Thursday, September 13, 2012

How to Communicate With an Online Instructor – Tips from a Professor

One of the first hurdles of taking an online class may be discovering how to get in touch with the professor or instructor. In a traditional classroom, it can be quite simple to ask a professor a question and get an on-the-spot answer; however, establishing two-way communication in an online setting usually takes a different approach. Developing a plan for communication upon entering an online class is often a great step in the right direction.

How to Talk with a Professor in an Online Class - Photo by KarlHeinrich at Wikimedia Commons
Why is communication important in an online class?
Although many students may take an online class and never have any issues, it can be quite stressful to a student who is trying to touch base with a professor to discover that messages are not being received by the instructor. On the flip side, if a professor is trying to send a message to a student, prompt receipt of that message may make the difference in whether or not the student successfully completes the class.

Below are tips for successfully commmunicating with an online instructor.

Look to see how the instructor prefers to be contacted.

An instructor will typically list contact information somewhere in the class. Several places that you might check for contact information include:
  • Instructor profile
  • Course syllabus
  • Announcement
  • Assignment (some instructors make early communication part of the first assignment)
Make note of this contact information and keep a hard copy for future reference throughout the semester. The professor will typically include an email address, question and answer forum, or may include other means of communication such as a phone number or office hours. If the instructor lists a home phone number, pay particular attention to preferred hours of contact if listed.

Tips for Being a Successful Student in an Online Class - Photo by BuzzFarmers from Wikimedia Commons
Avoid making assumptions.

Online professors vary greatly in their approach to communicating with students, so even if you have taken a class previously and found one way that worked well with another class or instructor, do not assume that is the preferred method for another instructor.

Be careful not to make assumptions with various types of communication. For example, do not assume that the professor has caller ID and will automatically know that you called. Instead, leave a message with your name, contact information, and a specific question if leaving a phone message. Do not assume that the professor can receive text messages on his or her phone. If you send a text to a phone that does not receive texts, this could quickly lead to miscommunication because the person texting may not receive any sort of message indicating that the text was not received.

Keep in mind that professors will probably not work 24/7 within a virtual classroom, so allow plenty of time before due dates if you have questions or issues related to a particular assignment. You may not get an instant response if you attempt to contact the professor at 11:45 p.m. when the assignment is due at midnight! Some instructors may specify a period of time in which you can expect a response from him or her.
How to Email a Professor - Photo by Loggie-log at Wikimedia Commons

Identify yourself and your class.

Some instructors may teach multiple classes with similar class names and student names. You may find that an instructor may respond to you more quickly and completely if you identify yourself. For example, you might email a professor with the following information:
  • Your first and last name as it appears in the class
  • The name of the class as listed by the learning institution
  • Group assignment if applicable
  • The specific nature of your question, comment, etc.
Professors may request that you include other identifying information in all correspondence, so make sure to check for his or her requirements. It helps to be as specific and clear as possible when asking questions. For example, if you are disputing a test question, provide the nature of the test question, the answer you think is correct, and supporting data from the class.

Carefully read your correspondence before posting/sending.

Some professors will post a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section in class. Your question may already be answered in that area. Question and Answer forums or discussions are another great resource for students who may have questions. Sometimes other students may respond quickly with accurate information or may direct peers to the place to find answers to questions that are posted in forums or discussion boards.

Miscommunication can easily occur if a message is unclear. Take a few moments to read a message before sending or posting. Look for typos, omitted words, and other mistakes that could change a message entirely from the intended message. If you read your message and it does not make sense or seems unclear to you, imagine how difficult it might be for an instructor to decipher.

It is also helpful to maintain a professional attitude when communicating with an instructor. Avoid sending inflammatory or rude messages. Do not send unsolicited forwarded messages. Using ALL CAPS in online communication gives the impression that the sender is YELLING. Colors can be fun, but some combinations are very difficult to see, such as combining red and blue, all light colors, or all dark and/or bright colors. If you need to squint to read the message, it is pretty likely that the professor will also have a difficult time reading it also.

If you are unsure of a message or think you have received an erroneous message from the instructor after reading it several times, feel free to contact the professor for clarification.

Trouble-shooting Tips for Online Classes - Photo by Overton 2012 at Wikimedia Commons

Ensure that you can receive messages from the instructor.

The virtual classroom instructor will probably give give expectations for how often a student should check into the class and look for correspondence. If you have sent a professor an inquiry, it is very important that you check for his or her response in a timely manner.

If students are required to use a college-related email system, it would be wise to check that email on a scheduled, regular basis. If you have the option to choose an email address, many students find it convenient to pick one that they already check regularly. Many online instructors may email students through the virtual classroom, so it is important to adjust privacy settings within the class to enable the professor to email you via this system if applicable. Update your contact information as soon as possible if it changes during the semester.

Sometimes simply checking for messages may not be enough. Ensure that your inbox is not full or nearly full. Some filters may send a professor's messages to a spam email folder, so if you think the instructor has sent a message that you do not see, look for other folders to which it may have been re-routed.

Make sure that your email is secure and do not share your password with others. It is also helpful to select a strong password that you can remember. Seek technical assistance as soon as possible if you cannot get into the virtual classroom, email, or if something with your internet provider seems amiss. A backup plan for communication in case original plans prove lacking can be a very valuable resource as well.
How to Keep in Touch With College Professor - Photo by Aaron Pruzaniec at Wikimiedia Commons

Keeping Communication Lines Open

Although many students take online classes and may never need to directly communicate with the instructor about an issue, having a clear plan for doing so can be a valuable resource that shows your commitment to excellence and effective problem-solving techniques, which are very marketable skills. Maintaining clear two-way communication may also help you to successfully complete that online class!

Find more tips, study guides, flash cards, and practice tests by Katrena at the Student Survive 2 Thrive site map.

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