Fostering Communication in the Online Classroom

-By Ashley Canning, Educational Technology Instructional Designer

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I’ve had the opportunity to take several online and hybrid courses over the years. Some would simply have a syllabus, documents and assignments posted, and my peers and I would be left to figure out where to navigate, which activities to complete, and when to complete them. These courses, especially the ones that were 100% online, often left me feeling like I was completing an independent study with little interaction with my instructor or peers. I found myself thinking that maybe that was just what online courses were like.

My idea of what online learning is completely changed when I took an asynchronous, 100% online course that made me feel like I was attending class in a physical classroom, not like I was working on an independent study. So what was the big difference between this and other online courses that I had taken previously? In one word, communication.

Here are some of the activities I’ve learned, used, and witnessed firsthand over the years that can help you foster communication in an online class:

Welcome Email/Announcement

It sounds simple enough, right? By sending a welcome email or posting an announcement within Blackboard, you’re opening a line of communication right off the bat. Use the welcome email as an opportunity to tell your students a little bit about who you are and what to expect from the class. You should also provide them with instructions for getting started with their course work so  that they’re not left to explore and find where to begin on their own.

Icebreaker Activities

By having an icebreaker activity early on in the course, you are giving students an opportunity to get to know one another and, thus, making them more comfortable with communicating with each other. This also allows you to get to know a little more about your students.

One great yet simple icebreaker activity is to have students post profiles within a course blog. This gives everyone the opportunity to learn more about their peers. Students are able to make connections to others in the class that they may share interests with. Requiring students to include a photo of themselves in the blog is also a great idea. You’d be surprised at what putting a face with a name can do for opening communication lines. Another option would be to have students set up and explore eachother’s profiles in Blackboard’s Social learn tool.

Q&A Discussion Forum

Have you ever had several different students ask the same question about an assignment? If you have, then I’m sure you’ve wished you could just answer it once and have all the students see it. A Q&A discussion forum is a great way to help with this. Direct students to a Q&A forum as their first point of contact for course questions. It also helps to encourage them to check the forum to see if they are able to answer any questions. When one student posts a question that several may have, either you or another student can answer the question and it’s there for all to see. When using a Q&A forum, be sure you check it often (at least once daily) to make sure student questions are addressed in a timely manner.

One tip to encourage students who may be a little scared to ask a question is to allow anonymous posts.

Water Cooler Forum

When a course is online, students often don’t communicate with each other outside of asking questions about the coursework or working on group projects. Creating a water cooler discussion forum gives students the opportunity to discuss things outside of the curriculum. Being able to communicate in an informal setting about common interests or current topics opens students up to communicating about the course content itself.

 Weekly Updates

It’s easy for students in an online course to fall behind or lose track of what they should be working on at any given time. Providing them with weekly updates via email or course announcements can help keep everyone on track. Use your updates to let everyone know what they should be working on for the week along with what is coming up in the course. This is also a good way to let students know you’re still there and available should they need you.

 Virtual Office Hours

When a course is online, it’s not always easy for a student to stop by your office during office hours. A great alternative is to use a web conferencing tool like Blackboard Collaborate to hold virtual office hours. Give students a specified day and time that you’ll be available in an online session. Students can pop in to ask any questions they may have.

We Want to Hear from You!

Good communication in an online course can build a sense of community, engage students, and create a more comfortable and interactive learning environment. Above are just some of the ways in which you can foster communication in an online class. We’d love to hear other communication techniques you’ve used in your class! Leave us a comment with your experiences and ideas.

2 thoughts on “Fostering Communication in the Online Classroom

    1. Thanks for the comment @meredithsingleton! There are definitely a lot of tools that can help foster communication online. Check back to learn more about some of these tools in future posts.

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