Published on 2014/03/12

Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Frequency, Type and Quality of Communication

Nurturing Online Learning Environments: Frequency, Type and Quality of Communication
Engaging with students using clear and concise language is critical in minimizing transactional distance between online educators and students.
Instructors’ interactions with their students set the tone and foundation for the kinds of success learners will experience within an online learning environment. Kathryn Miller, from Big Sandy Community and Technical College, shared her findings from a quality assurance study of online courses and noted that students valued their interactions with the instructor, often conducted through discussion board forums and emails. In a review of several studies to ascertain what students value in online courses, the University of Houston Clear Lake’s Kathryn Ley and DePaul University’s Ruth Gannon-Cook pinpointed that timely and responsive communications reinforce to students that “an instructor is present, available and helpful” (104).

During my personal experiences as an online instructor, students have commented that the time spent during a virtual meeting (when we are synchronously discussing course content and troubleshooting how to complete course assignments) serves as the best element of the course. My availability (beyond email and the series of discussion boards) and encouragement of all students to share ideas reinforce how learners’ needs and actions are central to this course. When learners frequently share their experiences and interpretations of readings and needs — despite some potential inconvenience of synchronous sessions — there is a greater likelihood that students will experience success within an online learning environment.

At a more fundamental level of communication, MJ Bishop of The University of Maryland System reminds us that how an instructor designs the messages he or she shares with online learners can support or undermine students’ success. Understanding and applying the underlying dynamics of the communication process has the potential to guide online instructors to form meaningful and coherent messages for learners. An obvious challenge of the online environment is not being able to use gestures and facial expressions to enhance our statements and interpret others’ messages. This challenge can be minimized through frequent use of webcams and videoconferencing. These challenges can also be addressed through more prudent application of the communication process. Becoming more sensitized to the existence of extraneous information (that may creep into presentations and lectures, or within visual representations of concepts), online instructors reconsider how they compose messages and which resources to select for learner use.

Judith Glaser, in “Conversational Intelligence,” reinforces the non-neutrality of vocabulary and how basic conversations, whether online or face-to-face, can create bridges or distance between individuals. Online instructors must rise to the challenge in selecting appropriate vocabulary and sharing well-structured and composed resources and directions to establish an online environment so their learners will thrive.

This is the second in a five-part series by Susan Farber on creating a nurturing online learning environment. To read the first installment and preview the rest of the series, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Yvonne Laperriere 2014/03/12 at 1:02 pm

I think the attitude of some instructors is, “You’re in my class so you speak my language,” which unfairly targets students who aren’t as familiar with how higher education works or who may have academic difficulties. This is a good reminder that clear communication is not a value-add or an option, but an integral part — a requirement, even — of curriculum building and delivery. I’ve read some of the literature Farber references, and it’s incredible the impact that communication can have on student outcomes.

    Susan Farber 2014/03/13 at 1:33 pm


    I hope that in the near future the kind of communicative approach (which you described) disappears as faculty recognize and are becoming more sensitized to the different discourses and communication styles of our increasingly diverse lifelong students (whether online or face-to-face).
    Thanks for joining our online conversation!

nontrad 2014/03/12 at 4:08 pm

As one of the “non-traditional” students you talk about in an online course, I can speak to the importance of having clear communication to avoid any misinterpretations. What my professor did was post assignment details in different formats. He would explain it in a short video clip, have it in a word document and also post it on our discussion board with the ability for commenting. This helped me and the other students know exactly what he expected of us, and we could always clarify if there were issues. I think what’s difficult about an online course is that people from all walks of life take it. Some may be well-versed in what university-level work should be like, but others (like me) may be taking something for the first time or may have not been in school for a long time. By posting assignments in different ways, our professor gave people with different learning and processing styles the chance to properly understand the assignment so we could do well.

    Susan Farber 2014/03/13 at 1:30 pm


    Your example of one instructor’s efforts to explain assignments using three different formats for communicating provides additional evidence of how student success is grounded in effective communication. Thanks for joining this online conversation!

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