Online Learning For Dummies
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In a robust online course, you can expect to see communication occurring on several different levels. Messages are directed toward the class as a whole from the instructor, individually from the instructor to single learners (and from learners to the instructor), and from learner to learner. If you were to visually plot that network of messages, a good course would look messy because there would be so many connections between learners. This article examines some of the primary ways people communicate in an online course.

Instructor-to-class communication in news and announcements

Think about the first day of school at a face-to-face school. Assuming that Security remembers to unlock the classroom door, the instructor stands at the front of the class and welcomes learners. Entering the virtual classroom isn’t much different.

Typically, a welcome message or some kind of greeting from the instructor awaits you. This communication is intended to be read by every member of the class. It may be posted on the course’s home page in a News and Announcements area or within a specially designated discussion forum. This kind of introductory message lets you know that you’re in the right place. It may also tell you what to do next. The figure shows the Recent Announcements tab on the course’s home page, which has a link to a Welcome to Class message. The figure also shows the announcement itself.

instructor's announcement A sample announcement from an instructor on a course’s home page

After that initial announcement, your instructor may use the same public method for several different purposes. They may use announcements to

  • Keep everyone on task. For example, if you’re three days into the course and no one has been brave enough to post the first assignment, the instructor may post an announcement to reinforce the procedures and help students feel more comfortable trying the assignment. Again, this announcement may appear on the course’s home page or in a discussion forum.
  • Summarize the last unit and preview what’s to come. The instructor may review the material the class examined in the previous unit and connect it to what’s to come in the next unit. Read these kinds of summaries with the idea of mentally testing yourself. Do you know what the instructor is talking about? If not, go back and review!
  • Reinforce news from the institution that you should know about. For example, occasionally the school needs to shut down its servers for maintenance. Someone may email you and post a message on the portal or the first page you log in to, but chances are good that your instructor will remind you again.

Read all messages posted by your instructor, even if you’re tempted to bypass lengthy messages in favor of getting to your next task. Instructors include pertinent information in their messages. Plus, you spare yourself the embarrassment of asking a question that was already addressed in an announcement.

Learner-to-learner communication in discussions

We hope the kind of communication you find most common within your course is learner-to-learner discussion about the subject matter. Why? Because a course in which learners actively discuss and debate is a course where the learners are interested! It’s also a course that demonstrates active, engaged learning at its best.

Many online courses follow a social-constructivist format of presenting information and then asking learners to discuss and add to the concept. By writing about how the materials fit into the world or one’s profession, everyone in the class gains a clear picture of the subject matter. Collectively, they “construct” their understanding. For that reason, instructors ask students to engage in discussions with one another.

Discussing means having a conversation. This is a little different online than in person because your fingers often do the talking. Learner-to-learner communication should dominate your online experience.

One-on-one communication via private email or messaging

Private, one-on-one communication is meant for your eyes only and may come via your email or an internal messaging feature if your learning management system supports it.

Whenever possible, use the tools that are available within the learning management system (LMS) to communicate. For example, your system may have built-in “messenger”-type tools — these systems act like instant messaging when the other person is online. If the person isn’t online when you send the message, they receive it when they next log in. Your school may assign you an internal email that doesn’t require you to give out your personal email address. The advantage of sending and receiving messages within the system is that your academic work is all recorded in one place. You don’t have to sort through your Aunt Tilda’s forwarded jokes to find the instructor’s note.

Here, we describe three types of private communication: instructor-to-learner, learner-to-instructor, and learner-to-learner.

Instructor-to-learner communication

Instructors communicate with learners privately for several reasons:
  • They send feedback. Many instructors like to follow longer assignments, such as papers, with comments. Though these can be posted in an electronic grade book, there usually isn’t sufficient space. Therefore, instructors email their comments and feedback.
  • They nudge. Occasionally, you may have an attentive instructor who notices you’re not meeting the deadlines. They may send you a little note to remind you to stay on task.
  • They praise and send additional resources. Sometimes an instructor wants to acknowledge excellent work from an individual and perhaps provide additional resources that the rest of the class wouldn’t be interested in. This may be a case for private communication.
  • They communicate grades to you. Thank goodness! Actually, your instructor must communicate grades privately, by law. Your grades and feedback can’t be posted publicly.
This figure is an example of a private communication your instructor may send. This one was sent via an internal messaging feature. The same result can be accomplished via email.

An example of internal private communication. An example of internal private communication

Learner-to-instructor communication

Not only can instructors send learners private communication but learners may also need to communicate privately with instructors. Why would you want to communicate with your instructor privately? Here are some reasons:
  • You’re in distress. Something is going on in your life that requires your attention and is preventing you from focusing on school or completing your assignments. The whole class doesn’t need to know about this, but your instructor does. This is a case for private email.
  • You’re experiencing technological difficulties. Whenever you have a problem with your computer, the software, or the system and need to work with technical support, it’s a good idea to also inform your instructor. They may not be able to remedy the situation, but you’re at least alerting them to the problem.
  • You want to ask a question specifically about your academic work. Instructors cannot discuss your work publicly — it’s the law! Therefore, if you ask a question in a public forum about your performance, your instructor can’t answer it. On the other hand, you can discreetly email the instructor to ask about your work.

When it comes to communicating with your instructor, diplomacy is the best policy. In other words, try not to push the instructor beyond reasonable expectations. Most institutions have faculty guidelines related to how quickly instructors should respond to emails — usually, within 24 to 48 hours. If you send an SOS at midnight, don’t expect a response right away!

Learner-to-learner communication

Learners can privately communicate with one another, too, as in these examples:
  • Email is a way to continue conversations that may be of interest to only you and one other person. For example, if you read that your classmate Sarah has an interest in the culture-based health issues specific to the Polish community and you’re a Polish immigrant, you may want to email her privately to share some family stories. Having the opportunity to continue a conversation with one of your peers keeps you from overposting on discussions as well.
  • Two ways that groups work through projects is via email and collaborative spaces. Email allows you to exchange files, send updates, and establish meetings. Plus, it’s easy to copy your instructor on the email so that they know your group’s progress. Collaborative spaces allow you to store documents that you can all get to and work on. For example, if you have a Google Docs document stored in a folder on Google Drive, anyone in the group can add their comments and continue working.
  • Sometimes, students exchange contact information such as cell numbers, but there’s not a lot of work you can do on your phone. At best, this is a way to say, “Hey, did you see the new edits?”

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