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Online learning and effective communication

Joanne M McInnerney and Tim S Roberts
Central Queensland University
The academic who will be most effective in the teaching role is likely to be the one who inspires students to want to learn. For such an academic, there are many decisions to make, but the most important is the decision of how to communicate with students. Does he or she treat the student as a person with ideas, or as an object or number who has to be dealt with: interpersonal or impersonal? Academics, administrators, and students alike have to understand that there are many differences between the face-to-face and online learning environments. This paper discusses some of the ways in which effective communication can be enabled to occur between academics and learners online, thereby providing the optimum possible learning environment for students.


Academics are employed to teach and assist students in their learning. This paper discusses the archetypical student and academic, and the problems of online communication.

Educational institutions have recently been opening their doors to an ever-increasing number of people who would once have been denied a university education (Herman & Mandell, 1999). This has resulted in a growth in the diversity of students. Today, education can no longer be about elitism - it has to be about the nature of learning.

A real problem for academics planning to teach online courses is that much of the available literature on this subject is still preliminary - technologies are still evolving, and substantive documented results are scarce. Academics often have to develop their own guidelines and wait for the research to prove them right or wrong in their approach to online teaching and learning (Muirhead, 2001). This naturally causes some to think twice about developing online courses.

Archetypes - students

Powell, McGuire and Crawford (1999) state that there are three types of students: (a) the conventional student, (b) the non-conventional student and (c) the contemporary student.

Conventional students are those who progress to university straight from secondary school.

Non-conventional students are employed adults who may already have either a tertiary qualification or business accreditation.

Contemporary students are a merging of the conventional and non-conventional student types. This merge has occurred because students now have to bear the burden of the ongoing costs of their own education.

Archetypes - educators

There is among many academics a resistance to the online learning concept, and this is typically expressed in a number of ways: This resistance is often because the academics themselves may feel threatened by the proposed changes. Academics should not feel that either they or their positions are threatened by the introduction of online learning processes. By necessity, academics should be at the forefront of ideas and they should be assured that new methods of delivery in no way threaten their positions within the institution.

Many enjoy the face-to-face interaction of teaching and are loath to relinquish it simply because the responsiveness of students may, in their eyes, be diminished (Jones, 1996). Academics may also feel that, as with distance learning, they will lose control of their course material and how it will be taught. In fact, the reverse is usually the case (Jones, 1996). This is because changes that can be made quickly to web-based courses cannot be included in standard distance education materials until the next print run.

Based on the study undertaken by Powell et al (1999), it can be extrapolated that archetypical academics in many ways resemble the archetypical student: conventional academics are those who only want to teach face-to-face and have usually been in academia for some years. They are often not comfortable with computers. On the other hand, the non-conventional and/or contemporary educator has joined academia after some years in the non-academic workforce.


Academics and students are used to the standard forms of communication. They are accustomed to reading 'body language'. Hislop and Atwood (2000) when discussing the complexities of communication indicate that 'Communication delay is a significant variable in face-to-face communication...' and '... conversations are grounded in context...'. They state that the longer the delay in conversational context the more the value of that conversation's information declines. Communication protocols may also be gender-specific. Unfortunately, the gender differences can, and often do, cause difficulties when interpretation of social interactions (conversations) occurs online (Rossetti, 1998; Tannen, 1994).

It is in the classroom that the gender, cultural and age differences are most obvious. By contrast, communication online can and often is gender anonymous, as many students will use either 'nicknames' or their student identification number when communicating with their facilitators online.

While many students and academics enjoy the face-to-face interaction of teaching and learning because of the responsiveness it gives (Jones, 1996), they do not necessarily follow the first rule of good communication. This rule stresses that one has to communicate clearly in order to avoid any likelihood of misunderstanding. Questions that may be worth pondering are:

The answer to both questions is often no. Academics do not always communicate clearly with their students or others. With the ever-increasing variety of educational institutions that potential students can choose from, no educational institution can afford to have its own academics alienate potential sources of income. This is perhaps a pragmatic and commercial way of looking at tertiary education, but it is one that many institutions consider to be the guiding light to institutional success.


