Online Education For Dummies 10

Communicating Clearly Online

In This Chapter ▶ Exploring the different ways people communicate online ▶ Establishing your online identity ▶ Taking part in discussions ▶ Using social networks in learning In a traditional classroom, hashing out new concepts and debating the merits of various ideas are hallmarks of good learning. The same is true in online education. The amount of communication that occurs between students and faculty and the quality of those messages set a quality online course apart from a mediocre one.
In the world of online education, people communicate through a variety of tools, including e-mail, messaging, and discussion forums. This chapter examines how people communicate online and how important communication is to your success as a student. We consider the persona you create and present to others through your communication, and we examine the details of discussion and the influence of social networks in facilitating conversation.
Checking Out Methods of Communicating Online In a robust online course, you can expect to see communication occurring on several different levels. Messages are directed toward the class as a whole from the instructor, individually from the instructor to single students (and from students to the instructor), and from student to student. If you were to visually plot that network of messages, a good course would look messy because there would be so many connections between learners. This section examines some of the primary ways people communicate in an online course.

Instructor-to-class communication in news and announcements Think about the first day of school at a traditional college. Assuming security remembers to unlock the classroom door, the instructor stands at the front of the class and welcomes students. Entering the virtual classroom isn’t much different. Typically a welcome message or some kind of greeting from the instructor awaits you. This communication is intended to be read by every member of the class. It may be posted on the course’s home page in a “News and announcements” area, or within a specially designated discussion forum (we describe discussions later in this chapter). This kind of introductory message lets you know that you’re in the right place. It may also tell you what to do next. Figure 10-1 shows “Latest News” on the course’s home page, which links to a welcome. Figure 10-1 also shows the announcement itself.

After that initial announcement, your instructor may use the same public method for several different purposes. She may use announcements to
✓ Keep everyone on task. For example, if you’re three days into the course and no one has been brave enough to post the first assignment, the instructor may post an announcement to reinforce the procedures and help students feel more comfortable trying the assignment. Again, this announcement may appear on the course’s home page or in a discussion forum. ✓ Post transitional information. She may summarize what the class examined in the previous unit and preview what’s to come in the next unit. Read these kinds of summaries with the idea of mentally testing yourself. Do you know what the instructor is talking about? If not, go back and review! ✓ Reinforce news that you should know from the institution. For example, occasionally the school needs to shut down its servers for maintenance. They may e-mail you and post a message on the portal or first page you log into, but chances are good your instructor will remind you again.
Read all the messages posted by your instructor, even if you’re tempted to bypass lengthy messages in favor of getting to your next task. Instructors include pertinent information in their messages. Plus, you spare yourself the embarrassment of asking a question that was already addressed in an announcement.
Student-to-student communication in discussions We hope the kind of communication you find most common within your course is student-to-student discussion about the subject matter. Why? Because a course in which students actively discuss and debate is a course where the learners are interested! It’s also a course that demonstrates active, engaged learning at its best.
Many online courses follow a social-constructivist format of presenting information and then asking students to discuss and add to the concept. By writing about how the materials fit into the world or one’s profession, everyone in the class gets a clearer picture of the subject matter. Collectively, they “construct” their understanding. For that reason, instructors ask students to engage in discussions with one another.
Discussing means having a conversation. This is a little different online than in person because your fingers do the talking. We describe online discussions in the later section “Participating in Discussions.” For now, recognize that student-to-student communication should dominate your online experience!

Portal schmortal In some cases, the page from which you log in to the school’s system is called the portal. In addition to accessing your courses, you can link to the library, bookstore, and other services. Sometimes this is built into your learning management system such as Moodle, and other times it’s a separate Web site created by your institution. In other cases, the first page you come to after you log in to your course management system may be referred to as the portal. This page usually displays links to your individual courses and summarizes announcements and calendar events in one place — particularly important if you’re taking more than one course at a time. Not every school uses the term “portal” to mean the same thing. However, use of the term “home page” to represent the main page of your course is fairly consistent.

