Online students typically lead very stressful lives. According to Classes and Careers’ “Online Student Demographics Infographic” (2011), most are employed (81%); have already had some postsecondary educational success (40% hold associates degrees and 20% have completed their bachelor’s); and at an average age of 34, are dealing with the full responsibilities of adult life (e.g., raising children, paying bills, etc.) all on an income of $40, 000 or less (74.3%).
Add to this the increasing rate of anxiety disorders among American college students, and a communication modality that takes the form mostly of black type on a white screen instead of the smiling face of another human being, and there is a recipe for communication disaster. For instance, a stressed-out, nervous non-traditional student in your online class who’s already wondering, Am I too old to go to college? may be predisposed toward interpreting a professor’s feedback in a negative way, such as a personal attack rather than constructive criticism on a project.
Fairly often as an administrator I have had to help a student process their way through their misinterpretation of a faculty member’s feedback. When I speak to the instructors, they are typically unsettled about the negative response one of their comments received.
Communication in an online class is different and requires care, especially when it comes to tone.
What Is Tone?
When people communicate in person, they make use of emotion to help transmit their message to others. They may sound happy to share good news, sad as they offer condolences on the loss of a loved one, or angry if they are expressing their belief that they’ve been ripped off on a product or service. That emotion serves a communicative purpose that also helps the recipient of the message also understand clearly where the communicator is coming from and how to respond.
Typically in person, communication involves visual, auditory, and nonverbal cues that help transmit the tone. People may jump up and down, waving their hands to share good news; lower their voice and eyes to express condolences, or stiffen their bodies if an angry exchange erupts. This applies to situations involving writing as well. A person may show excitement in a similar way while handing a wedding invitation to a friend or a sympathy card to someone who is grieving.
However, tone is shared in more ways than those described above. Take a few minutes to watch this video, “8 Types of Nonverbal Communication” (1 May, 2012). Consider not only the ways tone is shared in person, but also its importance to those interacting and how most of it is rendered impossible in the typical textual communication that occurs online.
When the face-to-face context is moved online to a discussion board, feedback on an assignment, or an email, the typical black font on a white background strips the communication of visual and auditory clues. People are left to guess at the tone from the way a message is typed. Place this within the context of stressed, anxious students who are worried about their academic progress, and it’s easy to understand why faculty must be very conscious of their tone.
Overcoming the Digital Barrier
There are some ways to overcome the digital barrier when communicating with students. Here are some suggestions:
• Adhere to, model, and require standard netiquette guidelines in your courses. Chances are good that your school already has a communication policy. If not, use or adapt an example, such as The Ten Commandments of E-Mail Netiquette from Study Guides and Strategies.
• Avoid using the first and second persons as much as possible and reasonable. For example, making statements such as: “I think you need to work on…” sometimes comes across to students as a virtual personal attack. Instead, focus on the process or product of the assignment: “The paper could be stronger if…”
• Be careful with diction as well. A poor word choice may transmit an unintended meaning to students. For instance, I often see feedback that starts off with something like: “You’ve got a problem with following directions.” To the student, this may come across as, “you’ve got a problem” or “you can’t do anything right.” This is especially offensive to non-traditionals who have typically had some success in the workforce and in postsecondary education.
• Consider using emoticons and text-talk abbreviations. For this, I would suggest using them carefully and sparingly. Consider the culture of your institution. Some schools encourage their use while others consider them childish or unprofessional. There is also the potential to be misunderstood. Have you ever received an email with an animated emoticon and wondered what emotion it was expressing? Be aware that just as different cultures speak different languages and use different nonverbals, emoticons also vary.
• Utilize technology. It continues to amaze many of us how rapidly technology is moving forward, especially beyond the original text-based Learning Management System courses of less than a decade ago. Why limit yourself to this? Why not utilize a webcam, a service such as Skype, and/or create audio/video files to communicate with your students? Podcasts, screencasts, and Jing videos are easy to create and share. They can be fun, too, especially if students begin to utilize these options. Additionally, multimedia feedback has been shown to be more effective than text, perhaps in part because more of those eight methods of nonverbal communication can be utilized.
Although no solution will provide perfect communication in the virtual world any more than people can be expected to interact flawlessly in other contexts, being sensitive to exchanges with online students and making use of some of the tips listed here will show your students that you do care about them and their academic progress. Modeling this will help build a sense of trust and community that will also be conducive to their success not only in your course, but hopefully as they continue on into their careers.
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net