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Tips for Communicating Online for Students and Teachers
April 8, 2020
Reading time: 10 minutes
As communication technology has expanded, the ability to foster better learning through online education has grown with it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, online education program enrollment has grown consistently. In fact, more than a third of all US college students took at least one online course in Fall 2018.
Communicating effectively online is important for both teachers and students, but finding the right way to ask or answer a question can be challenging, even under the best circumstances. Plus, distance learning presents its own problems like poor internet connections, low-quality audio, or simple misunderstandings.
In this article, we’ll provide the best practices and expectations for online teaching, as it relates to educators and learners alike.
Best practices for online educators
Communication in online classes is often a new experience for everyone involved. And the process can become more complicated depending on participants’ history with the tools, platforms, and technology. To keep everything running smoothly, educators often have to stay ahead of potential problems and prepare for myriad scenarios.
While remote educators typically work with a predefined suite of software and supplemental resources from their school administration, those aren’t the only tools you’ll have available.
Managing your routine effectively and having positive interactions with students are crucial for building trust and improving student outcomes. Let’s explore several helpful practices that can make life easier for educators who primarily work with their students online.
1. Get in touch early and build routines
Teachers and students communicate differently depending on coursework, grade level, and class organization. You won’t always have ample opportunities for back and forth like you would in a physical classroom, so if you’re working in these situations, it’s even more important to get in touch early and maintain contact with students. Younger students, in particular, require routine, sustained engagement.
To start, contact your students as early as possible in the semester. That first interaction will set the tone for the rest of the class. Be clear about your expectations, but also frame your online course content in a positive light. There is a reason you chose to teach this subject; convey a little of that excitement and you may get student buy-in early.
Then keep them oriented throughout class sessions by sharing weekly agendas, asking for input, and adjusting the online environment to the needs of the students. Waiting to address scheduling or communication hurdles can make subsequent issues worse and it risks overdrawing your supervision time.
Make yourself available
Also, offer regular availability to your students so you can chat with them via videoconferencing. Consistency and accessibility are important, so try to schedule virtual office hours alongside your regular assignments and weekly priorities.
When circumstances allow, videoconferences are a great way to gather multiple students and handle general questions together. Plus, you could hold group office hours to save time by addressing shared concerns, leaving email and messages for more specific questions.
Stick to a routine
Creating a routine guarantees that students know when you’re available and won’t be tripping over each other to schedule face time. Trying to accommodate unconventional schedules can be challenging, so it’s important to balance your schedule with classroom needs.
By providing straightforward ways for students to get in touch with you, like through email, you can increase the chance that they feel encouraged to ask questions or get support when they need it.
2. Promote engagement with creative classwork
There are communication-related risks to consider when you’re working outside of the conventional classroom with online communication tools. You’ll have to adjust from the typical interactions between a teacher and student. It’s easier to misinterpret text when the physical cues like facial expressions are no longer there.
When students don’t feel engaged and connected to their work, their minds wander and attention slips just like in a conventional classroom. But for online educators, it can be much more difficult to see when someone’s interest is waning. A dozing student at home can’t be startled awake by a dropped textbook.
That’s why it’s important for online educators to maintain routines and also spark interest. Speak from experience when appropriate and try grounding some assignments in current events. If you’re teaching within your specialty or a topic of interest, find ways to bring that energy to your assignments.
Incorporating supplemental material that your students may find relevant is a great way to bolster interest in new topics or ideas. And for smaller online classes, you can encourage students to actively participate using messaging or classroom apps or other collaborative tools.
Newsela is a particularly useful resource for educators that offers content based on global news in a variety of constantly relevant topics. The material covers five different themes: English/ language arts (ELA), social studies, science, social and emotional learning (SEL), and Spanish. They also support multiple age groups with a mobile app for both students and teachers. Plus, it’s free for the 2019-2020 school year.
3. Stay positive and proactive
Distance learning poses challenges for teachers, but it also creates some unique ways to deepen engagement and build rapport with your students. Learning remotely often involves communicating via text in the form of emails and direct messages, comments, and constructive criticism, during group and solo meetings.
If you stay positive and engaged with their needs throughout each session, it can be easier to reduce the risk of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Of course, not every student’s situation is the same, but you can build trust by working with them to find solutions to any issues they may face.
