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Module B ButtonTopic B3.3: Communicating Online

Part C: General Guidelines for Effective Communication
Since communication through writing accounts for most of the interaction in the online class, instructors should strive to achieve accuracy, clarity, and precision in the way they relate with their online students. Suggestions for how to improve communication include:

1. Acknowledge Activity
Provide frequent and predictable acknowledgment of activity, which in turn reassures students and encourages further participation. Make sure your students know when they can expect feedback on emails, assignments and exams. For major assignments and take-home exams, tell students that you’ve received their work and when they can expect a grade and more detailed feedback. For example, use the Announcements area to send a message like the following:

The due date for Assignment One was yesterday and I have received assignments from Smith, Jones, Doe, and Appleby. I will grade the papers during the following week and you can expect your graded assignment back on Tuesday OR in about a week OR in 7-10 days.


2. Be Aware of Differences that Affect Electronic Communication
As a Latin proverb professed, “Vera volant, scripta manent,” (words fly away, but writing stays), written messages carry more weight than oral exchanges. Therefore, online instructors should be mindful of their students, whose cultural backgrounds, education level, or age will account largely for how the message is received. Humor should be used with caution, even with the use of emoticons. Likewise, feelings of frustration or anger should be dealt with privately, preferably by telephone or in a face-to-face meeting.

3. Encourage Student-To-Student Communication
Student-to-student communication needs careful planning and monitoring. Setting up a “cyber lounge” where students can discuss whatever they wish often helps to create community by allowing for more informal exchanges. The online teacher should monitor but not interfere in such communication among students unless inappropriate language or behavior is observed.


The instructor’s role in more “formal” communication areas such as the Discussion Board, the chat room and emails is to provide support, guidance and evaluation. Research indicates that instructors who are too prescriptive in class discussions will quickly stifle the discussion because students view the instructor as the “expert” and will be silent once the perceived authority has expressed an idea or opinion.


4. Use E-mails Only for Private Communication
The typical online instructor gets a lot of e-mail and it can become overwhelming. You can better manage this flow of communication – and get your students more involved – by shifting all questions involving class procedures, questions about assignments, technical difficulties, etc. to a discussion board rather than answering each individual e-mail.

Example: if you have 25 students in your online class and EACH student wants to know the deadline for the next assignment, that’s 25 e-mails you have to open, answer, and send. You can easily set up a “Questions About Our Class” discussion board that can be used for questions of this type. Encourage ANY student who has the answer to provide it immediately…and not to wait for the instructor. Be sure to acknowledge students who provide help to their student colleagues.

Of course, messages about grading concerns, family problems, etc. should all be handled by private e-mail with the instructor.

5. Privacy Issues
Many students are new to the wonderful world of electronic communication and don’t know how it works. Take the time to explain the following rules:

  • NEVER write anything in electronic form you would not want made public (to your spouse, your boss, your newspaper, etc.)
  • Tell your students that email should be considered “public” since you are keeping copies of all class transactions
  • Remind students that Blackboard or WebCT (and most other course management systems) date stamp, save and track all transactions for the entire course. You will know if a student submits an assignment after the due date or due time.


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