Steps toward excellence: Planning communications

Steps toward excellence: Planning communications

This is going to be the last formal entry in this series on taking incremental steps to online teaching excellence. (Part 6 and links to all the previous ones are here.) Not the last post, ever, about online teaching; after this post, there will still be much to think about regarding excellent online teaching. In particular, I haven't really scratched the surface of the actual pedagogy of online courses. Pedagogy in general, and online pedagogy in particular, is so complex that a series of blog posts can only go so far. You'll see articles about this and other aspects of online teaching in discrete articles not connected to a series. But this article is going to address one last structural element that enables excellent online teaching --- probably the most important one of all, and it's the gateway from building a course to actually teaching it.

Starting with the step we discussed last time -- the syllabus and the LMS -- we are turning in earnest toward the students themselves. And what do we do with those students when we have them in an online class? Answer: We communicate with them.

Building communication

That's the next step:

Step 7: Build a robust, effective, student-focused plan for two-way communication between you and the learners.

Communication is what makes or breaks any course, but particularly online courses. In face-to-face courses, communication doesn't necessarily require planning because there is no scarcity involved. If you need to tell a student something, you always have the next class meeting to get it across. But in an online class, communication is not automatically built into the class itself. If you want it to take place, you have to build it in.

But what's this about "building a plan" for communication? Why isn't this step just "Communicate clearly and often with students" or something like that --- not building yet another thing, but executing? To answer that question, let's look at a story.

Story time

As I was getting ready for my sabbatical, I signed up for a certification, consisting of four connected online courses, from a well-known MOOC provider. The fourth of these was a six-week "final project" course, available only to the people paying for the certificate,  promising heightened personal interaction because of the goal of the course, which was to complete a mini-research project in a small group. This was a new course; the first offering was in April 2017, but I waited until the second run of the course in June so I could get my teaching done first.

On Day 1, there were warning signs. On signing into the course for the first time, I saw that all of the stuff --- discussion board posts, learning materials, etc. --- from the April run of the course was still there. Nobody had cleaned up from the previous group and reset the course for our group. Through the first week, the flags got redder. Although I don't expect lots of discussion activity in week 1, since it's mostly basic work needing no supervision of Q&A, there was an eerie silence from the instructor; posts directed at her got no response, for days on end.

Moving into week 2, it became clear that this wasn't just laziness. Each week had a main activity, and these activities built on themselves as we designed and executed our projects --- which is good instructional design. From week 2 on out, the activity for week n was designed to use the instructor feedback from week n-1. However, by the middle of week 2, nobody had gotten instructor feedback on the week 1 activity, which meant that the Week 2 activity --- due on Sunday night --- couldn't be started.

At first there were some polite posts to the discussion board: Dear professor, I'm just wondering when I can expect my feedback, because I am ready to work on week 2's assignment. Thanks! From Wednesday through Friday, those posts piled up, and they got less polite: Professor, none of us can work on week 2 until we hear from you about week 1. Can you please give your feedback ASAP? By Saturday, the posts were along the lines of This is ridiculous. Give me what I need to do the assignment or refund my money.

This continued for two more weeks, with no instructor communication. We students were four weeks into the course and could not yet start the activity for week 2! We were posting back and forth to each other -- WTF is going on? Where is the prof? In fact this was the only communication taking place in the course. At some point in Week 3, we started trying to contact the MOOC provider, but this was difficult because no contact information was given in the syllabus, just a general email like Emails were being sent, like messages in a bottle, multiple times a day --- and with no response.

In Week 5, someone at the provider finally checked that email account and contacted the instructor. It turns out the instructor thought the course started in August. Whether she was told the wrong date by the provider, or just decided to be a typical professor and deliberately mishandle calendar events, is unclear. In any event, there we were, five weeks into a 6-week course, with almost none of the required work done and meeting the prof for the first time.

To her credit, the instructor restructured the course so that students could complete the project in two weeks. But I'd had enough, and I dropped out of the course and took it again in August, where this time the prof was checking in on day 1.

The moral of that story

It doesn't matter how good your planning, intentions, or even your pedagogy are for an online course if you do a poor or nonexistent job of planning how you'll communicate.. This MOOC was pretty well designed from the standpoint of Steps 1-6 that I've written about. Even the communication itself --- once the instructor finally logged in --- was good. But all of it was wasted, because of a catastrophic failure in planning the communication in the course. Communication has to be planned just like everything else. You can't assume that it's going to just happen --- as it might in a face-to-face course where communication has a natural, 2-3x per week context when you meet.

Building a plan for communication requires answering three questions:

  1. How, and when, will you (the instructor) communicate with students?
  2. How will students communicate back to you?
  3. How will students communicate with each other?

As we saw with my MOOC, it only takes one of these connections to break down in order for all communication  in the course to fall apart. In my case, communication between students was OK (we had the discussion board) but the instructor wasn't clear on how and, especially, when she would communicate with students, and there was no reliable way to know if student feedback was being received and read.

