Reimagining Online Communication

From UBC Wiki

This document summarizes our recommendations for how to effectively communicate with students in a large online classroom environment. It was written by Silvia Bartolic, Jonathan Graves, and Maja Krzic as part of the Preparing for Fall Program.


Effective online communication has several important goals:

  • To make the students feel like they matter as an individual
  • To create a supportive and safe classroom climate
    • In order to be able to discuss difficult topics and questions candidly
    • In order to encourage participation from all students
  • To help students learn how to communicate in ways which support learning
  • To achieve the learning goals for the course

Achieving these objectives requires the use of two key channels:

  1. Student-faculty (instructor, TA, etc.) interaction
  2. Student-student interaction

These channels exist in both online and in-person classrooms, but the ways (mode) of use by students and faculty  are different in an online environment, and often pose more challenges.

Key Considerations

When deciding how (and when) to communicate online, consider the following principles or considerations:

  1. Engagement is as important as content. Nowadays, content can be easily found online, but the interpretation of that content is needed to facilitate learning. Hence, finding ways to effectively engage students in the online environment is needed for both student-instructor and student-student communication.
  2. Online communication is different from in-person communication; it may not be effective to directly adapt in-person communication methods to an online environment.
    • For example, it is extremely difficult to emulate the “before/after” lecture chat due to the impersonal nature of online video lecturing systems. Use of deliberate methods/activities may be needed to help establish rapport (e.g. online icebreakers).
  3. Online communication is less nuanced and more impersonal, regardless of how it is set up (synchronous or asynchronous).
    • In text communication, tone is lost.  In video communication (even synchronous) physical body language and immediacy of interaction is lost.
  4. The volume of online communication (especially in a university environment) is much higher than in-person communication, and requires more attention to manage.
    • It is harder to ignore online messages, and students have many (both personal and educational) forms of communication they need to engage with.
    • Also, less is more! A high number of messages (or other forms of communication) is not necessarily an indication of effective communication.
  5. Accessibility issues change, and may become more or less acute depending on the method of communication chosen.
    • For example, time zones become a serious consideration.
    • We also need to be aware that some forms of communication (e.g. video conferencing) involve inserting ourselves into the private spaces and lives of students.
    • Students may not have access to the necessary equipment to fully participate online (e.g. bandwidth, camera)
  6. Students are (generally) already highly fluent in online communication, and adopt specific styles and techniques, but may not interact with every platform.
    • Most students already engage with online material in a variety of formats (e.g. taking part in livestreams, watching tutorial videos, chatting with friends, discussing with strangers).
    • However, we cannot count on students using a specific existing platform (like Facebook or Twitter).

General Recommendations for Effective Communication

Based on these considerations, here are some of our general recommendations to communicate effectively

  1. Be disciplined, parsimonious, and routine: limit your communication to pre-set and well-defined times and channels, and communicate the routine to your students.
    • For example, send an announcement at the start of the week and the end of the week communicating the course requirements.  Handle day-to-day items in the first 10 minutes of your synchronous lecture.  Have the weekly discussion posted on Monday and due on Wednesday.  
    • Try to avoid sending messages outside of these channels unless absolutely necessary; be aware of “message overload”.
  2. Provide individualized communication (esp. feedback) to students when possible.
    • Use a student’s name, and address specific students in synchronous environments.  Use tools (see below) to provide individualized feedback on assessments.
  3. Build a community around different modes of communication, and be explicit about how to use communication to support learning.
    • Explain how to use the different tools used in your course, and provide support and encouragement to students.  Make it clear to students how these support learning
    • For students who are not in the Vancouver lower mainland, help them form groups/connections with others in their time zone
  4. Create both formal and informal venues for communication, both student-student and student-instructor.
    • Avoid having all communication “task-oriented” (e.g. based on assessments) or requiring a formal structure.  Create casual environments (e.g. hang-out rooms, study forums, drop-in sessions, etc) for students to make connections.
    • Incorporate less traditional and fun bonus assignments to allow students opportunities to engage with the content in a fun way. For example, create memes (see APBI200 for example) or short videos about some topics covered in the course. Those assignments could be produced by a small group of students (instead of each student individually), which would enhance community building (this is especially important in large classes).  
  5. Engage undergraduate student leaders to serve as leaders for students in your course, either as TAs or peer mentors
    • For example, the PASS program in Forestry hires undergrads to help students learn material in challenging courses. The BIE program in Economics employs peer tutors to assist students in core economics courses.
  6. Adopt or adapt models of communication that students are already familiar with, and emulate them - rather than trying to force them into a new, foreign environment.
    • For example, structure synchronous lectures similar to livestreams (see below).  Use discussions that are similar to social media forums (e.g. threaded replies) but don't require a specific existing forum

Techniques and Tools to Facilitate Effective Online Communication

In this table, we summarize some of the tool and/or techniques instructors can use to facilitate the recommendations made above. In the "channel" section "S/F" refers to student-faculty communication, while "S/S" refers to student-student communication.

Tool/Technique Channel Notes Benefits Challenges Tools to Support
Livestream-style synchronous lecture S/F, S/S - When lecturing, encourage students to informally chat with one another

- Answer “raised” questions and/or periodically interact with the chat at regular intervals

- In large classes, use TA “moderators” or “channels” to surface questions

-Emulates livestream environment

-Keeps students engaged

- Encourages S-S/S-F interaction

-Record of chat can be used for participation

-Requires establishing suitable classroom climate

-In large classes, requires TA support to help manage

-Only suitable for synchronous lecture

Zoom, Collaborate Ultra - with chat function, messaging feature, and “raise hand” options
Discussion-embedded asynchronous videos S/F, S/S - Encourage effective use of video-based asynchronous content by encouraging discussion

- Respond to comments, and encourage students to respond to one another

- Set clear learning objectives for content and link to discussion

- Facilitates active engagement with asynchronous content

- Encourages S-S/S-F interactions

- Record of discussion can be used to evaluate participation

- Provides asynchronous interaction with lecture

-Involves extra step/set-up to produce (vs. utilizing existing recorded resources)

- Requires more time (TA, instructor) to respond and monitor discussion

CLAS, Canvas Discussions
Sending personalized assessment feedback S/F -After assessments, send targeting messages identifying challenges or areas for improvement, specific to a student

-Use their name and specifics of their performance

-Provides students with more relevant support and feedback

-Encourages S-F interaction

-Personalizes the online learning experiences

-Requires careful design and targeting to maximize impact

-Needs to be “authentic” (not ersatz)

OnTask, Canvas Message “who” feature
Set-up casual “hang-out” spaces for students S/S -Create online forums (discussions) or video “rooms” where students can meet

-Encourage formations of social networks in and outside of class

-Makes the online environment more social

-Allows students to make connections for studying

-Encourages peer mentoring and encouragement

-Requires clear guidance for students on how/why to use these tools

-Needs to be flexible and supportive

Collaborate Ultra “Course Rooms”, Scheduled Collaborate/Zoom “hang-outs”, Discussion posts, Piazza, UBC wiki
Peer learning and study opportunities S/S -Allow students to help and evaluate one another during the course, formally or informally

-Provide feedback on exercises or practice problems

-Create opportunities to grow and strengthen S-S learning networks (e.g. fun bonus assignments mentioned above)

-Creates stronger peer learning networks

-Encourages informal improvement and student assessments

-Encourage social interaction

-Requires appropriate curriculum design

-Extra steps required to set-up peer learning tools

-Evaluating peer learning + training necessary

Canvas peer review, iPeer, COMPAIR, UBC wiki

Further Reading and References