Email Dr. Finley






Email Dr. Finley




Communication Issues in the Online Classroom

Dr. Diane Finley, Department of Psychology

The Online Express

Prince George’s Community College

Fall 2000





Keeping Discussions On Topic

Suggested Guidelines





Technology, technology, technology!!!!

Some students have little experience with the technology and you spend time teaching this rather than the subject


Misconceptions by students about the rigor or online courses

Student who expect you to be on duty 24/7




MY HINTS FOR SUCCESS (or what has worked for me)




Responding to Conflict



Diane Finley

Interaction is CRITICAL – it can make or break the online environment.

 “What students want: regular interaction between instructors and students , a student-centered approach and opportunities for students to learn on their own. The instructor must be willing to field questioned and engage students in group discussions. The emphasis is on the professor-student relationship over the bells and whistles.” (Dan Carnevale – Chronicle of Higher Education, October 27, 2000)

 “The social bonds are crucial in online education. It’s about building the community.  You have to get them talking to each other.” (Dan Carnevale – Chronicle)

 Students want “prompt unambiguous feedback – this can be difficult for instructors since students often work on the courses during the late evenings and weekends. Students and instructors need to learn to manage their expectations about when they should be able to have reliable fast communicative responses.”   (Hara and Kling, CSI Working Paper)

 “The social dimension is important to the effectiveness of asynchronous Learning Networks (ALN) and needs to be taken in to account in the design of courses.  (Wegerif, JALN, V.2, #1, March 98)

“The first priority should therefore be to build a sense of community through carefully structured exercises in which differences between students are not so obviously significant. Many students suggested that they would have benefited from a warm-up period with light-hearted exercises which were aimed more at getting to know each other than at formal learning.”  .  (Wegerif, JALN, V.2, #1, March 98)

 Communication changes in the online environment

 “While distance education is often valued, it is a medium which also leads to certain stresses. Students do not see each other or their instructors unless they use a video-link. It can be hard to determine the instructor’s expectations. Much of human communication is inherently ambiguous. But people can often adequately resolve key ambiguities when they are face to face. When the primary communication medium is written text, resolving ambiguities may be more difficult for many people.”  (Hara and Kling, CSI Working Paper)

 One student said “gender bias that she experienced in meetings in her place of work was not present in  CMC (computer mediated communication) and she was able, after a period of watching, waiting and learning from others, to engage more effectively in the discussion that she ever had before. CMC supports an egalitarian style of communication in which everyone can participate more easily.  ALN supports the sort of free and open encounters between ideas more effectively than other media.”  .  (Wegerif, JALN, V.2, #1, March 98)

 Conflicts will still arise. Since we lack any nonverbal facets to the communication, the instructor needs to be vigilant and hypersensitive to what is written. Encourage students to let you know if they have any problems. (Diane Finley)

 “Situated models of teaching and learning generally accept the educational principle of scaffolding whereby learners are introduced gradually to complex new skills through the activity of teachers who coach simplified versions initially and then increase the degrees of freedom towards a point where the teacher is no longer needed. Students need more opportunities to lead group learning experiences.”  .  (Wegerif, JALN, V.2, #1, March 98)

 Online education is time-consuming. Many students mistakenly think it is an easy and quick way to get an education. We need to disavow them of this mistaken idea VERY EARLY in the semester.

 Students don’t always communicate problems with the instructor – “I didn’t complain because I felt stupid. I should have spent more time on this (course) but I couldn’t because I’m too busy. If I hadn’t taken this many courses and also work, I could…if you want to take this course you have to spend time.”   (Hara and Kling, CSI Working Paper)

“The course requires self-discipline. It is too easy to drop out. It is necessary to log on regularly – perhaps every day. The medium is not always as asynchronous as it seems. This is especially true of collaborative work where your time and the other participants’ time have to mesh together. Students don’t always contribute to discussions because of the pressure of work and limited access.”     (Wegerif, JALN, V.2, #1, March 98)

 Students need some facility with the technology since technology problems will ALWAYS arise.

 “The first focus was technological problems and students without access to technical support were especially frustrated.”  (Hara and Kling, CSI Working Paper)

Online education is not easy.

“High quality education, both online and face-to-face, is neither cheap nor easy.”    (Hara and Kling, CSI Working Paper)

Online courses require a different approach to orientation

“We could have benefited from a longer familiarization period. Perhaps the first exercise could have been something not too serious. Perhaps a conference discussing how to conference, when to do it, how to deal with the amount of data. “  .  (Wegerif, JALN, V.2, #1, March 98)

Students need to be encouraged to introduce themselves, or post biographies. Giving credit for this somehow (I use 3 extra points on the midterm) will ensure greater participation. (Diane Finley)

Online education has the potential to encourage deeper reflection and thinking in students.

