Chances are if you’re a course coordinator or teacher, your communication pattern with students over the course of the semester looks a bit like this.
Hilly, beginning with a steep climb, levelling off to a slightly uncomfortable level until assessment is due, then ratcheting back up to unmanageable as students bombard you with email queries about where they should be, what they should read, why they can’t attend and what can they do about it.
And if you have continuous assessment, it probably looks like this.
So how to go about getting an inbox that looks like this, instead?
Aren’t ideals seductive? Ok, so maybe wishful thinking, but you can get your communications looking a bit more like this, and that would still be better, right?
It’s all about choosing your tool or tools, laying out the ground rules, and making them stick.
Let’s assume you’re teaching a fully online or a blended class. Either way, creating a sense of belonging and community in your course from the outset is a must. It’s the same as you do in a face-to-face class. This requires your presence at the outset. Whether you use discussions, a conference (webinar) or other communication tool, you need to gather the class, introduce yourself and talk to your students a bit about who you are and what interests you, and get them to do the same. If you’re using a discussion forum you can do this by posting an initial welcome and statement about yourself, and ask students as their first activity to do the same, and reply to their posts (or get them to reply to each other). There are a whole bunch of ideas here for online community building icebreakers. This is just the standard ice-breaking/community building activity which you probably do in your face to face class without thinking too much about it. Online it just needs a little more planning.
Now unless you’re happy to receive an email from students every time they have a question, and respond to the same question over and over again, it’s also a really good idea to have a course discussion area set up where students can ask course-related questions and have them answered by staff or other students and everyone can see the answer. You can use discussion forums for this, and there’s one set up in every Canvas course, or you can use any number of other Canvas or non-Canvas tools. Just pick one that has the appropriate functionality. To support this you need some clear guidelines about:
- how students should engage with it (check the question hasn’t been asked and answered before, feel free to respond to another student’s question if you know the answer, keep it nice, etc)
- what it should and shouldn’t be used for (eg. course-related questions only, personal questions by email)
- how it will be monitored by staff (questions answered within 2 working days).
Flattening out the email mountain
This is basis of your communication plan. This is the first step in flattening that email mountain. There is example text included in every course queries discussion in courses with a template in Canvas. Or here, here’s another Canvas example. Modify it to suit your needs, and be realistic, particularly about your capacity to moderate the forum. Don’t promise something you can’t deliver, or that you’re not prepared to enforce.
Making it stick
And speaking of that, the next and sometimes more painful step, is to stick to your plan. Expect students to ignore it at first. Some will post course queries to the forum as instructed. Others will email you anyway because it’s easier, and they can. You must redirect any queries that are more appropriately posted to the course queries discussion.
Anything non-personal that you think others will also want to ask lives on the course queries forum. You can either transfer the email query to the forum yourself and direct the asker to the forum to find the reply, or you can ask the student to repost it to the forum themselves. You won’t have to do this for long; students will learn quickly that going to the forum is their best chance of a quick response.
This also becomes easier when the approach is consistent across your program or school. With a cultural shift it becomes the norm rather than the exception, so talk to your program colleagues about what you can all do to make the shift.
For further strategies for managing online communications and ideas for activities online, have a look at this Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation guide from Edutopia. The principles are applicable whatever the tool you choose to use. Remember, if this is managed well you can look forward to a far more comfortable communication stream with your students, but it’s not a set and forget thing. It’s a space, just like any physical space. You still need to drop in from time to time to make sure it’s still running and the participants haven’t gone off to the pub without you.