Competency Documentation

Online Communication

Spring 2004
Shelley Bacon
Shirley Freed, Instructor

Online communication in an educational setting occurs between students and teachers, teachers and parents, students and students, and teachers and teachers. In my particular educational environment, digital communication also occurs between teachers and facilitators. Communication using digital means can in many ways be as effective as face to face communication. In some instances, digital/online communication is MORE effective than face to face communication in that the quiet, taciturn but reflective learner is encouraged to speak clearly and even forcefully in a way he/she would not otherwise speak or communicate, creating a more equitable learning environment and putting the more vocal learners on the same plane with the reticent communicators.

In an online classroom, a teacher is limited in the ways she can communicate to her students only by his/her creativity and understanding of technology and its various implementations. Granted, face to face dialogue may not be possible online, but effective, deep, meaningful discussions certainly ARE possible, as will be demonstrated in some of the online communication contained in this document. Besides the more "traditional" online communication of the written word through email, many additional methods can be incorporated. Discussion boards are in some ways a form of email, but the discussion can be entered into by many entities and thereby broaden the prospects for meaningful dialogue, cooperative learning, and greater understanding and learning opportunities. Instant messenger programs can be utilized, along with chat rooms, to enable the learners (and the fellow learner, the teacher) to use real time to discuss important matters, ask questions for clarification, or simply get acquainted. Audio files can be created for individuals or for a whole class, along with video clips of presentations, "lectures," or simply discussion starters. These methods increase the connectivity of the class, creating venues and avenues for student to student learning and student to teacher learning, adding these to the traditional student to content learning that education has previously seen as the gold standard for education and knowledge.

In order for effective online communication to occur, several things must be in place. The required technology must function more times than not with as little frustration as possible. The knowledge of the teacher/educator must be greater than novice level so as not to let frustration get in the way of effective communication. The educator must respond to the student in a prompt, friendly, personal manner, especially when the student is experiencing stress or asking significant questions.

Online Communication and Learning Theory: Reflections

Online communication can be an essential element in helping students construct knowledge and significant meaning in their education through discussion and dialogue. As students read other students' thoughts, it helps them think about content in new ways. As students dialogue with their instructor, they gain insight into their own thinking and are challenged to reason through their thoughts. While I do not ascribe completely to a constructivist viewpoint, I do see value in exposing students to content and then allowing them - pushing them, if you will - to make connections to the content in their own lives that are meaningful and help create a knowledge base that is real to them.

Additionally, online communication, through instant messenger, email, and the forum (all of which can constitute communication with student to student and student to teacher, and all of which can connect student to content), fits nicely with some brain-based learning theory. One source gives us several tenets of brain-based learning that are accomplished through online communication, most notably: 1) Feedback is best when it comes from reality, rather than from an authority figure; 2) People learn best when solving realistic problems; 3) The big picture can't be separated from the details; 4) Because every brain is different, educators should allow learners to customize their own environments (http://www.funderstanding.com/brain_based_learning.cfm).

Carol MacKnight, founder and editor of Journal of Computing in Higher Education and author of several books, talks about the wealth of information available to us through TV, newspapers, radio, and the Internet. If we desire to produce thinking students as the end result of our educational system, however, students must be taught to think critically about the information coming in to their brains in ever increasing rates. Says MacKnight, "Online communication offers the potential for collaboration as well as increased participation in the learning process, reflection, peer tutoring, monitoring of student learning as it is taking place, and extension of classroom learning" ("Teaching Critical Thinking Through Online Discussion"). But, she says, we cannot assume all students know how to use online discussion or peer collaboration to think critically, nor can we assume that all teachers know how to elicit critical thinking as students collaborate, reflect, etc. The solution MacKnight gives to this situation is for teachers to learn to ask the right questions and moderate discussion by 1) modeling thinking and 2) asking questions that drive thinking. Cooperative learning can also be incorporated into discussion to move toward critical thinking.

Sarah Haavind, author of Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators, gives additional advice to moderators of online learning programs. In an article for The Concord Consortium, Haavind gives specific was for moderators to keep discussions going. She notes that in the face-to-face classroom, moderators can ask multiple questions, or bring out various options to which the students can respond. When one aspect of the question sparks discussion, the moderator can move that direction. In the virtual discussion room, says Haavind, students get confused with all the multiple questions and feel like they have to answer them all. She suggests keeping questions focused and not giving multiple options to which the students can respond.

Interestingly enough, Paloff and Pratt discuss online learners need to feel safe in an online class in order for them to feel comfortable learning in that environment. They speak of setting up a "safe container" by providing guidelines and expectations that create a structure for the course by encouraging students to express themselves..." (127). This reminds me of Isaacs' thoughts of setting up a safe "container" in order for effective dialogue to occur. Isaacs is speaking of dialogue for business, but communication - what all good dialogue is - is necessary for leaders of all types - be they leaders in business, or leaders in online education!


For a number of days, I compiled my online communication with my students in AE21 Distributed Education. These IM messages, email, and other forms of online communication are included as documentation of the connectivity, the education, and the faith integration that is possible through the utilization of online communication.

Instant Messenger Communication
Email Communication
Forum Threads (log in: bacons; password: baco7bits; Go to "Sophomore" Class threads)