Because students don’t have to answer questions immediately, they have time to think about what they are saying. This can encourage more thoughtful answers. (Diane Finley)

“CMC (computer-mediated communication) could support metalinguistic comments and thoughts by students. This sort of explicit self-reflective statement is of undoubted value to learning but not easy to achieve in face-to-face conferencing.”  .  (Wegerif, JALN, V.2, #1, March 98) 

Managing online discussions requires practice.

In other words, there is a learning curve. Don’t expect the online discussion to work the same way as an in-class discussion. In some ways, online discussions can be better than f2f discussions. But it takes some management skills to have a successful online discussion, especially in an asynchronous environment. (Diane Finley)

One suggestion for putting together groups and trying to avoid the no-show member is to survey students about when they plan to schedule being on-line during the semester. Another way is to let students choose their own groups. You can always roster active students into groups and then put the laggards in a group of their own.

Try scheduling specific end dates for participation. Since most students do their work on the weekends, you might consider requiring the first posting in a conference by Sunday and responses to 2-3 other students by the following Thursday. Be sure to give specific times (your time zone) for posting for credit.

Feedback needs to be modeled for students. Students tend to give feedback and responses that does not encourage discussion. As instructors, we need to model how to give appropriate feedback.

“The online instructor is key to organizing interaction and Hiltz suggests that having a responsive moderator is key. The instructor does not necessarily need to be the moderator.”  (Beaudin, JALN, 3, 2, November 1999)         

A research study (small-scale) identified the following as techniques for keeping asynchronous online discussion on topic: (in order of rating of effectiveness)

“Carefully design questions that specifically elicit on topic discussion. Open ended questions are good but they must not be too vague.

Provide guidelines to help online learners prepare on-topic responses

Reword the original questions when responses are going in the wrong direction (as instructor you need monitor constantly even when you aren’t actively discussing - DF)

Provide discussion summary on a regular basis

Provide an alternative location (e.g. cyber-café) for off-topic discussion

 Formally state the expectation that online discussions stay on topic (count discussion as a large enough part of the course grade that it matters; set up grading so that off-topic posts and  “I agrees” get no credit – DF)

Formally present rules of conduct that eliminate off-topic comments.

Include a reminder to stay on topic with all posted questions

Provide a reward for keeping on topic (I find positive reinforcement in the form of comments early on is sufficient; taking off points or not giving points is a stronger incentive - DF)

Privately reprimand and provide corrective suggestions to learners who submit off-topic comments (I do this once or twice then it’s 3 strikes and you’re out- I allow more leeway in the first couple of weeks of the course. After that it is time for them to get on board. DF)

Screen postings and route off-topic postings to alternative locations with an explanation to the submitter. (Again, I would do this the first week or so, Then I delete such comments. This means as instructor I need to be vigilant in reading the discussions - DF).

Provide a grade for keeping on topic. (I think this is important – DF)

Expel offenders from the discussion after “x” number of off-topic posts. (This might present some problems with some administrators. I think giving negative grades and no chance to redeem those points is more effective. Be sure to spell out this process including all penalties in your syllabus. DF)”   (Beaudin, JALN, 3, 2, November 1999)

“The carefully design questions is key to good teaching and learning. Questions need to be clear, concise and directly relate to the purpose of posing the question. Developing questions that create cognitive dissonance provides opportunities for new insights. Provide guidelines or even sample answers. Summarize discussions. “  (Beaudin, JALN, 3, 2, November 1999)

Keeping students actively engaged may require you to use techniques that are not part of your ordinary repetoire.

“Some of the techniques for helping students become actively involved include:
1) requiring regular participation and giving credit or a grade for it,
2) making materials relevant by connecting new learning and course materials to current events or student experiences,
3) use response activities where students must respond to one another
4) provide conflicting points of views to stimulate discussion and analytical thinking
5) have a guest lecturer or expert present materials for discussion
6) assign roles to students for discussions”  (Whitesel, UMUC January 2000) 

Course and Time Management Techniques

Make contact early on with students who have minimal or no participation. Give them suggestions for managing the time requirements.

Think out the organization of the course before putting it up. Organize it so students can avoid information overload. (i.e. use separate discussion forums for each topic.)

Point out technical help available.

Give supportive responses to early postings.

I recommend contacting students out of the classroom to tell them their responses are either poorly written or not in depth enough.

Create information about time management, course requirements, etc. that can be posted in a course information area for referencing throughout the semester. This will prevent you from answering the same question over and over.

Establish online or telephone office hours when you will be available.