One-on-one communication via private e-mail or messaging Private, one-on-one communication is meant for your eyes only and may come through your e-mail or an internal messaging feature if your course management system supports this.
Whenever possible, use the tools that are available within the course management system to communicate. For example, your system may have built in “messenger” type tools; these systems act like instant messaging when the other person is online. If the person isn’t online when you send the message, she receives it when she next logs in. Your system may also have an internal e-mail that doesn’t require you to give out your personal e-mail address. The advantage of sending and receiving messages within the system is that your academic work is all recorded in one place. You don’t have to sort through your Aunt Tilda’s forwarded jokes to find the instructor’s note.
In this section, we describe several types of private communication: instructor-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-student.
Instructor-to-student communication Instructors communicate with students privately for several reasons.
✓ They send feedback. Many instructors like to follow longer assignments, such as papers, with comments. While these can be posted in an electronic grade book, there usually isn’t sufficient space. Therefore, instructors e-mail comments and feedback. ✓ They nudge. Occasionally, you may have a really nice instructor who notices you’re not making the deadlines. She may send you a little note to remind you to stay on task.

✓ They praise and send additional resources. Sometimes an instructor wants to acknowledge excellent work from a student and perhaps provide additional resources that the rest of the class wouldn’t be interested in. This may be a case for private communication. ✓ They communicate grades to you. Thank goodness! Actually, your instructor must communicate grades privately by law. Your grades and feedback can’t be posted publicly.
Figure 10-2 is an example of private communication your instructor may send. This was sent through an internal messaging feature. The same could be accomplished through e-mail.

Student-to-instructor communication Not only can instructors send students private communication, but students may also need to communicate privately with instructors. Why would you want to communicate with your instructor privately? Here are some reasons:
✓ You’re in distress. Something is going on in your life that requires your attention and is preventing you from focusing on school or completing your assignments. The whole class doesn’t need to know about this, but your instructor does. This is a case for private e-mail. ✓ You’re experiencing technological difficulties. Whenever you have a problem with your computer, the software, or the system and need to work with technical support, it’s a good idea to also inform your instructor. She may not be able to remedy the situation, but at least this alerts her to the problem.

✓ You want to ask a question specifically about your academic work. Instructors cannot discuss your work publicly; it’s the law! Therefore, if you ask a question in a public forum about your performance, your instructor can’t answer it. On the other hand, you can discreetly e-mail the instructor to ask about your work.
When it comes to communicating with your instructor, diplomacy is the best policy. In other words, try not to push the instructor beyond reasonable expectations. Most institutions have faculty guidelines related to how quickly instructors should respond to e-mails — usually within 24 to 48 hours. If you send an SOS at midnight, don’t expect a response right away!
Student-to-student communication Students can privately communicate with one another, too. For example:
✓ E-mail is a way to continue conversations that may be of interest to only you and one other person. For example, if you read that your classmate Sarah has an interest in the culture-based health issues specific to the Polish community and you’re a Polish immigrant, you may want to e-mail her privately to share some family stories. Having the opportunity to continue a conversation with one of your peers keeps you from overposting on discussions as well (we describe the dangers of overposting later in this chapter). ✓ We talk more about group work in Chapter 12, but one way student groups work through projects is via e-mail. E-mail allows you to exchange files, send updates, and establish meetings. Plus, it’s easy to copy your instructor on the e-mail so she knows your group’s progress. ✓ Sometimes students exchange contact information such as instant message (IM) screen names. IMs may be another way of communicating some of the same student-to-student information, but that assumes you’re lucky enough to catch each other online at the same time.
Creating and Putting Forward an Online Persona A country song that was popular a few years ago told the story of a man who presented himself online as a suave ladies man, when in fact he was a bit of a nerd offline. Online, you can be anyone you want to be. While we don’t recommend misrepresenting yourself, you may want to carefully consider the persona you put forward and cultivate lasting relationships with your peers online. We explain what you need to know in the following sections.

Depicting positive personality traits online Written text is void of the nonverbal cues people often rely on to fill in communication gaps. Absent eye contact, facial expressions, and intonation of the voice, people only have the written word from which to judge the person on the other end of the computer connection. The persona you put forth online comes through in your writing style. How you write, the words you choose, and the frequency with which you post all say something about who you are.
Are you shy? Online, you can be as forward and confident as anyone else. Remember that the nature of asynchronous communication means nothing happens immediately, so what you say by way of posting becomes as important as what the next student says. It’s not like a typical classroom where the more aggressive students get the most attention by raising their hands or talking out loud first.
Being judged by words alone may be a wonderful feature of online communication because it means you’re less likely to be judged on characteristics like your physical appearance or voice. Your ideas stand on their own. We say more about writing in Chapter 14, but for now remember that the “voice” you use — casual or academic — says a lot about how you’re perceived. If you write like a scholar, you’ll be viewed as a scholar.
A few personality traits that come through in written communication are key to your success as an online student. The following sections explain how to depict yourself as a serious yet warm student who shows leadership skills and avoids being high maintenance.
Be sure to heed these tips as you develop your online persona:
✓ Understand the impact of photos. When introducing yourself to your class for the first time, you may consider attaching a casual photograph. Photos are a way of sharing who you are, but they have drawbacks, too. A photo reveals your age, weight, race, and gender; all possibilities for bias. You should never feel pressured to reveal your identity if you don’t want to! If your instructor asks for a photo, e-mail it privately but request that it not be shared with the rest of the class. ✓ Use emoticons appropriately. We want to add a final word about emoticons — the symbolic smiley faces that pepper today’s Web-based communication. As long as you use them sparingly, a wink or a frown can say a great deal. However, emoticons don’t belong in the text of your academic papers. Save them for back-and-forth discussion among peers.

Finding a mix of serious and funny The serious student posts full-bodied, articulate responses to questions. The responses are well researched and reference some of the assigned readings to demonstrate the connection between theory and practice. The serious student asks direct questions that demonstrate critical thinking as a followup to her peers’ work. The rest of the class quickly identifies who the serious students are based on the quality of their work. (We wrote that with our serious voice.)
You may think that we’re going to contrast the serious student with the class clown. Not so! In fact, it’s possible to be genuinely funny, insightful, and serious all at the same time. If you see a play on words or detect a pun, go ahead and write it. This doesn’t really make you a class clown.
If you think of the class clown as a “goof-off” and wonder where that person is in online education, you may not find her. Why not? Because students who goof off don’t last in online education! But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no place to clown around in the online education environment. If your instructor sets up a “student lounge” for posting off-topic, you can safely post the latest hilarious viral video or clean joke of the day there.
Humor should never be insulting, sarcastic, racist, sexist, homophobic, or directed toward any one individual or group. Because it can be easily misconstrued, be careful if you have a twisted sense of humor — keep it to yourself.
Adding warmth to your words Establishing the right amount of “presence” online can be a challenge, especially when you’re balancing multiple roles and have limited time. We acknowledge this! You don’t have to be a social butterfly and respond to everyone when interacting with your class. However, being a social recluse and posting only the bare minimum probably isn’t the way to go, either.
What sets a recluse apart from a social butterfly isn’t just the amount of posting but also a lack of warmth. Even if you can’t respond to many of your peers because of time limitations, a few warm messages go a long way toward establishing you as a friendly classmate and not a recluse. To warm up your communication, you may want to try these tips:
✓ Always address the person by name. “Jane, that is an intriguing point you brought up. . . . ” ✓ Introduce just a touch of personal information. “Your analysis reminds me of the time we vacationed in New Jersey. . . .” ✓ Compliment freely. “I love how you wove the reference to MacBeth into your description of the current conflict. . . .”

