Being a Successful Online Learner – Online Communication Skills

Writing Clearly

Have you ever been in a class, group, or meeting and been tempted to ask a peer, “What is your point?” The same thing can happen in an online course when people make contributions that are, long, poorly organized, or difficult to read. Becoming a productive part of an online learning community means you must already know how – or be willing to learn – to communicate clearly and concisely when you write.

Of course, basic comfort with typing is essential, but clear written communication begins before the writing takes place. Read all assignments more than once to make sure the task and assessment criteria are clear to you. If your peers have already begun a discussion assignment, “listen” to their ideas. Read their postings carefully and take notes on their ideas. If possible, pay special attention to contributions to which the instructor responds positively. When you have the necessary background for the task, you are ready to begin writing. Rather than composing a contribution directly in the course environment, however, sketch out your ideas in a word processing program or text editor beforehand. Write “out loud” – that is, type out what you’re thinking. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar at first, and develop shorthand that makes sense to you. Concentrate on expressing your thoughts. You can edit them later.

A few more simple guidelines can help you produce clear, effective written contributions to your course.

  1. Keep your sentences short. Watch for run-on sentences that don’t provide breaks between ideas
  2. Keep your paragraphs short—no more than 4-5 sentences or lines of text
  3. Use white space to make your posting more readable. For example, use two hard returns to separate paragraphs or parts of your response
  4. Even if correct spelling and grammar are not required, use the spell-check and grammar features of your word processing program to help catch careless errors
  5. When you think you are finished composing a response, wait a few minutes. Then read your posting out loud before you submit it. Fix any awkward or unclear spots before you post the final version

When your writing is ready for the class to see, you may be able to use your word processor’s copy feature to copy what you have written and paste it into the course environment. Ask your instructor for directions if you are unsure how to do this. As you are writing, you may find you have more questions about the ideas you are reading and working with. Posting a question to a peer during a discussion is a wonderful way to join a discussion and ensure that your responses are as effective as possible. Likewise, you can always ask your instructor for tips on how to improve your discussion contributions.

Consider Alternative Views

Listening is just as important in an online classroom as it is in a traditional classroom or face-to-face conversation, especially when your peers are presenting views and ideas that are new to you. There are several ways to listen and be considerate of other views in an online learning environment. Read others’ postings and ideas several times, whether or not you are asked to respond. Printing uses valuable resources and encourages you to consume information passively. It is more useful and efficient to open a word-processing program or text editor, and summarize or paraphrase what you are reading. In these notes, recast your peers’ ideas in your own words. Include key words and phrases. Be sure to enclose direct quotes in quotation marks and identify the author, so that you do not accidentally plagiarize someone else’s words or ideas later in the course.

Ask for clarification if you do not understand a peer’s contribution. If you are asking a question for clarification, make a polite statement first, such as “Thank you for your idea” or “I have never thought about this perspective before.” Show you have thought through the person’s ideas first, and work hard not to make your question sound impolite or hostile.

Do not just say "I agree" or "I disagree" without supporting why you have this opinion. You must write all your postings in academic style. Using text language (such as u for you) is not acceptable in an academic setting.

Responding vs. Reacting

Often you will be required to join in a class discussion and respond to other postings. These discussions may become complex, intense, and even provocative. Before you send off a hastily written, emotionally based reaction to another’s contribution, turn to a word-processing program and develop your ideas into a less emotional and more reasonable response. Then wait a few minutes and reread what you have written before you make your posting public. Learning how to turn a reaction into a response will make your course contributions more meaningful – and likely earn you a higher mark for participation, if participation counts toward your grade. Pausing and rereading also gives you the opportunity to review your writing for organization, clarity, and correctness.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Environments

Communication in online courses is of two different types: synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous communication takes place in “real-time,” or at the same time. To be online at the same time as your peers and interact with them is to communicate synchronously. Chat and instant messaging are two examples of synchronous communication tools. Chat sessions and instant messaging can have a lively, immediate feel, and may feel casual or conversational in tone.

On the other hand, asynchronous communication takes place over time, not requiring group members to be online simultaneously. Email, discussion forums, and bulletin boards are examples of asynchronous communication often used in online courses. With asynchronous communication tools, you browse, read, and respond at your own pace to what others have already sent or posted.

Your online course may use one or many of these tools. If possible, practice with the tool before the assignment takes place. Ask your instructor for help if you are unsure how a tool works before you need to use it.