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photo of student on laptopLiz Timbs is a featured guest author and PhD student in History at Michigan State University.  You can follow her on Twitter at @tizlimbs or on her blog, NginguThembi.  

I miss teaching. Last year, I worked as a teaching assistant for two traditional courses and one online course. In many ways, I am very lucky to not have to teach this year; I have more time to work on my language training and personal research. But I still miss teaching. So much so that for one of my seminar projects, I am developing an online course. This has caused me to reflect a lot on the skills necessary for effective online teaching. The word that keeps coming up is communication. As there is virtually no face-to-face contact with students in online courses, communication with students through comments and emails are absolutely vital to both students’ and the course’s success. Below are some (more) strategies to effectively communicate with students in an online course.

Clarity is Key

Compared to a traditional classroom setting, the virtual classroom requires a different approach to communicating with students. While email occupies a central role in how I communicate with students in a traditional course, email becomes vital for a successful virtual course. The course that I TA’d for took place mainly on a Wordpress site, so there were some initial problems with students accessing the site. This resulted in my having to spend the first few weeks sending out very detailed emails about how to access the site. The more detail the better; this saves you from writing 2-3 emails when you can communicate all of the directions in one clear, straightforward email. Writing emails of this nature can seem very tedious and pointless, but being precise helps both the students and the teachers (or teaching assistants) a lot!

Don’t respond to emails immediately!!!

Yes, we live in a world where people are constantly online. And possibly no other constituency is as tapped in as undergraduates. Based on this assumption (and you know what assuming does), I thought that they would take to the Wordpress site without any problems. The process could not have been simpler. The students received an email with a username and password, requesting that they activate their profile. From that point, all they had to do was click a button, sign in, and remember their password. Easy, right? Oh, how naive I was. Cue the scores of emails expressing trouble accessing accounts, not receiving the activation emails, confusion about how to post blogs, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Now, this can be incredibly frustrating, but I found myself adopting the following plan to deal with these sometimes infuriating emails.

  1. Read the email. (Obviously)
  2. Do NOT respond immediately. Give yourself time to decompress and think about the exact problem the student is having and how to respond in such a way that will help them, not make them feel even more frustrated. These emails can be completely infuriating, but responding to them with irritation won’t help anyone. Take a few moments before you respond to collect your thoughts.
  3. Respond with clarity and compassion.

If You Comment, They Will Improve!

In addition to emails, comments are also a key way to engage with students and work to improve both their understanding of and writing about the course themes. At first, my comments for students were posted on the WordPress site, usually one to two sentences, suggesting more themes to explore or elements of their argument that they should develop. However, I decided after the first few weeks to comment on student’s writing through the course grading site, finding that I could express more critical thoughts about students’ progress as opposed to the more adulatory comments posted on the course blog. I got positive feedback from students on these comments, receiving frequent emails about tips on how to improve their scores. Online courses don’t give you the luxury of casual chats with students about these issues in lecture or recitation; you have to find virtual replacements for these interactions in the form of emails and comments.

For example, I submitted this comment to a student whose writing was very good, but I wanted to suggest ways that she could improve her prose and logic about the readings:

What you posted is good, but you need to start writing about how the readings/videos connect to each other through broader themes. A big part of this class is based on seeing how the points we raise each week build on each other as we progress through soccer's history. Look for these connections!

This student emailed me after receiving this comment to get more ideas about how to improve her grade for the course.

In the future, I also think that if I get to assist or solo-teach an online course, I will be much more proactive in using videos to communicate with students. So much of an online course happens with very little interpersonal connection; you have to take advantage of every opportunity to build some semblance of a connection between yourself and your students. So, at the end of every week, instead of just sending an email with suggestions about ways to improve, compliments regarding certain blogs, and tips for addressing technical problems, I would really like to experiment with using videos to communicate these issues, while also fostering a relationship with my students.

What tips and strategies do you have for teaching online courses? Please share them in the comments below.

[Image by Flickr user Ed Yourdon used under creative commons licensing.]


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