Communicating with Online Learners
Sharon Bender, Jackie Brewer, Robert Whale
Roughly 80% of all learners today prefer correspondence style learning, which we commonly refer to as "online learning" or "distance education." The biggest advantage of online learning is that assignments can be accessed anytime and anywhere that it is convenient for the learner. Learners who have participated in online courses have noted that they have time to think and reflect before formulating responses. Equally they enjoy the interaction with the instructor.
Communication between instructor and learner is paramount in their success in the online learning environment. With electronic means (the only way to communicate with learners at a distance) the matter of what means, what form, and how often has risen to the forefront in what is necessary for learners to enjoy a rewarding learning experience. Interaction lies at the very core of online education. The effective online instructor communicates with learners on a regular basis. How frequently should an online instructor communicate with class members? What constitutes effective communication? What is the learner's preferred platform? With the end goal being “active learning,” communication is at the heart of a successful learning experience.
In examining the communication component, three online instructors have analyzed their approaches to communicating with online learners based on their lived experience for a combined 20 years. Bender, Brewer, and Whale have examined three major learner preferences: 1) mode of transmission, 2) type of correspondence, and 3) frequency of communication.
Mode of Transmission
Method of transmission considers the preferential means of transmitting messages such as e-mail, electronic classroom, and telephone. Modes of transmission tend to be those most commonly used in the online learning environment, namely e-mail, electronic classroom, and telephone. The method(s) used to transmit and receive messages seems to matter to online learners a great deal. They tend to have particular needs that must be met, but there seems to be an overall consensus that ranks the e-mail, electronic classroom, and telephone applications.
When speaking of transmission modes, it is important to recognize that there is no “one best solution” for all circumstances. As in the online classroom itself, the best practices are the result of flexible adaptation to changing contingencies. The ideal scenario is where the instructor utilizes all modes of transmission prudently in order to achieve learning objectives.
Further, the preferred mode of transmission in the online education world varies from institution to institution. Specifically, the type and quality of the hosting software more often than not dictates which mode of transmission instructor and learner prefer. Since there is no uniform hosting platform for online education classes, dozens of software alternatives exist, with the end result being that different institutions foster varying tendencies.
Transmitting messages using e-mail tends to be the most popular method according to feedback from online learners who are typically versed in the use of e-mail. Such use is customary and a comfortable means of sending and receiving messages. This comfort leads in the learner's preference for message transmission for the purpose of interacting with instructors. The same applies for the instructor. There is little or no learning curve involved as there may be in understanding how to properly use the electronic classroom application and there is no discomfort as there may be with a live telephone conversation.
E-mail is used to communicate feedback on assignments and to disseminate announcements. And if there is no online grade book, e-mail is the primary means to inform students of their standing in the course. According to Brewer, e-mail can be the single greatest tool for online learning. E-mail enables the instructor and learners to develop individual working relationships and to exchange information related to the course work. E-mail is a software tool that almost all working adults have access to both at home and at work. Additionally, it is often easier for learners to use e-mail at work than to access the electronic classroom. Learners often seek to communicate with the instructor from work.
Transmitting messages using the electronic classroom tends to be favored by as many learners as those who do not favor the application. It could be said that to "force" use of an electronic classroom may only be about 50% affective in meeting the needs of the online learner. Online learning tends to draw an adult population that is already involved with extended obligations such as work and family. They are seeking a great deal of flexibility for which the cohort environment does not offer them. It seems that about one half of all learners need to work ahead or more slowly and the electronic classroom does not tend to offer such flexibility. It is typically tied to a tight schedule that forms a "cookie cutter" environment that all learners must mold to in order to be successful. But learners have noted that they have a "voice" in the online class because they are writing and posting their ideas in threaded discussions, submitting assignments for class feedback, or responding to other students’ work. But for every learner who enjoys the electronic classroom, there are as many who do not, preferring to abstain from the cohort form of learning, which gives them even greater flexibility. These learners appear to be more self-directed individuals.
For those schools using high quality software that was designed specifically for the online paradigm, the tendency is to do most of the communication in the electronic classroom. The classroom acts as the “hub” of activity and it is where the syllabus is posted, where discussions are generated (both synchronous and asynchronous), where grades are posted, where e-mail is sent (but not usually read), and where student-to-student interaction primarily takes place. Many online education software providers also provide a built-in “Chat” feature which allows synchronous communication that can be scheduled according to learner and instructor availability. Because so many software packages offer a comprehensive set of features, the electronic classroom is the logical and convenient place to promote interaction and maintain order. In such scenarios, e-mail is primarily reserved for private interaction between instructor and learner. In an instance where the software is not specifically written for online instruction e-mail assumes a much more prominent role.