Keep dialogue open
Effective communication in online learning is paramount. As an educator, it’s crucial to maintain an active dialogue and sometimes pose direct questions when a student appears to be struggling or losing interest. If they’re having a particularly difficult time because of technical issues or specific concepts, do your best to provide direct attention.
Best practices for online students
Learning from home has many advantages, but they depend on you keeping pace with your classwork and the expectations within the course. Without a traditional classroom, getting help from a teacher requires more personal initiative.
It can also feel like a burden if you aren’t sure how to say what’s on your mind or if you have trouble navigating the available resources. In this section, we’ll focus on building confidence for online students. Don’t stress, though, because the sooner you open up direct lines of communication with your online instructor, the easier it will be to work with your teachers. After all, they’re there to help you.
While it may be easier to get one-on-one time via email or direct contact, seeking help in a web course often means reaching out and directly explaining your issue.
1. Never feel bad about asking a question
They say the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask. If you’re not sure about something, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to your teacher for more information or clarification. You should never feel bad asking questions, whether it’s about the subject matter, how to do an assignment, or even technical challenges. Your teacher will be eager to help you out.
Student discussion groups can help
Chances are you may find other students who have similar issues. If your class has a discussion group, this may be the place to get input from other students. No student group? Why not make one? Other students can benefit from it too. If you are hesitant to ask a question, consider doing some additional research online, then share it to the group.
Get help early
Subjects like math and science build each unit on what you’ve covered already. You owe it to yourself to get a firm foundation in each area before moving onto the next, or you may end up lost down the road.
Reach out to the teacher
When you really aren’t sure of something and can’t find the answer on your own, don’t put off asking for guidance. Small issues are often best addressed as they come up, especially as a way to avoid leaving potential gaps in your knowledge.
If your resources provide for it, leave comments or questions in your coursework
Reach out and speak with your teacher during their virtual office hours
Address concerns through your classroom interface
Email your teacher directly using the contact information in your syllabus
2. Make the most of supplemental resources
Are you feeling motivated to learn more about a particular topic? Do you need extra practice to really get a handle on the current material? The good news here is that most online classes include additional resources.
Check your syllabus or class content for extras
Use these as your first reference when it comes to finding extra reading, audio, and video supplements, as well as links to more material. If these resources aren’t available, this is a good opportunity to reach out to your teacher for help.
Differentiate between required and supplemental work
Supplemental assignments can be a fun way to learn more, dig deeper, or further your understanding. Some of it may be additional reading, but you can also find music and movies to accelerate your learning.
There are YouTube tutorials on everything from how to do a quadratic equation to changing the oil in your car. Chances are you’ll be able to find something to help with your topic of choice.
Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good book. Look up your local bookstore or public library for options. Public libraries are also a great resource for more than just reading material. Most offer some form of multimedia library, and some larger branches even provide extensive services like audio and video streaming.
You’ll be able to speak more widely on the topic during the next class discussion by adding these resources to the required classwork.
3. Do your best to maintain hardware
Online classes depend on you staying connected. Whether that’s with a laptop that you can take to a quiet place to log on to video conferencing classes or a desktop computer for the whole family, having reliable internet is vital to your school success.
Keeping your desktop PC or laptop in good working order is a great way to avoid wasting time or missing assignments. Routine cleaning and being careful of your equipment around water, heat, pets, and younger siblings will make sure you can do your classwork without interruption.
If you feel like persistent technical issues are impacting your experience, explain the situation to your teacher. Problems with technology can sometimes get in the way of learning, so keep an open line of communication and address issues as they arise.
Your school can help
Your school may be a resource for help with technical issues. If they have an IT department, you can often get help over the phone or with a video chat. You can also ask for resources or guidance if you need more help.
Schools use a variety of technology to support distance learning, which means students at one institution may have a much different experience than students at another. Google Classroom is a popular utility for helping teachers with young students organize their courses. Others, like Coursera, provide a way to build skills and certifications through courses built with partner organizations.
Whether you’re having trouble with an assignment or your laptop is acting up, strong communication between teacher and student is the first step toward a resolution.
It may seem awkward or tricky at first when you begin learning and communicating online, but the tips we outlined above are a good start toward fostering more effective communication for teachers and students alike.
About the Author
Dwight Pavlovic is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Dwight is a music and technology writer based out of West Virginia.
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