Communication is the first hurdle for those of us who have been thrust into online teaching.
How do we keep in touch with our students?
Discussion boards, live chats, emails and video calls are the new normal — but no tool will work when you’ve got a confused student on one end and a struggling teacher on the other.
Thankfully there are some easy steps you can take to make sure neither your instructions nor your relationships get lost in translation.
Here’s what you need to do.
Mix different modes of communication
Your communication with students can be via text, video and/or audio. Each method has its own strengths and limitations.
Composing messages via text is arguably the most efficient way to communicate with students online. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Without body language or tone of voice, you will need to go to extra effort to ensure your instructions and feedback do not become too impersonal.
Videos are a great way to stay connected. Students will feel much closer to you if they can see your face and hear your voice. However, they’ll also need reliable technology for downloading or streaming — so you will want to assess whether this is possible for all members of your class.
A quick voice recording is an easy way to provide personal communication to your students. Just ensure that recordings are clear and concise. If you have an important message for the whole class, text might be a more reliable option.
Experiment with as many of these strategies as you like. A mix of them will keep things engaging.
Remember: There will be a teething period as you figure out what works. Be prepared for a few technical mishaps. They’re totally normal when you’re just settling into teaching online.
Develop a communication strategy
Avoid crossing wires by developing a clear communication strategy that your students and their parents can understand. This could go out as a document which includes:
An overview of the channels/methods being used
Make sure you also include information on how to access these. Break it down in simple, bullet-pointed instructions. Never assume parents or students will ‘figure it out’.
How students and parents can contact you
Your options include:
- Email: This is the easiest and most effective way for parents and students to get in touch, although this can translate to a permanently full inbox.
- Telecommunications apps (Skype, Zoom, Teams): These provide all the benefits of a direct phone conversation, without you having to provide your private mobile number.
- Live chats: Schedule regular live Q&A sessions. It reduces the number of duplicate queries, saving you time. However, it is not the ideal forum for parents or students to voice more private concerns.
Remember to set ‘office hours’ in order to preserve your own time. Demand will be high given the newness of the situation.
A routine for communications
Your students will feel much more comfortable with online learning if communication is predictable. Outline when during the week you will be uploading daily activities and posting feedback. You’ll bring back some of the structure associated with a regular school day.
Directions to essential material
Make sure your students and their parents know exactly where to find:
- the teaching sequence or unit overview
- the syllabus (for parent reference)
- worksheets and activities for supplementary revision.
The most common parent and student queries will be answered by these resources, so make sure they are accessible in a clearly designated space.
Relay clear and concise messages
Avoid miscommunication and having to endlessly reissue instructions by making messages tight and to the point. Here are some simple rules to abide by:
Less is more
Bullet points, lists and whitespace are so much better than walls of text. ‘Chunk’ your text visually with paragraphs so it’s easier for students to process — especially if you are dealing with multiple subjects in a single message.
Reduce the risk of confusion by cutting back on sophisticated or unnecessary language. Tailor it to your students’ reading level instead.
If you are issuing instructions via video, use some text too. Have a summary of the instructions on a visible whiteboard or piece of paper so that students can extract the essentials.
Use private communication for sensitive topics
If you are delivering sensitive feedback or addressing an individual student issue, do so in a way that is not visible to the rest of the group. Use email, private messaging or schedule an online call (with older students). This builds trust and safety in the online learning space.
Check that students receive your messages
LMSs often indicate how many students have seen a posted message, so take note of the numbers. If students aren’t seeing your messages, or they aren’t doing what has been asked, revise your communication strategy to ensure that the message gets through. Ask your students for feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
Convey the right tone of voice
Tone is easy to communicate with voice and video, but it is just as important to replicate in writing. Without it, students will misinterpret your messages — or simply perceive you as flat and robotic. Convey tone by using:
- Emotive language: This prevents your messages from seeming bland and purely instructional.
- GIFs and emojis: Even a simple 😀 lightens the mood.
- Proper language and grammar: Careful writing indicates that time and thought has gone into your communication. No one wants to receive a message full of errors or aggressive all-capital letters.
Remember: Even a two-minute greeting presented via video can set the tone for the day. If you are unsure how to communicate in the right tone, let your students see and hear the message from you directly with a video.
Make your communication personal
Personal communication makes your students feel cared for and closer to you, and it is this bond that will carry you through the challenges of such an unprecedented time.
Keep your communication personal by:
- Using names: This is a simple touch that indicates familiarity and connection.
- Self-disclosure: Let students know how you are finding your time away from the classroom. Introduce them to your pets and the hobbies that keep you busy at home.
- Off topic chat: Set aside a space for general discussion online so that everyone can touch base and feel a sense of togetherness.
Most importantly, be yourself. Make jokes, get pulled onto wild tangents, laugh and do all the little things that make your teaching uniquely yours. The teaching world might be turned on its head, but the connection you have with your students remains the same. They can count on it.