Because everyone must be involved, the online learning environment offers a rich and diverse experience. Unlike on-ground classrooms, one or two people cannot easily dominate an online class. Everyone is expected to respond to every question, and thus participation is much more equitable.

In an online course, you have the opportunity to make connections with other students in various states and time zones, maybe even different countries. Communication in the online environment puts few limits on time and place. The classroom environment is also considered far less intimidating than a face-to-face classroom because almost all communication takes place from your own computer in your own comfortable space.

You can communicate online by using a variety of tools and avenues. Following are the more common ones you will probably be exposed to as you begin and continue your online adventure:

  • E-mail
  • Forums/newsgroups
  • Chat rooms
  • Wikis and blogs

E-mail

Almost everyone uses electronic mail these days. Proper computer etiquette is essential to communicate well online. Use these strategies when you are communicating in your virtual classroom.

E-mail Communication Guidelines

Even if you do not consider yourself a writer, as an online student, you will be. And there are certain conventions and considerations to keep in mind to make your writing clear, readable, and inoffensive.

Wallpaper

Avoid background wallpaper or setting your messages up to look like electronic stationery for online messages and e-mails. Although it may look fancy, it can make messages hard to read and actually slows things down between systems because wallpaper takes up more space in the computer’s memory.

Fonts

Although you have many options, there are certainly more acceptable fonts when sending messages. Avoid using an offbeat or unusual font, even if you think it is expressive of your personality. It may be difficult for others to read. If all reading is done on screen, stick with sans serif fonts (like this). Serif fonts (like this) are easier to read on a hard-copy page.

Make sure your font size is in the middle and readable range, generally 12 point. Large or small fonts may make reading more difficult for others, depending on their screen size and the keenness of their eyesight.

Color

Although it can be fun and interesting to use different font and background colors, resist the temptation. Some color combinations work better than others: A dark font on a light background is always easier to read and more professional.

Avoid high-contrast colors. For instance, stay away from blue text on an orange background. Colors should have medium tone or brightness so they show up but are not overwhelming on the screen.

As people age, the color red becomes harder to distinguish, so avoid using red for large sections of text.

All Caps

Do not use all caps. In an online environment, using capital letters conveys YELLING LOUDLY. In addition, depending on the length of your message, writing in all caps makes your message difficult to read on screen.

Emoticons

Emoticons are emotional graphics used to enhance your message visually. They are best used to be sure you clearly convey your intentions whenever you use humor, anger, or a subtle emotion in a message or posting.

  • Some people use the winking emoticon to denote humor :).
  • Another popular emoticon is the unhappy face to denote something sad in a message: L.
  • Do not overuse emoticons because they can make your messages seem silly or shallow. However, when used sparingly, you can put your point across and express the appropriate tone.

Note: For any of the word-processing functions just discussed, if you do not know how to manipulate fonts, colors, and the rest, ask a classmate or friend, use the tutorials included in the program, or do a search online for information on formatting documents specific to your word-processing program.

Spelling and Punctuation

Spelling and punctuation are just as crucial in an online environment as in a hard-copy business letter. You want to come across as an educated person. Although you may not be graded on your grammar and spelling in online discussion, it will certainly affect people’s perceptions of you. Poor spelling and grammar skills lead others to lower expectations regarding your intelligence and professionalism. Further, your intended message may be misconstrued, at the very least. Use the tools available in your LMS.

Abbreviations

Any of you who send text messages know there are many common abbreviations. (ttfn = ta-ta for now; ttyl = talk to you later, etc.). But for classroom communication, you need to be more formal and avoid slang abbreviations.

Also, clarity is important, and not everyone is familiar with these abbreviations. It is best to write out terms in the more conventional way. In the end, though, your instructor will set the tone for the class, so pay attention and follow his or her lead about the level of formality of language. In using more traditional abbreviations or acronyms, present the full word or phrase at least once before using the abbreviation or acronym.

In your online communication, be courteous, concise, and positive, but try to express your personality in your writing. You do not want to sound dry or like a robot. It may take you a while to find your voice online, but try to reach a level where your online communication is similar in tone to your voice communication in an on-ground classroom.

Other Online Communication Concerns

Reading Between the Lines

Communication is complex, whether written or spoken. When you do not have visual and auditory cues, you can easily misconstrue people’s comments. You do not have the same nonverbal cues to reference in an online environment as you do face to face, but you can still gain insight into people’s communication.

Different people have different styles. Pay attention to how people express themselves, and you will begin to have a sense of their thoughts beyond just their words as you get to know them. But be cautious in your interpretations. Your own moods and preconceived notions can influence the way you interpret other people’s communication. Usually, we can assume all messages are intended in a friendly, professional way, unless strong indicators within the message itself point in another direction.

Learning to Listen Online

In a classroom setting, you wouldn’t have the TV on or children running around. If you are working in the online classroom, though, there may be numerous distracters in the environment. Try to limit the background noise in the area where you are working and really focus so you can read online content accurately.