The electronic classroom can be a very effective mode of transmission if the instructor establishes a positive virtual community that encourages the learner's participation. A harsh or overly demanding instructor may generally achieve minimal compliance to posted requirements. However by using a more subtle approach and appealing to the learner’s individual interests related to the course material the instructor is more likely to achieve high levels of participation from the majority of learners in the electronic classroom.
Transmitting messages using the telephone tends to be the least popular method. The online learner tends to be an individual that enjoys working at a distance. This distance can mean seeking more live interaction for some and not for others. Telephone interaction tends to take place on only certain occasions when written communication is unable to convey the message properly. For online instructors who are often adept at this form of communication, there aren't many occasions when live interaction is necessary. It may, therefore, be a matter of need rather than preference for the telephone mode of transmitting messages.
The telephone call, while minimally used, can still be a highly effective mode of communication in the online experience. For example, Whale has had great success with calling individual class members and welcoming them to class. Many students appreciate the individual attention and enjoy hearing a real voice to accompany the written word. Also, the telephone can be very beneficial when explaining technical material, as thoughts can be more readily conveyed and understanding of difficult material can be more easily assessed.
Despite its lesser popularity the telephone is often underutilized as a means of communication. Brewer has noted that talking live to learners helps establish rapport and encourages a working relationship with learners whereas electronic means of communication is a bit more impersonal. Including live conversations in the modes of transmission can provide the missing connection, especially if instructor or learners are not able to convey meaning in writing.
Type of Correspondence
Type of correspondence considers the preferential forms of corresponding such as brief notes, detailed messages, and constructive feedback. Learners thrive on interaction with the course instructor but they indicate a preference when they are given the opportunity to offer their course satisfaction. While correspondence can be informative and supportive, it can be disruptive if not done informatively. Further learners have a preference in the type of correspondence among brief notes, detailed messages, and constructive feedback.
Brief notes that provide updates and reminders are preferred over the more lengthy instructional message. It is a good idea to provide all necessary instructions up front and then follow with brief reminders. Frequent brief notes in the form of announcements effectively communicate information not only for assignments, and they are also a reminder that the instructor is on the job. Notes can keep learners informed, offering nuggets of information that might otherwise equate to too much material at one time. Brief notes can serve as reminders that assignments are due or to bring to the forefront pieces of information that appears to the instructor to be a point that was overlooked by most learners in the class. In addition a brief note in e-mail to a learner is an effective method to give positive feedback and to provide consistent encouragement and moral support to learners who appear to be inclined to lag behind in their course work.
Messages that provide instructions that are informative rank high among the preferred type of correspondence, but not as high as receiving feedback. Detailed messages can be too lengthy and therefore ineffective. A detailed message that is clear and to the point offering tips, for instance, is much preferred to messages that are boring in content with too many points that are not well organized. Bullet points in a detailed message can be more effective than lengthy paragraphs, require less time to read, and are easier to reference particular information. Detailed messages are most effective for identifying the instructor's expectations for the course, but the message must be clear and concise.
We all need to give and get feedback. Online learners expect and deserve periodic feedback that is consistently prompt, accurate, and fair. Due to the lack of face-to-face interaction that a traditional classroom setting offers, online feedback takes on added importance and must be more frequent. The feedback is most beneficial when it is offered immediately after the behavior in question. Whale has noted that it is best to offer feedback on all direct correspondence and assignments within 48 hours. This ensures feedback that is timely and allows learners sufficient time to conform to instructor expectations. Every graded activity should include meaningful feedback particular to each individual student.
Bender stresses that providing feedback is absolutely critical for learner success. Feedback should be positive and constructive with the objective to do no harm to the learner. Feedback should provide specific guidance and direction. Letting the learner know they did a great job on an assignment for instance may not be sufficient feedback. An instructor needs to specify why the work was done well or explain what the learner could do to make improvements.
Feedback is an excellent opportunity to help each learner build better writing and/or research skills by giving concrete guidance and direction. Providing feedback within 24 or 48 hours is beneficial. According to Brewer, learners would rather wait an extra day or two for the feedback that is substantive rather than receive feedback that is of little value. However, Bender has noted that when there is little time for a more in-depth message, one that constitutes positive feedback is necessary even if it is very brief. In this sense, something is better than nothing, and time may be of the essence for some learners.
