Communication and participation

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This document is part of a larger collection of documents on online instruction from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring's Instructional Resources KnowledgeBase. See more online instruction documents from that collection.

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Communication and participation approaches for online learners

Communication and participation are two of the most critical aspects of learning—and teaching—online. It encompasses all of the interaction and behaviors within a course, including between instructor and learner, among learners—either one-on-one or as part of a group—and between learners and the instructional materials. There are many types of communication possible within an online course, as well as many strategies and techniques to encourage successful interaction among participants.

Why Is It Important?

The importance of communication and participation in the online environment can not be overstated. Because students in an online course are physically separated from the instructor and their peers and connected only via technology, they need more support, feedback, and communication than students in a face-to-face course. Otherwise, students may feel isolated and alienated. Using effective communication strategies will enable the instructor to connect personally to the learners, identify and meet individual student needs, and encourage students to participate.

How to Put Into Practice?

Communication and participation are, unsurprisingly, a large part of teaching an online course. To successfully fulfill the facilitator role, instructors should engage in a number of teaching techniques and strategies to engage and motivate students throughout the duration of the course:

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Encouraging participation

To foster student participation, instructors should focus on both the course design features (before the course starts) and their own teaching techniques (as the course proceeds).

For example, before the course starts, instructors should:

  • Provide clear guidelines regarding how to use the technology and where and when the discussions take place.
  • Provide clear participation expectations for individuals and groups.
  • Make discussions a significant part of the grade using clear feedback criteria, such as rubrics.

And as the course proceeds instructors should:

  • Frequently communicate with the class in order to maintain an active presence within the course and to set expectations for communication.
  • Respond to student communications in a timely manner.
  • Recognize when a student might be falling behind and send a private email about it.
  • Try to be as understanding as possible when a student gives an excuse for missing part of the course, but exercise fairness when dealing with requests for exceptions.
  • Always respond considerately, and be sensitive to different communication styles and varied cultural backgrounds.

Additional Resources:

Managing Groups

Beyond encouraging individual participation, instructors who use group work in an online course must practice even more specialized teaching strategies. Here are some tips for managing groups in an online course:

  • Choose the group size, activity duration, and team composition carefully to reflect both the learner group and the intended objectives of the activity.
  • Set clear expectations for participation, criteria for assessment, and expected outcomes.
  • Establish a clear timeline, schedule, and sequence of activities with specific deadlines.
  • Offer a lower-stakes, warm-up type activity so that students can become accustomed to collaboration.
  • Define the tasks clearly and consider either assigning or allowing students to choose the particular role they will play in the group.
  • Monitor the activity, help students stay on task when necessary, encourage non-participants when necessary, and assess both individual and group participation.

Additional Resources:

Where to Find Resources?

Communication in an Online Course

There are four primary types of communications that should be used in an online course, each with a distinct purpose, content, recommended tool set, and tips for use.

online communication
Type Description Tools Tip for Use
Private communications Personal exchanges, usually informal, between the instructor and an individual student or exchanges among two individual students; occur as the need arises. Email; telephone; voice or video conference Plan the technology in advance so students will know how private communications will be handled.
Informal class communications Public exchanges between the instructor and students or among students regarding course material or administrative questions; occur as the need arises. Email to classlist; discussion forum; voice or video conference; PadletPiazza To reduce administrative questions, including frequently asked questions in the discussion forum.
Learning activities Assignments or tasks designed into a course to engage students in learning and practice; involve formalized communications directed to accomplishing the task and its objectives. Assignment dropbox or submission tool; small group discussion forum; blog or wiki; gradebook Deliberately integrate these into the course by including explicit instructions and expectations and by integrating the technology tools in support of the required task.
Feedback Information is provided to students about their learning, including progress during the course and accomplishments at the end. Email; quiz or poll; rubric; automated feedback messages; gradebook Ensure a variety of types of feedback such as informal instructor feedback, formal instructor feedback on learning activities, and peer feedback on students’ work.
Please note: Not all of the listed technologies are officially supported by the university.

See Also: