Creating Better Online Students: A Guide for Teachers

Creating Better Online Students: A Guide for Teachers
Caitrin Blake August 20, 2014

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It’s been said before: Students today cannot properly correspond in academic environments. As a writing instructor who teaches some of my classes online, I have commiserated with colleagues over the lack of consideration and time students put into their communications.

While it’s easy to blame a younger generation for their inability to communicate effectively, in truth, educators can help solve this problem. Giving online students guidelines for emailing the instructor, connecting and collaborating with classmates, and general strategies for audience awareness when communicating can lessen headaches for teachers. Here are some ideas on how instructors can set expectations for their online classes.

Emailing the instructor: asking questions with context and communicating with consideration

In the digital era, students are accustomed to interacting with an individual who already knows who they are and the context of the conversation. In online education, this assumption becomes problematic. Teachers do not necessarily know their online students by their email handle or login ID, so when there is no signature, it makes responding difficult. Salutation and signature lines, then, are important in terms of establishing proper protocol for communication.

Teachers should also provide examples of effective and ineffective emails in order to help students understand the difference.

In addition to giving students guidance on clear, appropriate email communication, instructors should model the same in their correspondence with students. It’s also important to make students comfortable emailing with issues and concerns, enabling them to feel like their concerns are heard, valued and that there is a sense of accountability.

Helping students connect to each other

For most online classes, students are expected to interact with classmates through discussion forums or chat rooms. To help students connect to each other, teachers can set up an initial discussion that allows students to introduce themselves before launching into academic discussions. This discussion should provide students an opportunity to reveal a bit about themselves and get to know each other at a personal level in order to help them to humanize the person sitting behind the keyboard.

During class discussions, it’s important for students to remember that they are talking through a digital wall; tone and other cues present in face-to-face classes are lost online. Instructors must set parameters for proper communication and moderate discussions in order to ensure that communication is respectful and, therefore, successful.

Group work: remaining fair and accountable during collaborative assignments

Students tend to dislike group work, and this feeling is even more pervasive in online education. Some of the biggest complaints about collaborating on work is the sense that work or input is not fairly distributed, or, in the case of workshops, students don’t receive back what they feel they have put into it. In order to circumvent this issue, students need to know that all members of the group are held equally accountable and that they will personally have some say in measuring the input/output of the group.

In order to establish this buy-in, teachers must set expectations so that each member of a group knows what he or she is required to do in order to succeed. This can be done by creating models or having students measure the involvement of group members to help determine grades.

Giving students tips to be successful in online classes

In addition to communication guidelines, I’ve found that giving students common-sense tips on taking a class online helps them thrive. These can include:

  • Make sure you read everything carefully and thoroughly. This includes readings, assignments, course parameters and any other materials.
  • Print out assignment deadlines and track them on a calendar.
  • Read all updates and emails from your teacher. These often provide further guidelines on assignments and updates and changes to deadlines or assignment parameters.
  • Communicate with your instructor about issues you are experiencing or questions you may have early and often. It’s much easier to help you from the front end than it is after deadlines have passed.
  • Make sure your technology is reliable and consistent and have a backup plan in place for when your internet or computer fails you (as it most certainly will).

Communication in online education is certainly more complex than in face-to-face settings, but by expressing clear expectations and goals and providing guidelines for success, teachers can help to establish a productive learning environment.

Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.

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