them to think critically and deeply. You may follow up with a question of your own, to correct or challenge their thinking. Online, you can do the same. Discussion boards are a core component of most online classes. To set these up, you create a “post,” which is the initial question.
Students will respond to what you have written; the more specific you are, the more they are likely to answer in the way you wish. To ensure students respond to each other, add a statement about your expectations for them to interact.The discussion board can be a great tool to develop a sense of community. Let students use a discussion board to talk about general topics as well as course content.
You may notice that students tend to agree with each other. In order to generate more authentic discourse, set your expectations for the Discussion Board early and model a good response for students by providing some of your own.
Discussion Board General Guidelines
In a discussion board, there are a few steps you can take to ensure participation, clarity, and appropriate length.
Set expectations. In the first discussion post and in the syllabus, declare the purpose of the discussion board. Is it graded or not, will you as the instructor be reading it and involved (that’s a best practice!), when are posts due, and is there a standard length.
Provide a rubric. You can decide that posts are worth 4 points, and replies are worth 2 points. Elements of a post should include (A) at least 150 words, (B) original thoughts that do not repeat another peer’s point of view, (C) cited support from readings for their point, (D) appropriate use of grammar, syntax, and netiquette. Elements of a reply should include (A) at least 50 words, (B) original thoughts which build and relate to the peer’s post, (C) appropriate use of grammar, syntax, and netiquette. These are examples, and you may adapt the word count to your preferences. Of course you will not be counting the words, but this will give students a sense of the general length you expect. You may also choose to leave the word length suggestion out, but be aware that you may receive a variety of response lengths. You can also state that a certain number of replies are expected, such as at least two.
Give clear and consistent due dates. There should be a separate due date for the post and for the replies. For example, posts may be due every Thursday at midnight, and replies are due every Sunday at midnight. This allows students (and you) to read the original posts and reflect on them before responding. By having the same due dates each week, students can get into the habit of posting and replying without the excuse of “Oh, I forgot.” It helps them to plan ahead.
Clearly state the prompt to which they are responding. Examples of prompt styles:
- Give an excerpt from a reading, ask students if they agree with the author or not, and why. (Example:
- Write a statement, and ask them if they think a particular author whose article they have read would agree or disagree with the statement, and why. (Example: “Everyone is unique. Based on your reading, would Friedrich Nietzsche agree or disagree? Why?”)
- Organize a debate. Divide students into two or three groups, designate a side of the issue or let them choose a side, and ask them to persuasively debate one another. State that citing literature supporting their arguments is required. (Example: “Should the U.S. have dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan?”)
- Ask them to find an example of a principle or concept they’ve learned and share it through images, video, and text. (Example: “Where do we see instances of the normal curve in everyday life?”)
- Provide a creative hypothetical situation, and ask them to apply what they’ve learned. (Example: “Imagine you have traveled back in time, and you are holding a conversation with a suffragette just prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment. What questions would you ask her?”
Respond in the board regularly. You do not have to respond to every student. Respond to a few students who posted well so other students know what you consider to be a good post. Probe students who have given shallow responses by asking further questions to encourage them to delve deeper.
Provide a summary. To enhance student participation, you can send a class announcement summarizing the discussion board each week. (Example: “In this week’s discussion, overall I see that many of you agree with the author that…A few of you were under the misconception that this idea relates to…Sarah and Takesha did a particularly strong job of explaining the concept of…”) Students may be excited to see their names as recognition, and they may strive to perform better in future discussion boards in hopes of being recognized.
This discussion board is meant to provide a place for you to reflect and learn together. Each post should be about 150 words and contain referenced examples from the readings as support for your point. Respond to at least 3 peers. Be sure to read what they have read and build upon their ideas rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing.