Communicating with your students is often the key to keeping them motivated to complete the course. Building in interactivity will enrich the experience and allow students an opportunity to network with colleagues as they learn.
When considering communication, think not only of instructor-student communication, but also student-student interactions. Some questions to ask are:
- How important is building an online community to the success of your CE course?
- Will you communicate with the students at all, or set up an automated system for communication? You could set up a system where students register electronically, are automatically given access to the course, and go through the materials without any instructor interactions.
- If you will be communicating with the students while they work through the course material, how often and where will you need to communicate with them?
- What methods of communication will you employ?
Facilitating communication in a continuing education course can be complex. Depending on the resources available to you, you may have to be creative in making "low-tech" modes of communication work for you. Methods of Facilitating Communication include (you may employ multiple methods for use in your course):
Email is an effective way to facilitate instructor - student communication. It is a fast and simple way to send confirmation of registration in a course, instructions on accessing material, and deadlines or schedules of when the course material needs to be completed. It only requires that each student and the instructor have an email account.
Email may be less effective for facilitating a class discussion. While an instructor can send out a message to multiple recipients and request they reply to the group, often students will only reply to the person who sent the message. There is the potential for students or the instructor missing out on parts of the conversation. Another limit to using email is the need for everyone to know the other students' addresses. It can be difficult for a student to start a discussion with the whole class unless they are aware of each student's address or have a saved message from earlier in the course to reply to.
Email Discussion List
The advantage of using an email discussion list or Listserv over email is that everyone only has one address to remember and the message goes to everyone. You often have the ability to set the reply option default to replying to the list which helps keep everyone included on the discussion.
Most universities have software that will let you set up an email discussion list. If you are in a university setting and interested in creating an email list to facilitate class discussion, contact your office of information technology to see if this is an option. Email discussion list software (one of which is Listserv) may also be used in corporate environments; check with whoever is responsible for technology for your organization to see if you can create a discussion list. If you have no institutional support for creating a list, you can also run email list software on your own PC or use a free list management service. The downside of using free services is that you may not have control over advertising that is automatically added in the posted messages.
PC Magazine has written an extensive article on setting up and managing lists available from their Website http://www.pcmag.com/. Type "managing listservs" into the search box and look for the Making a List article by Preston Gralla.
Below are two list management services reviewed by PC Magazine.
Discussion forums come in many names. You will hear mention of threaded discussions, but there may be several options available to you to facilitate subject oriented asynchronous discussion. If you are using course management software to create and offer your course, you may have a threaded discussion feature available as a built-in tool. If you are creating your course Website without the help of course management software, your institution may have support for helping you build a discussion forum.
The advantage to threaded discussions is that students and instructors can read all the comments on a particular topic without having the messages go to their personal email. Messages are posted to one place, so when someone is concentrating on the course, they can read and respond to messages without other email distractions. You can have several topics being discussed at one time without getting lost in the responses.
There are some services that allow you to create bulletin boards
or Weblogs (or "blogs) to facilitate a more basic discussion forum
on a given topic. Blogs are described as online journal entries,
but often there is a way for people to respond to the postings with
their own comments. Bulletin boards are generally geared towards
a single broader topic and don't have the same flexibility to branch
off and keep track of multiple topics from one bulletin board.
Below are a couple of the services that allow you to set up a bulletin
board or blog:
Instructions for creating your own threaded discussion using java: http://www.javaworld.com/javaworld/jw-03-1997/jw-03-step.html.
Chat sessions are useful for building a community among the students. It is an opportunity for all students to have a synchronous conversation on a relevant topic and share ideas in a "classroom" like setting. Chats also have drawbacks. Depending on how many students participate, chat conversations can stray off-topic and be difficult to manage. Because people are typing their responses, there may be long pauses or delays in the conversation. It may also be difficult to schedule a chat time that works for everyone if you are dealing with students living in several different time zones.
If you are considering including chat sessions as part of your Web-based course, decide upfront whether they will be required or optional. It is best to have prepared questions for the chat, so the conversation has some continuity. Before the chat session, it is also helpful to inform the students of any ground rules you'd like them to follow during the conversations. And, test everything to make sure it works before the first scheduled chat.
A list of Chat
resources from CNET is available at http://download.cnet.com/windows/chat/3150-2150_4-0.html.
Desktop Video Conferencing
In addition to Internet access, if you and your students have the ability to
send and receive video and audio, then desktop video conferencing
may be an option for facilitating class communication.
While it may be low-tech, but sometimes a having a telephone number and ability to call and talk with someone to solve a problem or answer a question is still the best option. When at all possible, give students as many options for getting to you and each other as possible to make sure the course runs smoothly.
A few other things to keep in mind when thinking about communication are:
- Making sure your instructions to students are clear and concise. Remember, students don't have the benefit of having you right there to show them what to do or ask questions.
- Remembering etiquette counts, even in the electronic world. Don't send messages to students in all caps because they might think you are shouting at them, be careful of wording to make sure your tone is not misunderstood, and make sure you know who you are replying to - an individual or the group. Think twice before forwarding a message from an individual to the whole group to make sure not to embarrass or make an example of anyone.
- Set expectations of how quickly you will respond to email and meet them. This is both for the student's and instructor's benefit. For the student it gives them an idea of how quickly they should expect a response; for the instructor it frees you from the need to respond to an email immediately, which can be difficult especially if you have another full time job.