Showing off leadership qualities Leadership is a quality you might not expect to see online, but it definitely shows! Leaders are students who:
✓ Post early (or at least on time). If you have several days to submit a public assignment, see whether you can be one of the first posters. The others will follow your lead. ✓ Volunteer to be leaders when assigned to groups. Just be sure you have the time and skills to carry through. That generally means coming up with a plan; it shouldn’t mean doing all the work. ✓ Present themselves as serious students. Our earlier discussion of serious students explains that they post thoughtfully and back up their ideas with research. They set examples for the rest of the class.
Avoiding a reputation as a high-maintenance person No one wants to be remembered as high maintenance. How can you avoid this?
✓ Report problems, but save the drama for another setting. Everyone has problems. You might be experiencing computer issues, a life event, or a broken link in the course. High-maintenance students tend to describe each of these problems as if they had equal weight. They also tend to post these problems publicly, when sometimes a private message to the instructor would be a better choice. (We explain when to properly use private messaging earlier in this chapter.) ✓ Try a few things on your own before calling a full-blown SOS. Try to find your own resolution before posting publicly that you can’t do something. For example, if you’re assigned to read an article online and the link doesn’t work but you know the title, try running a quick search for it on your own. Then you can score points with the instructor by posting that the original link didn’t work, but you found an alternative. When it comes to pointing out typos or instructions that don’t work, send those notes privately to the instructor. Just as you wouldn’t want everyone in the class reading the feedback your instructor gives you on assignments, your instructor doesn’t want the feedback you give her shared with everyone else, either. ✓ Establish boundaries regarding what and how much you share. The public forum isn’t the place to explain your messy divorce. Your classmates came to learn, not counsel. The educational experience you share should be the basis for your interpersonal relationships. ✓ Have a backup plan or a personal technician if you start to experience a computer issue every week. Everyone has computer issues periodically. However, we observe that high-maintenance students tend to have them weekly. If that’s you, and you tell everyone within shouting distance, your classmates will begin to question your competency. While you can’t see people rolling their eyes online, we believe it happens!

Developing relationships Think about the nature of work in the twenty-first century. Many of us routinely collaborate with colleagues in other cities, towns, and countries. We send e-mails, attach files, and make phone calls. We depend on each other to get work done. No one says these relationships aren’t real!
The same is true for online education. Students interact through technology and come to depend on one another to get work done. In the process, very real and lasting relationships form.
When you present your ideas to the class, your intellect shines, not your gray hair, thick glasses, or skinny legs. Friendships develop based on the quality of your ideas, as well as some of the characteristics we describe earlier in this chapter. The serious students tend to hang together, while the ones with active senses of humor banter among themselves. Birds of a feather flock together.
This is not to say that the online classroom is polarizing! Putting aside some of the biases that may creep into a traditional classroom, students form online relationships based on what and how they think. It’s not uncommon to see a young student who is technologically comfortable befriend an older learner when they have the same academic goals and share similar insights.
A special bond forms with cohort groups. Cohorts are groups of students who start a degree or certificate program together and stay in the same group for their entire time online. These students may be together for a year or more. Our observation is that they disclose more personal information as time passes and therefore provide more support and understanding when trouble arises. (Flip to Chapters 4 and 7 for more about cohorts.)
Some of you may question whether these online academic relationships are real and lasting. They are very real as long as both parties make an effort to maintain the relationship, and it can easily move from academic cohort to friendship. As your friend discloses information in posts or e-mails, take the time to send a private message to commemorate a birthday or a child’s T-ball success. Or, send a good-luck e-card right before you all hunker down for finals. Touch base after class if you wind up in different courses, and keep up-to-date on professional accomplishments. Most people agree that it’s nice to be remembered!
Participating in Discussions Some instructors describe discussion as the heart and soul of online education. For academic courses that require participation, there’s little doubt that discussion is a cornerstone. In this section, we look at why discussion is important, how discussions are organized, and how you can determine what’s expected of you to succeed in online discussions.

