Communication in an online environment: It’s a little different

iStudent Blog

Taking an online course is different than taking a class in person. An obvious statement, but I think it is a statement worth making. I remember my first semester in SLIS – I didn’t know what to expect or what would be expected of me. I remember wading my way through online forums, group projects, and online lectures. I made a lot of tentative steps.

Maybe you are worrying about starting an online program. You are wondering what it will be like or how you will learn to navigate. Or maybe you haven’t given it even a passing thought. But one thing is true, an online class is different than a face-to-face class. Not better or worse. Just different. So, perhaps to ease your fears or get you thinking about your first few weeks of class, let me tell you a bit more about communication in an online school.

D2L – Currently SLIS’s learning management system (LMS) is D2L, where you will log-in to access your classes. Each class has its own set of pages which is organized by the professor. Within the course pages you will find lectures and notes, readings, dropboxes for assignments, and discussion boards. Discussion boards play a big role in online classes. It is where you can share your thoughts and insights into that week’s readings or topics, much like raising your hand in a traditional classroom. Some professors have a required amount of posting to be completed each week. Other professors have a desired format for posts. Others don’t. But the professor will tell you what those requirements are during the first week of class. Luckily there will be plenty of other students in the class with you who will also be wondering just what to do. Usually there is a specific discussion board just for questions which the professor will respond to as soon as possible. I check those discussion boards every time I log into D2L.

Blackboard Collaborate – Often a course will require you to use or log into Blackboard Collaborate, which is like an online meeting room. Sometimes you will access a recording made by a professor or student, while other times you will need to join the online room at a certain day and time. These synchronous meetings (not found in every course) require you to have a microphone so you can join in the conversation. (I just recently had to give a group presentation in real time via Collaborate.) It often makes me nervous to join in these group or class conversations. I’m not much of a hand-raiser typically. But for an online meeting with only audio and no visual clues, using the microphone is very beneficial. While there is a chat box into which you can type your thoughts or responses, using your mic to share speeds up the meeting and gives life to an otherwise digital encounter.

Other tips and hints – You will also find yourself using email, Google Drive (or its equivalent) and Blackboard IM frequently. Email is a necessity which you should plan on checking at least once or twice a day. (I have all SJSU emails forwarded to my personal email account.) All of these tools facilitate your online communication.

As you start your online learning journey, I encourage you to remember a few things. Whether or not it is right or good, people expect a response from you as soon as possible. Silence in an online environment is deafening. Even if you can only write back one line that says, “I will get back to you as soon as I can,” it is better than nothing at all. You will at some point find yourself in a situation, however, where you are not receiving feedback quickly. It could be in a group project situation, where you don’t hear back from classmates, or perhaps your professor doesn’t write you back as quickly as he or she normally does. Relax. Give people a little more time than normal because often there are circumstances at play that you are unaware.

You must also recognize that there will be more chance for miscommunication in an online environment, where you don’t have the nonverbal cues that normally facilitate face-to-face communication. Always ask for clarification from someone before jumping to conclusions.

My favorite part of meeting new classmates and professors online means I have the potential to make new friends all over the world. As I have taken many classes in youth services, I tend to see familiar faces in my courses. I always try to say hi and keep the connection going. Online communication isn’t harder, only different. But it has its own rewards and benefits once you get the hang of it.