Academics all too often assume that students arrive at university with a high level of understanding and knowledge of the courses that they, as students, will be undertaking. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. Many students will be new to the tertiary learning environment and this places everyone at a disadvantage simply because assumptions may be made, and this in turn means that effective communication may not take place. Therefore, it becomes a matter of prime importance for the academic to ensure that all explanations are clear and in appropriate language, and that all involved in the learning process have a familiarity with the technology being used.

When communication takes place in a university setting certain expectations are placed on both parties. From the perspective of the student, the most basic expectation required of is that they will be taught the information that is needed to pass the course. Academics on the other hand expect students to be attentive, ask questions that are relevant, do all the necessary work placed before them, and to ask for clarification of anything that is not understood. Both sets of expectations will collide if imperfect communication occurs.

Communicating online

It now becomes necessary for the academic to choose how he or she will communicate within the online course. This choice may well determine the success or failure, in educational terms, of that course.

Priest (2000) states that there are several areas in online learning that students require the academic and the parent institution to address:

It is the academics who have to take the lead in the area of communication, and it is their ability to communicate which will help defuse any misunderstandings that may occur. For academics, the focus when communicating should be on information and interaction. To achieve this successfully, both parties should be clear about what it is that they want to communicate to each other.

Once the commitment has been made to teach a set of courses online, the academics concerned must refine and define the method of communication to be used by all involved. If one concedes that face-to-face or interpersonal communication is often difficult and fraught with misunderstandings, then the concept of conducting clear communication in the online environment becomes something akin to a miracle.

Communication in an online environment is primarily via the Web, email, user specific chat rooms, or message boards, therefore, there is no body language to read, and the protocols of any conversations that may occur in this medium are not predetermined. It is the academics' responsibility to outline clearly to the students exactly which protocols are required and acceptable, and which are not.

The decline in the value of conversational context, mentioned by Hislop and Atwood (2000), is one of the most important aspects of online communication that the academic has to address when designing online courses. When teaching face-to-face, academics have some ability to read the body language of students. Such signals do not translate into the online environment, so the academic has to formulate other methods to gauge the scope of the students' understanding.

How should academics communicate with students who are studying in the online flexible mode? White (2000) describes a process known as the 'Interpersonal - Impersonal Continuum'. In this process, academics have to realise that their students are human beings, and are likely to learn more readily if they are treated as individuals.

Regular users of the email environment have inevitably become aware of the limits this technology places on their own and others' ability to socially interact. No matter what the email authors' intent in a message, it can be misread or misinterpreted by the reader. Social awareness, interaction, and politeness can be lost if the correspondence is in any way depersonalised.

It is the academic who has to institute the interpersonal form of. One way in which this occur is to have an open discussion email list or course specific chat room or an electronic notice board, where students can reflect upon how they are coping with their learning experience. Academics who facilitate online courses also have to clearly communicate their expectations to their students. They have to encourage students to be open, friendly and reflective when they communicate online.

Email can often be an anonymous environment where students can express their views and 'speak up' when problems arise. It is critical that both students and academics feel comfortable expressing themselves in this format. If many of the participants do not feel comfortable expressing themselves in this manner then the interaction between all parties, which is essential for the success of any online course, will not occur. When this happens there may be little that can be done to salvage the communication component of their course.

When communicating online all who are involved in the area of teaching and learning have to learn to fill in the blanks that are left when they are not able to 'read' the body language of the people to whom they are 'talking'. Lewis (2000) asserts that it is

"helpful (to) engage in the WRITE way to communicate online.
(W)arm, (R)esponsive, (I)nquisitive, (T)entative, and (E)mpathetic."
Lewis' WRITE concepts use emoticons, warmth, promptness, and the ability to place oneself in someone else's shoes. If academics can manage to incorporate these concepts into their teaching then they will increase the ability of all concerned to succeed.

Academics should also be aware that one of the prime requirements of this medium is their 'accessibility'. When deciding to participate in the teaching of an online course, academics need to be as self-motivated and self-disciplined as their students. Prompt and meaningful responses to inquiries, questions and assessment items are essential to good communications.

