Effective communication in online learning can improve student outcomes and satisfaction.
Of all the challenges facing online education, lack of personal contact with instructors probably tops the list. Learner completion rates are often low, and isolation and lack of support are frequently-cited culprits for their lack of engagement. Instructors therefore have plenty of motivation to find ways to reduce isolation and improve support.
The best way to combat this problem lies in better communication—and not just in the way courses are designed. Learners need access to their instructors to address learning challenges and receive feedback. It is often this personal touch that helps learners move beyond their difficulties and graduate a course.
That said, improving communication is easier said than done. If you’re looking for ways to connect with your learners, here’s how to get started.
1. Provide clear means of contact.
When your learners are struggling with the course, you don’t want to add to their burdens my making it difficult for them to reach you. Because of this, it’s a good idea to keep your contact information front and center. If you have a contact method that you prefer, highlight that.
You may also want to give an indication of how long learners should expect to wait before hearing back from you. So, for instance, if you provide an email address, let learners know you will be in touch within twenty-four hours. That will help set expectations so that you don’t have to face a dozen panicked emails from one night of learners who don’t understand why they haven’t heard from you.
2. Offer synchronous communication. (I.e., online office hours.)
In many ways, synchronous communication seems to fly in the face of the online education ethos. After all, one of the big benefits of online education is that it frees learners and instructors alike from needing to be in the same place at the same time.
However, when a learner is really struggling, there’s nothing like a live conversation to sort the problem out. And there’s no reason you can’t make it happen. Simply pick your communication medium of choice, such as Skype or Google Hangouts, and post a calendar of your available office hours. Let learners sign up for meeting sessions (of maybe 15 minutes at a time), and keep your calendar free for the call.
3. Be involved on the discussion forums.
It’s easy for instructors to view discussion forums as the purview of the learning community, rather than their own responsibility. And in many ways, they’re right. A healthy discussion forum will be led by the learners, and won’t rely on instructors to stay alive.
However, instructor involvement can be a huge boon to an online community. When learners know their ideas are being read by the instructor, it encourages them to work harder to contribute thoughtfully to the discussion.
4. Give thorough feedback.
Feedback can be time consuming, but sometimes learners just need to know someone is looking at the work they do. It can be highly discouraging for a learner to feel as though their work is only ever being reviewed by a robot and not by a living person.
Obviously some work will be automatically reviewed. But if you’re assessing more complicated subject matter, such as an essay, use this as a prime opportunity to give detailed, personal feedback. It will take more time, but learners appreciate it, and the improved learner outcomes will benefit you in the long run.
5. Remember that the Internet does not communicate nuance very well.
Online etiquette is tricky, and standards can change quickly. This can land learners and instructors alike in difficulties, especially when there’s no personal connection between the two.
When you’re communicating with your learners, remember that it will be difficult for them to interpret your tone (and that it may be equally difficult for you to interpret theirs). What may seem like a humorous comment to you may seem snappy or irritated to them if they don’t realize your remark was meant in jest.
Similarly, a quick and formal response may read as cold or irritated. It takes a lot of patience to carefully phrase all your online communications, but giving all your emails a careful re-read can help you avoid possible misunderstandings with your learners.
6. The onus is on the instructor.
A lot of information online about how to improve communication places the burden on the learner. Obviously, as an instructor, the ideal student would always be able to calmly and clearly identify and explain troubles or concerns they have with the course. But the problem with this expectation is that it neglects the realities of online education for learners, who are often trying to fit in a course after work, or on top of other stressful academic responsibilities.
Add to this the fact that learners are often reaching out because they are confused and therefore can’t explain their problem very well, and it becomes clear that instructors must lead the way when it comes to better classroom communication.
If your learners are struggling to complete a course, don’t assume it’s the learners failing to do their part. Instead, look for areas in your course that may need improvement, especially if there are segments that learners frequently struggle with, or copy areas that contain a lot of industry jargon.
Common sticking points are an opportunity for more instruction.
Over time, you’ll probably come to notice some common areas of confusion for your learners. While it may become frustrating to offer the same feedback time and again, this is actually an opportunity for you to market your course.
Think about how you can use some of these sticking points in your content marketing. You could write blog posts about the topic, which you could then send to your learners when they ask you about it. You can start topics in your discussion forum for learners to engage on a deeper level. Better still, you can create an extra module in your course and market it to learners who may be having trouble grasping that concept.
When you view learning obstacles as opportunities rather than roadblocks, it’s much easier to respond productively to any challenge your learners may throw your way.