Understanding why you’re asked to discuss No doubt, you’ve heard the expression “practice makes perfect.” This makes perfect sense if you’re studying keyboarding skills or French pronunciation, but seeing how this works is a little more difficult when you’re studying something like economics or world literature. Furthermore, in an online course, it’s impossible for the instructor to see students practicing, right?
Not so! Online discussion is one of the methods instructors use to witness your learning. Here’s why:
✓ Discussion shows you are reading. When you answer a discussion question and refer to your assigned readings or textbook, you demonstrate to the instructor that you’re actually reading the material. ✓ Discussion shows your ability to think critically. Many instructors want you to take the content and break it down, analyze it, put it back together in a way that is meaningful, and add an interpretation of how this works in the real world. This is critical thinking! When you participate in discussion, you show your ability to think critically. ✓ Discussion helps you learn better. It’s not enough to read, cite, and move on. Instructors want you to personalize and internalize the information. In fact, this is one of the ways adults learn better and faster. ✓ Others benefit from discussion, too. In the constructivist classroom, everyone wins when you take a topic and develop it fully. When you add your insights and interpretations, the rest of the class is able to consider whether they agree or disagree and, most importantly, why.
Organizing discussions in different ways Discussion is a conversation that occurs online and requires more than one person. For example, John puts forth an idea to which Chris responds with an example supporting his idea. Others join in the conversation, too. Sally suggests an alternative view to what John has written with an additional reference to the literature. Pat asks a question for clarification, forcing John to find another way to explain his original idea. All of this gets rolled together for a more complete understanding of the content. By the time the discussion runs its course, the readers and authors have looked at the subject matter more thoroughly because of the diversity of views.
Depending on the course management software, you may see your conversations displayed as small pieces connected to one another in a couple ways: chronologically or threaded. Each piece comes from an individual speaker and is a piece of written text, or post.

✓ Chronological posts: The posts may be connected in a linear fashion, following one another in chronological order. Figure 10-3 shows what this looks like. ✓ Threaded posts: A threaded discussion displays the conversation in a different graphic fashion. When you look at the display, you’re better able to see how ideas connect to one another. The dates may seem out of order, but not if you follow the conversation as if it were in outline form. Text that’s indented is directly related to the post above it. Figure 10-4 shows a threaded discussion.
Does it matter whether your software shows the discussion in threaded or chronological fashion? Not really. What matters is that conversations are occurring between students and that you can follow these conversations.
Many course management systems allow you to change how you view discussions. You control whether you see them in threaded or unthreaded fashion according to your settings. If you have this option, play around with the settings until you find the system that works best for you.

Figuring out discussion requirements Each instructor has her own expectations regarding discussion and participation. You may find these expectations in several places:
✓ The syllabus: Chances are good the instructor lists discussion as a component of your grade in the syllabus. She may say something like “Participates in discussion by posting an initial statement and responding to two other peers each week.” Read those statements carefully to determine what is expected. (Chapter 8 describes a course syllabus in detail.) ✓ The instructions: You most likely have a page in your course that describes what you should do in the discussion area; you should be able to find a link to this page from the course’s main page. The questions you’re expected to answer may be listed here. Often this is where the instructor reminds you of how much to write and how to post. For example, you may read, “Answer one of the follow questions in 300 to 500 words. Be sure to reference one of our assigned readings. Before the close of the module, respond to two of your fellow students’ posts.”