Frequency of Communication
Frequency of communication considers the preferential timing in communicating such as timely response to questions and assignments, regular announcements, and occasional updates on class progress. The frequency of communication can affect the nature and quality of all forms of communication. Therefore, a reasonable balance must be struck in discussions. Up to a point, the quality of discussions is highly dependent upon the amount of interaction. A more active degree of interaction between instructor and learners tends to spawn a deeper level of learning, creating a propensity for more disclosure of personal experiences from the instructor, as well as more self-discovery on the part of the learner. In such dynamic, the instructor seeks to facilitate the learning toward pre-determined objectives.
Due to the inherent differences between traditional learning and online learning, the degree of participation by an instructor often depends on the course, the type of activities in question, and the number of students. The tendency to establish “classroom intimacy” has very little to do with geography but much to do with degree and frequency of interaction. Too little interaction on the part of the facilitator can be a catalyst for failure in generating the necessary inertia to achieve learning objectives. Too much instructor activity can likewise yield undesirable results. In cases where instructors respond to virtually every post with an additional question, the intended result is not achieved, that of interaction with the instructor. The activity has been viewed with negativity. Although the effort to promote critical thinking is admirable, it can become a detriment if taken to an extreme. Ideally, the online instructor acts as a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage," according to Whale. He has noted that the online learner must create a presence in the classroom or in any form of communication, finding that the class will invariably follow the lead of the instructor in style and substance if there is frequent involvement, but that is not excessive.
Frequency of communication can be examined in terms of timely response, regular announcements, and occasional updates. These areas can present opportunity for connecting with the learner as well as creating a community environment among the class.
Fast turnaround on questions and assignment submissions is critical to learner success. Bender has received praise from learners for fast response to questions as well as to providing feedback on assignments. Fast response to assignments has been her most frequent compliment. Learners want and appreciate knowing how they are doing in the eyes of the instructor. It helps build their confidence and encourages a more meaningful effort in producing course work. It also produces greater frequency in on-time assignment submissions. Taking too long to respond can instill a negative emotion in learners and potentially stall their progress. Timely responses reveal to the learner that the instructor cares about their success.
Finding a balance between timely and meaningful communication is important. Being in such a rush to meet specific timeframes, it is easy for the instructor to lose sight of the fact learners are people with real needs and emotions. Being fifteen minutes faster is not as important as taking the time to effectively communicate with the learner as an individual. For example, at the beginning of the class there should be an extremely high level of interaction from the instructor with each of the learner’s to help establish expectations and to become acquainted with each other. On the other hand, during times when learners are writing major project papers, it is not the time for the instructor to be chatty with learners and send out lots of e-mail and announcements. The level of interaction should change in keeping with the flow of the course material. However, the responses should always be as timely as possible given the flow of the course materials.
One of the best things an instructor can do to create a feeling of connectedness is to post weekly class announcements. The frequency depends, of course, on a variety of factors, but announcements can be beneficial if posted on a weekly basis. Announcements can clarify existing student questions or issues of concern. Obviously, announcements should shed further light upon existing class policies and protocol, and should always be in alignment with a published syllabus.
Posting an announcement to introduce each new learning phase for instance yields positive results. It is highly appropriate to summarize what was learned in the previous phase, as well as set the proper context for what lies ahead. It is helpful to reiterate what the upcoming reading assignments and class activities are. This can be a timesaver for learners, as they don’t have to check the syllabus, and it also places assignments in the proper context of what is being discussed. Whale has discovered that students welcome the redundancy, as they are more likely to read a recent announcement than refer to a syllabus that may have been posted weeks earlier.
Utilizing regular announcements along with e-mail is an effective way to practice the redundancy that is needed for learners to understand expectations for assignments. Posting an announcement reminding learners a major paper is due, then following up with an e-mail with the specific requirements is helpful for learners. In addition, posting the major paper or project requirements in a discussion area several weeks in advance provides a source of reference for learners without having to go back to the syllabus. The key to success is not only using frequent and regular weekly announcements, but also keeping the announcement as brief and concise as possible to maximize effectiveness for communication.
Learners appreciate occasional updates on course progress. They enjoy knowing what the instructor is thinking and what the instructor sees as overall class progress. Learners like to be informed and know how to relate their standing in the class to its overall progress. Occasional updates, while desirable pale in complexion to the dependable regularity of announcements, but occasional updates could be a delivered message that is less formal and personalized to show the learner has feelings and emotions. It is a chance to personalize the instructor.
