Communicating Effectively Online

Effective communication in an online class requires careful thought because when your primary means of interaction is through message board posts, it can be easy to misunderstand others and have others misunderstand you. Once you post a message, everyone can see it. You may not have an opportunity to change it or explain its meaning as it is being read. Other students — along with your instructor — will develop a sense of who you are through their interpretation of the message because that’s how powerful your word choices can be. For that reason, it’s important to learn about the process of communication and what you can do to make certain that your messages are clearly understood

How Communication Occurs

The process of communication follows these steps:

What I’ve learned as an online student and online instructor is that there are methods students can use to enhance classroom communication, including choosing appropriate words, avoiding the possibility of talking up or down to others, watching out for exaggeration and generalization, and monitoring the outcome. A powerfully communicated message is one that connects with the receiver. 

Choose the Right Words
Because you are not physically present to explain what you have posted, the choice of words in your online postings become as important as the message itself because all words convey meaning. In fact, the words you use will either create a connection with others in the class or cause them to skip over it entirely. This is especially true if the words do not demonstrate professionalism and respect. Remember, your words are what represent you in the online class.

In addition, as you create messages to post, you need to consider if the use of technical jargon is appropriate based upon the level of experience, knowledge, and background of your class. If you use terms or phrases that other students will not understand, they are not likely to respond to it. Something else to watch out for is spelling and grammatical errors, as a poorly written message may create a negative impression.

Talking Up, Talking Down
As you create your messages and consider the words used, be careful of talking up or talking down to other students. Talking down occurs when you allow negative perceptions, opinions, prejudices, or biases to influence the message and overall tone. For an online classroom environment, it is helpful to remain neutral and avoid being controlled by emotional reactions. On the other hand, talking up is a form of communication where you try to make others feel good and win their respect through the use of flattery. Only utilize genuine praise when you want to compliment someone else.  

How can you make certain that your messages are not perceived as talking up or talking down to others? Reading the message aloud can help to clarify your thoughts and feelings, to make certain it has an unbiased tone.

Exaggeration, Generalization
Two additional methods of writing online messages that have a potential to lessen the effectiveness of your classroom communication is exaggeration and generalization. Exaggeration takes the form of overstating facts or distorting the truth. The long-term effect of exaggeration can be damaging, especially when the truth is discovered. For example, if you claim to be an expert in a particular field and other students later discover that you aren’t, your credibility may be in question. 

In contrast, generalization is used to cover a deficit in knowledge or facts without acknowledging it. The problem with generalization is that it may give the appearance of being inexperienced or unprepared. You’ll see this being used in discussion question responses when a student talks generally about a topic instead of providing specific examples or directly answering the question. Overall, when you compose an online message, state what you know and ask questions about anything else you don’t know or are unsure about. 

Conduct a Self-Check

Communication in an online classroom is a complex process, yet it’s one that occurs quickly. To best convey your ideas, it’s important to limit the impact of biases, opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices in the messages you post. You may be unaware of the extent of your built-in processes and filters, but a communication self-check can help.

Take time to consider what you’ve written, the intended audience of your message, how the message may be received, and the potential reaction of the receiver before posting.  If you ever post something and don’t receive a response, use follow-up questions to find out how it was received and interpreted. Remember, while you know the intent and meaning of your message, others may not if it’s not communicated clearly.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

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