Helping Students Communicate in a Remote or Online Course
Many of our students are already good at communicating online. They’re on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp (and whatever is next); they’re texting; they’re finding ways to communicate with one another through the tiny screens on their phones.
And that means that these students are adept communicators in specialized and peculiar ways of writing. According to Gretchen McCulloch in Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language (2019), people are writing more than ever before, and adopting and changing the rules of language. In particular, she says, the language for social media is unique, emotional, and informal.
That’s helpful to keep in mind when we’re helping students learn how to communicate in a remote or online course. Some of them already know how to communicate online – but they’re sometimes unaware of the rules of communication that will help them and their fellow students learn from one another. Other people are generally unfamiliar with social media – and (again) need help learning how to communicate online in a way that is helpful for them and their fellow students.
As instructors, we’re responsible to help them learn these rules (even while we’re recognizing what they’re doing well). So, the following guidelines lay out some of those rules for communication that will help them and their classmates learn. Most of the guidelines are generally applicable, important for a range of situations students find themselves experiencing in a remote or online course.
Guidelines for Communicating in Class (a resource to be shared with your students)
Use people’s names; have your own posted clearly.
Polite and engaged discussion is always productive.
If you’re in a particularly contentious discussion, wait before sending that email, posting that reply, or entering into that chat discussion; use that time to consider if your response is necessary.
No bullying; no name-calling; the same standards that govern student interactions in the Student Charter of Rights and Responsibilities govern our discussions online.
Make sure your contributions fall within your instructor’s guidelines for communicating in your course.
Feel free to disagree; when you do, look to understand someone else’s ideas and then, if you still disagree, say so, by pointing out the limits of the idea (and not the person); say, “That idea is flawed” not “You're flawed in your thinking” or “I can’t believe you’re not understanding how to calculate …”
Avoid flame wars (which means responding quickly, angrily, and frequently).
Try to avoid ALL CAPS; some people see it as shouting.
Be careful about the tone of your comments; sarcasm and humour are difficult in online environments and can be misunderstood.
Listen to understand, rather than oppose; listen to other people’s contributions so you understand their point of view.
Point out what you agree with (and why!) as often or more than you point out what’s wrong with someone’s idea.
Ask questions when you don't understand.
Understand that everyone makes mistakes.
Sharing your ideas is important; it’ll help other people learn.
Share links only if they’re related to the course material or if the instructor indicates they’re okay with you doing so.
Be curious and thoughtful
Ask questions when you don’t understand.
Ask yourself, “what can this person help me learn?”
Keep focused on the course material.
Allow yourself, and others, the chance to change their minds; say, “At this point I’m thinking . . .” or “I’m wondering if ...”
The list is long; and it runs the risk of turning into a list of infractions. Remember, though, it’s less about policing student behaviour and more about helping them learn how to communicate appropriately and, in some cases, effectively in an online or remote course.
A Note about Cameras
You’ll notice that there are no instructions to require students to turn on their cameras during a synchronous class meeting. Sure, you might invite students to turn on their cameras if they’re willing and able. But please don’t require it. Even though, as the instructor, you might find it helpful to have the cameras on (which you can say), remember that not every student is in a situation where that is possible:
- their connection might not be able to carry both their download video (so they can see you) and their upload video (so you can see them),
- they might be in a place or with people that they feel uncomfortable sharing with everyone in the class,
- they might be in an environment with unavoidable visual distractions in the background,
- they might be looking for ways to reduce their Zoom fatigue or their distractions, or
- they might not have a webcam.
For students who do turn on their cameras, remind them that everything behind them is visible; they will want to make sure that whatever is in the background is appropriate to be in view of the entire class.
Sharing these Guidelines
We’re posting these guidelines on the Trent Online website for students to see. Feel free to tweak these as needed for your own course.
It’s good to review this list of expectations near the beginning of the course. Some instructors even find it helpful to create it with students. Find out what their suggestions or questions are.
Then, when necessary, review it with students. Remind students of the agreement you came to at the beginning of the course.
If Something Goes Wrong
There will be times when disrespectful, ungenerous, uncurious, or even hostile communication happens. And you’ll have to decide whether it requires further attention.
On some occasions, students will see it before you do – and in some minor incidents, students can address the behaviour and its impact directly, by sending the person responsible a private email. The following sequence of phrase might help frame the conversation:
- When you …
- I feel ...
- Can you please …?
In more serious situations, you will need to address the behaviour. In some cases, when you see ungenerous or uncurious or (in some cases) disrespectful communication happening, a general reminder to the whole class might work. Sometimes an individual meeting will be required. In the most serious cases, you’ll have to bring in your Chair and then the Dean.
Zoom-bombing is an off-putting, even offensive and harmful, experience. Usually Zoom-bombing involves someone from outside the course gaining access to the Zoom meeting (by way of someone in the class sharing the link or by way combing the internet looking for Zoom links) and sharing offensive material in the chat or on the screen.
Here are some ways that you can avoid Zoom bombing
- Have a conversation with students at the beginning of the course about what Zoom-bombing is and what your response to it will be
- Start meetings with all participants on mute
- Never share your Zoom link outside of Blackboard
- If the class is small, set and manage a waiting room and allow only students enrolled in the course into the meeting
- Make sure that Zoom is set to only allow the host to share their screen
- Make it so that only Trent users can enter a session
- Make sure that students cannot annotate the screen
- Disable ability for students to chat
- Disable ability for students to rename themselves
- Disable ability for students to unmute themselves
- Have co-hosts who can help watch the chat and remove participants
NB: Not all of these settings will be appropriate for your course. Decide what works for you.
When Zoom bombing is happening:
- Take a deep breath
- Say that the material is offensive and does not belong in your course
- Share your screen (which will take away screen sharing from others)
- Ask all students to mute their mics, which might help to identify the offender (especially if it is a robot or algorithm)
- At the Participants menu, mute all participants and turn off the ability for them to unmute themselves
- Remove the person responsible from the meeting
You can also consult the Trent IT user guide for more detailed instructions for maintaining privacy and security while using Zoom.
Written by: Joel Baetz
Edited by: Centre for Teaching and Learning, Trent Online, and IT
Last Updated: October 25, 2020