How and when will you communicate with students?

There are two parts to the "how": the tools used for communication, and the tone you choose to take.

Choosing communication tools is tricky because there are so many of them, some are better suited than others for specific use cases, you can't use them all, and it's often not a good idea to use just one. The choice of tools can also be biased by the institution's specific IT setup. (For example I can see some institutions having a fit if a prof used WhatsApp for course communication.) So I would just say that the choice of tools needs to be carefully thought out as part of the course building process, and offer some general principles to guide the choices:

  • Use as few tools as possible. Using lots of communication tools all the time creates extraneous cognitive load and sets up the potential for having to check multiple inboxes every day. If you can do everything you need with one tool, then that's great. You might need more than one. But if you have several --- email and Slack and LMS announcements and FlipGrid, etc. --- then start thinking about which ones to drop.
  • Coordinate the use of multiple tools. The situation you don't want is where you are posting information to multiple places, and you make a mistake and post different information in different places. For announcements, my practice lately has been to write announcements in a text editor, then copy and paste into our LMS and then into the discussion board (which is separate from the LMS). This write once, paste everywhere  practice keeps this from happening. Using as few tools as possible makes it easier to coordinate them, so that there's only 1-2 sources of truth in your course.
  • Use tools that facilitate student use and feedback. We want communication to be two-way and ongoing, not just a broadcast, so it's good to avoid tools that default to one-way. For example, LMS announcements shouldn't be the only communication we use. Even email can be problematic; although it's easy for one student to respond to a message, it's quite cumbersome for a multi-person conversation to take place.
  • Use tools that facilitate multimedia. Since we communicate with each other in real life not only through text but through sound, video, and images, tools that make it easy to go beyond text are preferable to those that don't. Here again email can be problematic; sure, you can attach things, but attaching forces multimedia content out of the main stream of a conversation.

For my part, I've been defaulting to three tools in my online and hybrid courses, based on these principles:

  • Blackboard for official announcements and for submitting and getting feedback on student work;
  • CampusWire for all other communications; and
  • Email for duplicating announcements and CampusWire posts, and for receiving "Email the instructor" requests from WeBWorK.

As for the tone you take, this is simpler because we know what good communication looks like: It's respectful, professional, direct and to the point without being too terse, prompt, uses clear and simple language whenever possible, and it invites responses. Bad communication is any combination of the opposites of these: snarky, condescending, or accusatory; or overly informal and familiar (think text message-speak); or needlessly slow in response; or overcomplicated or rambling; or dumbed-down or overly terse. Yes, doing this right is hard. Model the behavior your want to see, and have a plan for when you communicate.

As for when to communicate, I've written about this before. Despite appearances, I don't think students want 24/7 availability so much as the assurance that they'll get a prompt reply, reliably. My own standard is that I initiate communications in an online course once per weekday via a course announcement that includes a recommended schedule and task list for students for that day; I leave them alone on weekends; and any return message that requires a response gets one within 24 hours. There are also times when communication with particular students is a higher priority; for example if a student has disappeared from the course, it's good to make an effort to contact them in multiple ways (not just email!) at a higher frequency, to try and re-establish contact.

How will students communicate?

There's not much to add here. Students will communicate back to you and in a backchannel with each other primarily based on the tools you choose for the course. They will find ways to communicate with each other whether you choose good tools or not; I've seen several examples of students forming unsanctioned WhatsApp group texts with classmates during the pandemic. This is in some ways good, because at least students are building some form of learning community. But it's better if the learning community is in the open, and you're part of it.

That idea of learning community is perhaps at the heart of the entire concept of communication. What you want is to work with your students, both individually and as a whole group, working together toward building mastery of the course learning objectives and helping each other out along the way, rather than having group texts going on behind our backs because we didn't think hard enough about communication and just defaulted to the most convenient tools (probably just email) rather than the ones that best facilitate mastering the learning objectives.

Picking tools that do this, and then using them at times and in ways that build mutual trust and community, is what this step is all about. You saw with my MOOC how this can fail, and in fact almost every failure I've experienced as a teacher in 20+ years of doing this job is, at its heart, a failure to communicate, either in the planning or the tool choices or the execution. But when my students have been successful, they've always had good communication on their side.

So... there you have it. Seven steps that constitute simple, incremental movements toward getting good at online teaching and not just surviving an emergency pivot. These are all things that are under our control, don't require major acquisitions of new skills, apply to both face-to-face and online instruction, and build on what we already do that's good.

Over the last three months, online teaching has leapfrogged from a niche in higher education to a primary feature. While we didn't choose this, we can choose how we respond and adapt, and I hope this series has helped you respond and adapt in a positive, student-centered way that embraces new challenges and, despite all the changes, keeps the focus on student success --- as it's always been.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.