While occasional updates such as a grade update are a good idea, learners need to know their grade with each assignment feedback. Sending out updated grades with an assignment only takes an extra minute or two and is a way to deliver a personalized perspective of the learner’s individual progress in the course, which can be more effective than sending out occasional updates regarding course progress.
Learners are responsive in the online learning environment when there is interaction with the instructor. Instructors can encourage interaction through the various modes of transmission, types of correspondence, and frequency of communication. With more learners than ever before in history going to school online, interest in how to yield the highest and best results is consistently at the heart of concerns for universities, instructors, and learners. Learners often select e-mail as their preferred mode of transmission, constructive feedback as their preferred type of correspondence, and timely response to questions and assignments ranks highest among preferred frequency of communication.
E-mail offers and opportunity for giving and getting messages with greater speed and simplicity. However, there can be a great misuse of e-mail rendering its benefit lost. To make the best of this preferred mode of transmission consider words are the key to a successful conveyance. To deliver the intended impact, writing must be clear and comprehendible to the target audience.
To deliver effective messages begin with developing a precise subject that is clear. It is a good idea to outline or list main ideas and add details later. Bender proposes that to be sure all relevant items have been incorporated a set of questions aid in preventing any oversights that are constructed from a set of "question words." This set of terms are based on a particular use of what, when, where, who, how, and why. These six terms can be reduced to three groups of two question words each. Some examples are who/when, where/why, and what/how. Combining the six question words in various arrangements not only makes formulating ideas simpler, it helps the writer test whether all necessary information has been provided, leaving no question for the learner to struggle to answer.
Sentences can easily be formatted around question words that guide thinking, ensuring that nothing has been left out of the written discussion. Keep in mind the secret to organized writing lies in three key steps:
Outline: Enumerate the purpose and major points.
Write: Draft a rough copy of the writing.
Review: Polish the writing through several iterations.
This application may seem extensive for the brief messages we tend to send via e-mail, but messages in e-mail have been growing to complete documentation of all forms. Writing skills have been becoming increasingly important and e-mail no longer excuses the absence of quality writing.
Bender proposes that Instructors can provide feedback to learners more effectively, and learners can provide feedback to instructors and peers with greater results if they apply the key actions in 3Ps of feedback objectives:
Purpose: State the reason for your feedback.
Perspective: Provide your viewpoint on the issue.
Proposal: Suggest a fruitful conclusion.
Feedback development can become an easy task to master if you answer a few basic questions concerning any matter.
Why are you giving the feedback?
Who does the feedback involve?
What actions do you want to affect?
How might the suggestions be helpful?
Where can additional support be found?
When is the conclusion expected?
Maximizing the effectives of timely responses to questions and assignments may require a bit of time management or setting priorities. It could be a matter of preparation. Setting up a system to enable a speedy response means devising responses to the standards kinds of responses. Answering questions requires one kind of response and responses that provide feedback to assignments is another. Both must be done with time sensitivity.
Developing responses from common themes are possible using thematic griding, an application in cartographic science, a process used to explore ideas and concepts. The thematic approach organizes subject matter around a unifying theme. Ideas and concepts are integrated around the identified theme, building constructs into a whole. This approach reinforces and strengthens the concept of patterns. Users are then able to make important connections and understand more of the essential questions upon which to build problem and solution statements. In order to use this application, seek to discover those frequently asked questions and strive to develop an understanding of the major kinds of feedback used successfully in the online learning environment.
About the Authors
Sharon L. Bender, Ph.D. has served as an online professor since 1999, largely facilitating the Capstone Project course and serving on an Institutional Review Board (IRB). She holds the Doctorate in Organization and Management, the Master of Science in Information Management - Technologies Focus, the MBA, and the Graduate Certificate in Social and Community Service. Her publications concern a range of exploratory topics. To see more about Sharon, please visit her Web site at www.sharonbender.com.
Robert Whale has served as an adjunct instructor for several universities. He holds the Masters in Computer Science as well as the MBA. He has been involved with large-scale software development projects for over 20 years, most recently serving as Director of a multi-million dollar enterprise-wide database development effort. Robert has developed and instructed online courses in Information Technology for several universities.
Jackie Brewer, Ph.D. has served as an adjunct instructor since 1999, facilitating in business, management, and marketing courses for two universities. Jackie holds the Doctorate in Theology and she is working toward the Doctorate in Organization and Management. Jackie holds the undergraduate degree in Computer Information Systems and a master’s degree in Human Resources. Jackie has over twenty-five years of experience in Information Systems management.
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