For some people, listening to music is not a distracter; for others, any noise disrupts their attention. Do what you need to make your environment work for you so you can focus and process the online content. Consider this: If all you have to add to a discussion is “I agree,” maybe you didn’t listen or process well enough.

Quality of Responses

Keep in mind that the online communications in your class may be archived for a long time. Any time you misspell a word or say something foolish, your words may live on to haunt you. Take the opportunity to think before you post a message to the class. One good approach is to create all your responses in a separate document and take the time to reread and fine-tune them before you upload them for all of the world to see.

However, we do encourage you not to avoid responding because you are intimidated. Too much thought might mean you decide not to post a piece that would lead to a great discussion. Again, there is a fine line. Here is an example:

Let’s say a fellow student made a comment about his boss that made you think the student was the problem, not the boss. You would want to respond. So do not talk yourself out of it, but think how you can get your point across without contributing to the problem or hurting feelings.

E-mail Addresses: Keep It Professional

During your program, you will need an e-mail account. Most of the time, your e-mail account is school sponsored. Be careful about the names you use because others will see them. Do you really want your e-mail to be sexymama@schoolname.edu? Choose your e-mail address name wisely and make it simple and tasteful. We recommend “your first name your last name@schoolname.edu.” It is easy to remember and, most importantly, clear and professional.

Knowing What Not to Share: Personal Information

Surprisingly, in an online environment, people tend to share more, rather than less, information. Sometimes people share too much, disclosing inappropriate details regarding intimate personal subjects in the guise of responding to course questions or assignments. Perhaps this problem relates to the anonymity factor, or perhaps people just get carried away. So keep in mind: Monitor your own communication and try to keep your communication appropriate. Steer away from private disclosure unless personal revelations are the specific focus of an assignment. Your instructor and classmates are wonderful resources, but they are not personal counselors.

Be aware that although you may want to talk about your employer and your job experiences, you should be careful about the information you divulge. Many companies have policies regarding disclosing proprietary information. Lastly, consider what contact information is appropriate. Some students create a signature line and include their phone number. Do you really want your phone number available on every single message you send? Your communication in the online classroom should be professional and courteous rather than soul-baring.

Review of Synchronized and Asynchronized Communication

Synchronized communication occurs when we are all talking and listening to each other at the same time, whether in a classroom, or over the phone, or through a virtual meeting. Everyone is engaged and participating in the communication at the same time.

Asynchronized communication occurs when we are not all engaged in the conversation at the same time, even though we are all participating. For instance,

  • The old-fashioned exchange of letters among pen pals
  • E-mail
  • Exchanging voice mails
  • Participating in an online discussion in which one person responds at 8 a.m. and is offline by 9 p.m., and someone else doesn’t respond until he comes online from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m.

Whether your course interactions are synchronized or asynchronized depends on the institution and the instructor. Be aware of the nature of any specific communication situation. If it is asynchronized, you probably have more time to review your responses. Consider giving others a chance to respond to your initial postings before you come back for more. The point of online discussions is to hear more than one voice, and the input of others may give you more food for thought.

Threading Responses in the Classroom

You must deal with a large number of messages every day in the online classroom. You can help others manage the sometimes overwhelming number of messages by creating messages considerately. Here are some examples.

  1. Use an appropriate subject line.

    During the course of a conversation, the topic often changes. Therefore, if the subject line reads “Week Two-DQ1” and the conversation has evolved to a discussion on time management, change the subject line. You should be able to maintain the thread with a new subject line without a problem.

  2. Place your message first when replying to someone’s message.

    The newest addition to the conversation needs to be the first thing read. Then be sure and include the relevant sections of the previous message, or even the entire previous message, so people can follow the conversation. Readers can then elect to read further if they need a reminder about what has gone on before. If the older messages are placed first and the newest at the bottom, readers are forced not only to scroll down to read the latest comment but also they must skim the notes previously read.

  3. Be attentive to the appearance of your notes.

    As mentioned earlier, avoid fonts that are difficult to read because of style, color, or size. The format should not be more important than the content. Keep in mind when reading on the computer screen that long paragraphs are difficult to follow. As a general rule, limit each paragraph in an e-mail message to five to seven lines if possible.

  4. Reduce confusion by considering a variety of methods of replying.

    Although most often a straightforward reply is appropriate, sometimes you can intersperse comments on each point in the original message, increasing the readability of your response.

  5. Exercise good editing techniques.

    In threaded discussions, editing of notes refers to removing those portions of the message to which you are replying that are unnecessary to understand your comments. Although it is important to include enough of the previous message(s) to place the note in context, you will seldom need to include the entire message. It is frustrating to download lengthy messages that include dozens of messages already read, and it is equally annoying to download a message that mentions research but contains no references whatsoever.