Ensuring Effective Communication in Distance Education

September
2004
Pat James Hanz,
Michelle Pilati,

Effective communication in distance education (DE) must consciously be worked towards. Title 5 Section 55211 requires that staying in touch with students-"regular effective contact"-must be offered by all who teach at a distance, regardless of the mode of delivery:

district-governing boards shall ensure that: (a) All approved courses offered as distance education include regular effective contact between instructor and students, through group or individual meetings, orientation and review sessions, supplemental seminar or study sessions, field trips, library workshops, telephone contact, correspondence, voice mail, e-mail, or other activities.

In addition to achieving "effective contact," we must also be mindful of accessibility. In 1999, the Chancellor's Office published Distance Education: Access Guidelines for Students with Disabilities (available online at http://www.htctu.net/publications/guidelines/distance_ed/disted.htm). In it, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) further clarifies "effective communication," specifying the three basic components of effective communication: "timeliness of delivery, accuracy of the translation, and provision in a manner and medium appropriate to the significance of the message and the abilities of the individual with the disability." While these guidelines are intended to accommodate those with disabilities, they also are applicable to effective communication in the DE environment-communication must be timely, clear, and appropriate. This article offers advice on providing such effective communication.

Timely communication is, presumably, the simplest to ensure. In this regard, faculty teaching online courses are held to a higher standard than their face-to-face counterparts; online students are likely to expect immediate feedback and may need verification of the instructor's presence. On-campus students see their instructors regularly and, even if work is not graded promptly, their presence is never in question, and students know that their work has been received. Online students do not have this same sense of security and may easily feel isolated in the virtual classroom. It is imperative that faculty establish standards for response times that students can rely on. Faculty should clearly communicate to their students the preferred mode of communication, the predicted response time to all forms of contact, and the turnaround time for graded work.

A popular form of communication in online courses is the use of discussions, which may be asynchronous ("bulletin boards") or synchronous ("chat rooms") where all participants must be present simultaneously. While both allow for class discussion, asynchronous forums allow students to participate when they choose; synchronous discussions require availability at a specified time. Though "chat room" discussions may be effective in some circumstances, it would be unwise to make this a required element of a course. Students who take online courses often set aside specific hours to do their online work, not unusually when few other people are awake. Prior to scheduling a "chat," students should be polled to identify a time maximizing their participation.

On the other hand, an asynchronous format does not require the instructor to be present at the same time as the students. However, such discussions should not merely be created and left with no faculty oversight. Faculty should monitor the discussion, even if they do not opt to participate actively. We must clearly communicate ground rules for discussion participation and guidelines for how we will evaluate participation, particularly if it is a required component of the course.

Discussion boards can also help manage students' questions. Inserting a "Question the Instructor" forum into the course minimizes students' dependence on e-mail. By including a mechanisms for students to ask questions publicly, all students benefit from the answers provided.

Whether email is internal to the course (contained within a course management system) or external to the course, again, its use should be clearly communicated and guidelines offered to ensure that students' e-mails receive a prompt response. Online faculty need to make student e-mails a priority, just as a visit or a call from on-campus students would be a priority. Students should be instructed to identify their course in the subject line of their messages and should be themselves in the body of the e-mail.

Some instructors inform their students that e-mail is to be used only for communication of a confidential nature, such as grade queries, and should be used as a last resort. If such restrictions are placed on e-mail, faculty must provide another method of communication to accommodate the unique nature of online students and provides timely responses to their questions. If discussions are used to fulfill this need, the instructor must check the board and reply to it often.

Poor faculty response times are probably the most common complaints online students make, even though contact is required by Title 5 and a necessary element of a quality online course. Students' perception of a faculty presence may influence their retention. One student, whose instructor was present almost every day, even if only to respond to one or two students at a time, said:

I appreciated your quick responses to our questions and problems. . . . [In] one class the instructor would take weeks to respond and we never received any feedback on our assignments, graded after the class was over. . . . we had no idea how we were doing. I have enjoyed this class, and because of your involvement and comments on all of our assignments, it has felt as if you were right here with us . . I knew how I was doing from the beginning.

When online faculty make their presence known on a daily basis, by making announcements, posting in the discussion, or sending out e-mails, students such as these feel the presence of the instructor and will be more likely to persist.

These common modes of communication used by DE instructors can provide the requisite timely responses. With the freedom of teaching an online class comes the added responsibility of interacting with students who attending class all hours of day and night, who need their faculty-and rightfully expect them to be in regular attendance and communication. With some planning, we can minimize extraneous communication to devote ourselves to answering questions of substance and grading student work. We need not be available 24/7, but our students should feel that we are there.

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