✓ The grading scheme and rubric: These may be on a separate page within your course, or they may be woven into either the syllabus or the instructions. A rubric spells out what counts. For example, a rubric may state that you need an on-time post of 300 to 500 words with proper citation, and you must respond to two peers. See Chapters 8 and 14 for full details on rubrics.
Avoiding overposting Overposting can occur in two manners: writing too much and responding too frequently. Both have consequences.
✓ Writing too much: When your instructor asks for 300 to 500 words and you submit a three-page essay, you have overposted! The result is that your classmates won’t read through your ideas, and no one will want to discuss them. You may be penalized for overwriting, too. Before posting, count your words. You can do this in Word 2003 and earlier editions by going to File and then Properties. There you’ll find a tab labeled Statistics or Word Count. You may need to isolate (highlight) the paragraph you want counted. In Word 2007, click on the Review tab, and then click Word Count in the lower right-hand corner of the Proofing group. ✓ Responding too frequently: You don’t need to respond to everyone’s posts. When your instructor asks for a minimum of 2 responses to others, she may be hoping for 4 or 5, but not 15 or 20! Think of this in terms of the traditional classroom. How do you react to a student who has something to say to everyone’s comments? Doesn’t that person seem to be an attention-seeker? After a while, aren’t the ideas a little self-serving? Do students begin to roll their eyes when the commenter opens her mouth? The same happens when students overpost. However, in the world of online education, you can avoid reading what those who overpost have to say. This is not a good thing. We like to encourage good discussion with quality posts. Think of contributing 10 percent of the comments. Discussions can grow exponentially, and you don’t want to be the student whose posts no one reads because you’re too prolific.
Tapping into Social Networks What’s popular online waxes and wanes. Remember when everyone had to have a Web page? Services popped up allowing for easy Web page creation.

The members of these services wanted more widgets and features, and they began to communicate with each other. Thus, the idea of social networking was born.
A social network starts with a Web site, like Facebook (, MySpace (, and LinkedIn (, that allows users to find other people like them, send messages to each other, and share bits and pieces of information. Say you’re interested in cooking. A social network connection in Facebook could result in recipe swapping, sharing culinary do’s and don’ts, discussing a few favorite kitchen tools, and even getting recommendations for good culinary schools, which could lead to a new career! This section addresses how to use social networks to your advantage academically and what to avoid.
The benefits of communicating outside the virtual classroom Because social networks are built on the principle of connecting people, and learning is largely social in the online classroom, using a social network in connection with your online education has several advantages:
✓ Supporting schoolwork: Social networks can be very helpful in organizing study groups, sharing notes, and communicating with your classmates. Some of the sites include instant messaging features, e-mail, and shared calendars. You can also establish a group so that only class members can interact. Within that group, you can talk about what’s going on in your class, such as upcoming assignments, and answer each other’s questions outside of your class site. Some faculty are organizing class groups and using the tools to continue conversations about class themes. If you’re already a social network user, you can easily toggle between your personal life and school. Figure 10-5 shows a social networking site used academically. ✓ Help after graduation: Several social networking sites focus on professional connections more than personal ones. For example, LinkedIn ( promotes itself as a network for professionals seeking to maintain job-related contacts. The site organizes information by company so you can find other people who may be helpful in job searches. Not only can you ask to add them to your network, but you can give and receive recommendations. After you complete your program or degree, you could ask classmates to become part of your network so you can exchange ideas about job seeking, new prospects, and so on.

Avoiding distractions Social networks can be distracting. Isn’t it always more fun to talk socially than to study? If you think you would like to use a social network to embellish your online education, consider these ideas to limit distractions:
✓ Keep your profile private. Only let your immediate classmates know your username and contact information. That way strangers won’t seek you out. ✓ Don’t add extra widgets and tools. For example, you can add an application that allows you to save the rain forest or play trivia games, but these probably aren’t related to what you’re studying. ✓ Create separate accounts. If you already use a social network and your class suggests establishing a group, consider signing up with a different e-mail address and username. Keep your personal account and your school account separate so you won’t be tempted to jump from school to personal issues. If you do comingle personal and academic accounts, be aware of how to set privacy limits within the tool. For example, in Facebook, you can control who sees your “wall,” whether they can post to it, and who your other friends are. It’s good to know how to set those limits.

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