Students therefore should expect academics to present the courses learning materials in a meaningful manner, and to foster the communication environment required to encourage and facilitate the students' successful completion of the course.


When communicating online academics will not necessarily know the sex, age or cultural and religious backgrounds of their students, nor have access to other information commonly available in a face-to-face environment, such as body language. It is therefore important to ensure that no depersonalisation occurs in communication.

The creation and effective use of email lists is a normal component of online teaching and can be an efficient forum to use in the creation of interpersonal communications. This paper has suggested that many online courses would benefit if there were, at a minimum, two email lists available for student contact.

Because there are an increasing number of choices available to potential students, institutions and their academics, have to accept that students are their clients. They must woo these potential clients to their particular institution or lose them to another friendlier environment. Choice is of paramount importance for all parties. When designing a course for online delivery, academics have to remember that the mere collection and dissemination of information should not be the sole objective of an education. Despite a desire to learn, many students may also have to be taught how to think, analyse, learn, and ultimately how to express and pass on to others what they have learned.

Education should be about learning to relay and use knowledge, therefore it is the right of all students to expect this from their educational institution, and the educational institution's obligation to ensure that their academics deliver it to their students.


Creed, T. (1997). Extending the classroom wall electronically. [viewed 11 Feb 2002, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Herman, L. & Mandell, A. (1999). On access: Towards opening the lifeworld within adult higher education systems. In A. Tait & R. Mills (Eds), The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education: Patterns of flexibility for the individual learner (pp. 17-38). London: Routledge.

Hislop, G. & Atwood, M. (2000). ALN teaching as routine faculty workload. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Volume 4, Issue 3, September 2000. [viewed 12 Feb 2002, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Jones, D. (1996). Computing by distance education: Problems and solutions. Presented at the ACM SIGSE/SIGCUE Conference on Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education, Barcelona, June 1996. [viewed 1 Mar 2002, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Lewis, C. (2000). Taming the lions and tigers and bears. In K. W. White & B. H. Weight (Eds), The Online Teaching Guide: A Handbook of Attitudes, Strategies, and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom (pp. 13-23). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Muirhead, B. (2001). Practical strategies for teaching computer mediated classes. Educational Technology & Society, 4(2). [viewed 2 Mar 2002, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Powell, R., McGuire, S. & Crawford, G. (1999). Convergence of student types: Issues for distance education. In A. Tait & R. Mills (Eds), The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education: Patterns of flexibility for the individual learner (pp. 86-99). London: Routledge.

Priest, L. (2000). The story of one learner: A student's perspective on online teaching. In K. W. White & B. H. Weight (Eds), The Online Teaching Guide: A Handbook of Attitudes, Strategies and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom (pp. 37-44). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Rossetti, P. (1998). Gender differences in email communication. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IV, No., 7, July 1998. [viewed 10 Feb 2002, verified 19 Aug 2002]

Tannen, D. (1994). Talking From 9 to 5. New York: William Morrow and Company.

White, K. (2000). Face to face in the online classroom: Keeping it interpersonal and human. In K. W. White & B. H. Weight (Eds), The Online Teaching Guide: A Handbook of Attitudes, Strategies and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom (pp. 1-12). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Authors: Joanne McInnerney has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Central Queensland University in the area of communication, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Curtin University of Technology in Anthropology. She has recently worked as Program Administrator for the Faculty of Informatics and Communication on the Bundaberg Campus of Central Queensland University. Email:

Tim Roberts is a Senior Lecturer with the Faculty of Informatics and Communication at the Bundaberg campus of Central Queensland University. He teaches computer science subjects, including Programming A to over 1000 students located throughout Australia and overseas. In 2001 he, Lissa McNamee, and Sallyanne Williams developed the Online Collaborative Learning web site at In 2002 he was awarded the Bundaberg City Council's prize for excellence in research. Email:

Please cite as: McInnerney, J. M. and Roberts, T. S. (2002). Online learning and effective communication. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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