Topic 5: Communications Online
Faculty Team Members:   Consultants:
Bryant Davis - Montgomery CC Dody Welsh-Parris - Chesapeake CC
Diana Zilberman - BCCC Nancy Kaplan - University of Baltimore
Drew Habermacher - PGCC  
Michael Harsh - Hagerstown CC  

Analyze the Audience

The audience should have a general knowledge of online courses, including e-mail, chat, and the discussion board. The audience does not need to know how to use these, but knowing what they are will help the audience learn.

This level of training is for a range of people. It will help orient those who are new to distance learning and illustrate options to those who are more advanced.

Learning Objectives

  1. Know the definition of synchronous and asynchronous communication.
  2. Know the specific technical features of synchronous and asynchronous communication for online delivery.
  3. Understand the specific characteristics of each form of communication and the circumstances in which instructors can make the best use of each.
  4. Understand and appreciate how the tone, voice, and style of writing affect the intended audience.
  5. Be able to adjust own writing style for intended purpose and audience.
  6. Understand the necessity of having to set realistic time frames for communication to ensure success of your online course.

Absence of body language, tone of voice, and social cues make it necessary for online instructors to have excellent mastery of the written language. Clarity and precision of writing style, as well as awareness of audience perception of the messages, are crucial for effective communication.

Presentation of Topic Information

~ Nancy Kaplan, University of Baltimore, FOTTC presentation

~ Dody Welsh-Parris, Chesapeake College, FOTTC presentation

  • Estimate of time needed to adequately address topic. 
Available Resources
  • What are the available resources on this topic? List online resources and print resources

Online Resources

~ A. A. U. P. Committee R on Government Relations Report on Distance Learning

"The bottom line is that developing distance learning requires significant changes in the practice of both faculty and students to ensure an adequate learning environment. The better distance learning program designs show sensitivity to students' need to have ready communication with the instructor and other students. In such cases, a conferencing system, electronic mail, or telephone contact may replace, at least in part, traditional office hours."

~ "Communicating Care in Online Courses" By D. Gross & V. Buford

A study that analyzes, categorizes, and critiques "actual responses to expressed student confusion and frustration with online courses. Samplings of actual student messages from two courses were used to frame instructor responses. The focus of the study was the instructor's responses to these student messages. We utilized a narrative perspective for categorizing the instructor's responses. This approach allowed us a broad perspective for categorizing and critiquing the rhetorical prudence of the instructor's responses. We added to the credibility of the categories of responses by asking non-class members what they thought of the instructor's responses." The study concludes with suggestions for communicating instructor care and concern online.

~ Course(s) conducted solely via email. Moraine Park Technical College

~ "Dispatches From Distance Education, Where Class Is Always in Session." By J. Young. Chronicle of Higher Education. March 3, 2000.

Seven students discuss how they learn - and live -- through a regimen of online courses

~ Distance Learning, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. ERIC Digest

Two excerpts: [1] "A common stereotype is 'the loneliness of the long distance learner' ÷ Learning at a distance can be both isolating and highly interactive, and electronic connectedness is a different kind of interaction than what takes place in traditional classrooms; some learners are not comfortable with it. Lack of nonverbal cues can create misunderstanding, but communications protocols can be established and relationships among learners developed. Because humans are involved, social norms do develop in cyberspace, but they require new communications competencies÷ Online courses often feature consensus building and group projects, through which learners can develop skills in collaborating with distant colleagues and cooperating with diverse individuals. Such skills are increasingly needed in the global workplace÷" [2]"Answering charges that computer learning environments cannot duplicate the community of the classroom, ÷[research]÷ argues that the assumption of a sense of community in traditional classrooms may be false. If community is defined as shared interests, not geographic space, electronic communities are possible. [Others]÷conclude that building a learning community is of critical importance to the creation of a successful virtual classroom. [Another researcher]÷agrees that 'to succeed, distributed learning must balance virtual and direct interaction in sustaining communion among people'..."

~ Guiding Principles for Faculty in Distance Learning

"Communication and collaboration foster strong learning communities, counteracting the often-isolating nature of distance learning. Providing a variety of communications channels - e-mail, telephone, video, discussion forums, online chats, etc.-encourages student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction, particularly if that communication is integrated well into assignments and begun early in the semester."

~ Journal of Computer Mediated Communications

~ Journal of Interactive Media in Education

~ Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

~ Distance Education Online Symposium (DEOS-L)

~ DEOS-L listserv postings

~ A Study Guide for Distance Ed (Moore and Kearsley, 1997)

~ University of Colorado School of Education's Distance Education Resource Guide

Print Resources



Participants will work in groups of 5-7. Each group will assign a group leader who will ask every participant to write an e-mail message to be sent to a group of students who failed to submit an assignment on time and whose work during the course has been unsatisfactory. The e-mail should be clear and should also include a warning for students risking possible failure in the course. The group leader will give each member an index card that will indicate the specific tone to be used in the e-mail, as follows. Members of the group will not know what the others' assigned "tone" was and will have to guess that tone or describe it at the end of the exercise.

    1. Humorous, but down to earth
    2. Friendly, casual, coming from the "I-am-one-of-the-guys" type of instructor
    3. Firm, but not standoffish
    4. Pleasantly reprimanding
    5. Warm and inviting, from the touchy-feely type


Discussion Questions:

  • Did you guess the tone as was indicated on the card?
  • What were the key words that helped you guess right or wrong?
  • What are the circumstances under which you would write an e-mail containing this tone in its message?
  • What is the writing style in which you communicate to students most frequently? How would you describe it? How do you think others perceive it?
  • What, if anything, did you learn from this exercise?

Other topic discussion questions:

  • What are the advantages to communication in an online class versus a face-to-face class? What are the disadvantages?
  • What are the advantages of different types of online communication, such as e-mail, chat, and the discussion board? What are the disadvantages?
  • How are the types of online communication, such as e-mail, chat, and the discussion board, similar to communication in a face-to-face class?
  • What makes a good discussion question in an online class?
  • Should students be required to contribute to discussions?
  • If students are required, how does that affect the content of their responses?

Assessment Strategies

The audience needs to become aware of how writing style affects communication. Understanding of this topic can be assessed through specific samples of online communication that demonstrate effective or ineffective communication.

People who are learning about communication online could be assessed in a number of ways. For instance,

  • they could write their response, telling how they would use the different methods of communication
  • they could plan a class, creating different areas for discussion, such as e-mail for asynchronous public communication, chat for synchronous public communication, and the discussion board for asynchronous public communication. The respondents could base their responses on the advantages and disadvantages of different types of online communication
  • they could write directions to their students, telling them when to use the different types of communication