Communication in online courses

We don’t want our students to be unnecessarily overwhelmed.  We want them to be challenged by what they’re learning, but we don’t want the words we use or the way we put things on the page to make them feel confused about what to do, when, and how.  To this end, we offer the following tips:

  1. Choose your words carefully. 
  2. Ask yourself:  What information do my students need to know in order to do what I’m asking them to do?
  3. Give clear, step-by-step instructions. 
  4. Try to anticipate what questions your students will ask and then answer those questions before you post something online.  This will hopefully reduce the number of “I’m confused” emails you receive!
  5. Be succinct.  You want enough words, but not so many that students get overwhelmed.
  • Use visual cues to make things clear. 

The online environment is very visual.  This means that it’s not only our words that communicate, but also how those words are put on the page.  Think about the following:

  • Contrast:  Use contrast to make important things stand out.  Bold is the easiest way to do this.  Font size is another example. Color also works, but best to use it sparingly.
  • Repetition:  Bullet points are an example of this.  They help the eye to see that things are part of a related list. 
  • Alignment:  You can communicate how ideas are related to each other through alignment.  This can be seen on the page that you’re looking at right now!
  • Proximity:  Text that is related should be closer together.  Add white space when moving to a new topic or idea.
  • Images

Images can communicate ideas and also provide a pleasing change of scene on a page.  Here are three levels of images to consider:

  • Decoration:  The image is just there to decorate the page.  Probably best to avoid this as it usually just clutters things up.
  • Illustration:  The image is related to the content.  This is fine to add to your course pages.
  • Communication:  This is when an image encapsulates the information you’re trying to convey.  This is the most powerful way to use images.

Presence in online courses

Students will be more engaged in your course if they know that you’re present and if you encourage them to be present.  Here are some ways to model and encourage presence:

  • Include a picture of yourself on your homepage or welcome page.
  • Post a welcome video so students can get to know you.
  • If you’re comfortable doing so, occasionally share some personal information.  Like a picture of your dog.  Or of your messy desk.  Or of your morning cup of coffee.  Because students aren’t able to see you in person and get to know you from your body language, facial expressions, etc., sharing something of yourself in this way can help to build a connection.
  • Video lectures help students get to know you a bit more.  If you dislike seeing yourself on video, screencasts are also good.  Just hearing your voice helps to provide a personal, human touch. Remember that videos and screencasts do not need to be of professional quality as long as they are clear.
  • Be present in discussion forums.  You can’t answer every question or be involved in every exchange, but being there frequently (if briefly) is important!
  • Require class discussions and other peer-to-peer interactions.