February 14, 2014

Selecting the Appropriate Communication Tools for Your Online Course

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When designing an online course it’s important to carefully consider which tools align with the course’s learning objectives and the types of communication that will occur.

There are three types of communication that can occur in an online course—one to one, one to many, and many to many. In an interview with Online Classroom, Sara Ombres, faculty development instructor, and Anna Reese, production coordinator/instructional designer, both at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus, talked about how they help instructors select communication tools to suit the situation.

One to one: journals
A key strength of online learning is the ability to create learning communities, facilitate collaboration, and foster peer review. However, there are instances where one-to-one communication is appropriate. For example, a journal that only the individual student and instructor can access can be used as a way for students to reflect on sensitive topics in a less public way than using other tools might offer. Or in a writing course, perhaps students would prefer not to share their work with the entire class until they’ve made revisions.

In addition to being useful to the students, one-to-one communication can provide valuable information to the instructor.

“We have students’ journal about what they’re struggling with—things they may not feel comfortable sharing with the group. It’s really good feedback for us as faculty developers and instructors to modify and improve [our instruction] to better meet their needs,” Ombres says.

One to many: blogs
Consider using blogs as a way to provide students with a means to communicate to the entire class. Although blogs can be set up to enable comments from other students, they’re not the best tool for interactive discussion. Rather, they are an excellent way for individual students to share their personal experiences, reflect, and apply what they’ve learned, Reese says.

Blogs provide a sense of ownership. “Students can comment on other students’ blogs, but they cannot add posts to other students’ blogs. The blog is the individual student’s to do what he or she wants to do. And there has been a lot of research about how when students have that feeling of ownership it really does improve their writing and their level of commitment,” Ombres says.

Blogs also enable the instructor to clearly see the contributions and are good for tracking students’ learning throughout a course or even a program.

Many to many: discussion boards, wikis
The discussion board often is the default communication tool. There are good reasons for this. Discussion boards are easy to use and give everybody the opportunity to contribute. The key to using discussion boards effectively is asking the right type of questions..

The discussion board is best suited for many-to-many communication where there is not a single answer to a question or problem. Prompts are typically in the form of open-ended questions, but they don’t need to be. Students can respond to any content—a picture, an audio file, a video, etc.

“Some [prompts] lead to really good discussions, and there are some that are just more reflective questions that students think about on their own rather than sharing their opinions and counteracting others’ posts. I think [discussion boards] are most appropriate when you want students to learn from each other,” Ombres says.

Discussion boards are often informal, but you also can make them more formal in order to suit the goals of the course. For example, you can require students to include three resources in their posts, taking advantage of the asynchronous format by encouraging students to formulate well-informed posts, Ombres says.

Discussion boards can be used for debates and simulations. For example, an aviation law course uses the discussion board for simulating court cases, in which students take turns playing the role of plaintiff, defendant, and judge. The plaintiff and defendant each have a week to come up with a case brief and present it to the judge, who posts it on the discussion board for the entire class to debate for a week. The parties then have an opportunity to defend their cases, and after a week the judge makes a ruling.

Wikis also can be used for many-to-many communication, typically for collaborative projects.

“If you’re asking a group of students to share their experiences related to topic X, that would be more appropriate for a discussion board. But if you’re telling a group of students to create a paper that explains a theory that was discussed in class, then I would use a wiki,” Ombres says.

Many online courses at Embry-Riddle feature group projects in which students work together in groups of three or four to create some kind of deliverable—a presentation or paper that they create as a group. Ombres says that wikis have been the best way for students to work on these projects because wikis enable students to work on a single file without having to worry about whether it’s the current version. A major difference between a wiki and a discussion board is that a wiki does not really differentiate between individual students’ contributions the way discussion boards do. However, wikis do enable the instructor to view individuals’ contributions, which helps when assigning grades.

An important consideration
Learning outcomes should be the overriding consideration when selecting and using communication tools, Reese says. “It doesn’t matter how flashy the tool is or how excited you are to use it if it’s not the right tool for the job. It’s important to design with your learning outcomes in mind, figure out what you want your end result to be, and then choose the tool that will help you get there versus picking the tool that you really want to use and then trying to model your course or learning outcomes around that.”

Excerpted from Selecting the Appropriate Communication Tools, Online Classroom, 12.12 (2012): 1,3. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

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