Communicating Effectively with Your Online Students

As educators, when we communicate with our students, we are looking to give, or receive, information and feedback that will help us foster meaningful relationships and achieve mutual understanding of core ideas. However, as we are all undoubtedly learning these days, communicating effectively in an online environment requires a little more thought and planning than it does in a traditional classroom environment.

In our face-to-face classes, we are able to immediate clarify miscommunications and use body language and facial expressions to help us communicate our messages. In the online environment, communication is often limited to text and images, received at a point well after they are originally sent. To communicate effectively with our students in this new online environment, we must first recognize that these limitations exist. We can then work towards counteracting them to create relevant, effective communication.

To do this, it is essential that any and all communication have a clear purpose. Why are you reaching out? What it is that you’re looking to gain from the interaction or, what do you want your students to gain from reading your message? In all online communications, strive to be as clear and concise as possible. As educators, we are charged with the responsibility of communicating in a way that is easily digestible, yet leaves little room for confusion or misinterpretation. And, of course, as the Ontario College of Teachers stresses, educators must always “treat students equitably and with respect”. Ultimately, it is up to you to craft your message in a way that achieves these goals.

Once you have determined the purpose and content of your message, you must then determine the best method of distributing it to your students. While email and learning management systems often present reliable options, many educators today are drawn to communicating using various social platforms, in an effort to better connect with the media-driven generation we seek to teach. The OCT reminds us to be cautious when using social platforms in this way, as many “were not created for educational purposes and their use can expose members to risk when it comes to maintaining professionalism”. However, they also stress that these tools provide “exciting opportunities to learn, teach, and communicate” and that these risks “do not mean they must be avoided altogether”. Instead, they offer the following advice to educators seeking to minimize risk when interacting with students and their families online:

• As a digital citizen, model the behaviour you expect to see from your students.
• Teach students appropriate online behaviour and the proper use of comments and images.
• Maintain professional boundaries by communicating with students and others electronically at appropriate times of the day and through established education platforms (for example, an authorized school webpage or designated “teacher” account, rather than a personal one).
• Maintain your professionalism by using a formal, courteous and professional tone in all communications with students and parents.
• Avoid exchanging private texts, phone numbers, personal email addresses, videos or photos of a personal nature with students.
• Do not issue “friend” or “follow” requests to students, and decline any received. Carefully consider the privacy implications of accepting requests from parents.
• Notify parents and your school administrator before using social networks for classroom activities. Check your employment policies to see if you are required to provide an administrator or parents with access passwords.

To ensure your communications with your students are morally and ethically sound, it is best to always remain sincere, but professional. Above all else, your communication should be genuine and should recognize that, despite the distancing effect of the medium, the communication between you and your student is real and valuable to, and for, both parties. As always, mutual respect and understanding can go a long way towards keeping the lines of effective communication open.

Rob Ford
OCT, B.Ed, C.P.C.O., TESOL, N.C.C.P.
Ontario Virtual School, Director of Marketing
Email: [email protected]

Additional Suggested Resources:
1. 5 Elements To Better Connection And Communication With Online Students
2. Best Practices for Communicating with Students in Online Classes
3. Effective Communication in Your Online Courses
4. The University of Saskatchewan on Effective Communication