To keep your students (and perhaps even yourself) from going adrift, regular and supportive communication is critical in an online course. Do not overwhelm your students with communication, but do have a plan for how to keep regularly in touch with them, because you will not see them in a classroom on a set basis. Below are some tips to help you with communication:
Start with a Clear Syllabus
Communication with your students begins in your course syllabus. The syllabus accomplishes the same things in an online course as it does in a face-to-face course; however, the need for precise guidance in an online course is great. In a face-to-face course, students frequently seek out the instructor for quick questions before or after class. Students in an online course may not find their options for asking housekeeping questions quite so convenient, and they may fall behind if they do not seek out the guidance they need. So clear information at the outset is especially important. Try hard to anticipate questions and sources of difficulty and to provide the guidance students will need in order to make their way successfully through the course. Keep in mind that some of your students may have as little experience with online courses as you do.
Clearly Establish Contact Information and Availability
It is important that you make your contact information easily available to your students. You might create an "About the Instructor” page that includes your contact information and the days and times that you typically communicate with students. Establish clear expectations for them: Is there a particular time frame in which you intend to respond to a message? Will your response times differ on weekends or over breaks? Students sometimes think that instructors of online courses are available 24/7, so set realistic expectations in order to dispel this idea. Provide also some regularly-scheduled office hours, during which students can meet with you one-on-one (over Zoom, the phone, or a different platform). This opportunity for one-on-one consultation with you is important for students in an online course, just as it is in a face-to-face course.
Another important practice is to schedule your course around your availability. If you make everything in your course due on Sundays at midnight, students will be asking you questions over the weekend. If you would feel frustrated about having to respond, then move that deadline to a time when you will be available to provide timely guidance.
Use Canvas Announcements
Posting an announcement to Canvas is less invasive than sending an email, because a student receives these if, but only if, they have opted to receive these announcements via email. For everyone else, the announcements will be visible to them when they visit Canvas. So this is a good option for providing regular updates, though it may not be the best option when you need to communicate something urgent, such as an important update about an exam or assignment that will be due shortly. When possible, provide last-minute reminders the day before the event you want to remind students of, because students who opt for a daily email containing their Canvas announcements receive these emails at the end of the day. Thus, a same-day reminder may arrive too late to be useful.
Consider having announcements appear to students on the course homepage. To enhance your instructor presence, consider using a video recording rather than text. Keep the announcements short, concise, and useful. Weekly wrap-ups, connecting material to current events, sending motivational quotes or videos, providing additional supplemental resources – these are all uses for announcements. Try to use a repeating weekly schedule for sending announcements so students know when to expect them.
Provide Timely and Meaningful Feedback
Regardless of how else you communicate with your students, do not forget one of the most important forms of communication: high-quality feedback. An online course will be, at least to some degree, self-paced. Even if there are synchronous components and frequent deadlines, students are still likely to be on their own when completing most coursework – as opposed to working through things in a classroom alongside you and their peers. So be prepared to steer students with your feedback, constructively and in a timely manner.
Use feedback designed to increase motivation, build on existing knowledge, and help students reflect on what they’ve learned. Be specific by providing feedback that addresses exactly what students have done well, what still needs improvement, and how to make that improvement. It is especially important to note what students have done well, as feedback tends to focus mostly on areas for improvement. Students benefit most by receiving timely and frequent feedback. When feedback will be delayed, provide reliable information about when students can expect to hear from you. For high enrollment courses, consider staggering assignments to decrease the grading load at individual points in time.
Options for delivering feedback within Canvas include speed grader, rubrics, and audio or video comments. Sometimes students may not know how to view your feedback. We recommend giving them instructions for viewing feedback early in your course.
Take Steps to Keep Your Students on Track
To stay organized and on track with their courses, many students rely on the to-do list that is visible on their dashboard in Canvas. When you add due dates to Canvas assignments, quizzes, and discussions, these populate in students’ to-do lists. This allows students to see which assignments are due when. If you have built any pages in Canvas with content that students are to review, you can also add a date to these: Check the “Add to student to-do” box under the page options that appear when you are editing the page. If you have other items such as events and office hours you want students to be aware of, consider manually adding them to your course calendar. Using due dates and the calendar to communicate all meaningful dates provides students with a comprehensive view of all of the tasks they have coming up in your course.
The “Message Students Who” feature in the Canvas grade book allows you to easily reach out to a group of students who might need a little nudge, words of encouragement, or congratulations. This feature allows you to send a blanket email to multiple students at one time. An added benefit is that while the instructor sends out one email meant for multiple students, recipients receive the email as if it were sent only to them. There are four specific assignment conditions you can filter by. You can “message students who…”
- …“haven’t submitted an assignment yet.” This could be used to issue a reminder to students about an approaching deadline or, after the due date, to notify students of missing work.
- …“haven’t been graded.” This allows you to update students who are waiting for their scores.
- …“scored less than [point value].” This can be an opportunity to reach out to students who performed poorly on an assignment and may be struggling in a particular part of the course.
- …“scored more than [point value].” This is a way to let students know they are doing great work.