the online classroom


When communicating online, you need to know how to express your thoughts and ideas clearly in writing, how to use formal grammar and spelling, and how to use the various online communication tools available at your institution. You’ll also need to be aware of how often you’re expected to communicate in class, and learn how to decide which communication tool (e.g. discussion board versus email) to use for different tasks (e.g. asking general questions versus ones about your own work) is most appropriate.

Expressing Yourself

Boy yells through megaphone at another boy sitting next to himAs an online student, communication is a little different than in a traditional, face-to-face classroom. While there will be ample opportunities for social interaction, the majority of your communications with your instructors and your peers will take place as written text, without the usual non-verbals (facial expressions, body gestures, tone, etc.) most of us rely on to enhance our discussions. With this in mind, you’ll need to understand some basic rules for good online etiquette.

  • Respect others and their opinions. Respect the feelings and opinions of your peers even though they may differ from your own. Don’t assume that everyone shares the same views, opinions, or backgrounds.
  • Consider others’ privacy. Sharing others’ personal information without their permission is a no-no. This applies to private messages shared with you or individually or within a group. If you like what someone has to say and want to share it, ask first.
  • Avoid inappropriate material. Don’t post or share (even privately) inappropriate material, instant message language, emoticons, chain letters, jokes, etc. Just don’t.
  • Be seen as a professional. When communicating with your instructor and classmates make sure you keep it professional. This is especially important when you meet synchronously (i.e. using a webcam and microphone). Make sure you are dressed appropriately, not lying on your bed or driving down the road, and make sure there is nothing going on in the background that would interfere with your ability or the ability of your instructor or peers to participate.
  • Pick the right tone. Language can be easily misinterpreted in written communication. This goes for sarcasm and humor. Instead, keep your conversations straightforward and professional.
  • Unlock the Caps. Typing words in all caps that are not titles or headings is the equivalent of yelling. DON’T YELL! It’s not nice.
  • Speling and, grammor; cownt. Avoid social media slang and texting lingo. Don’t abbreviate words, use phrases such as LOL and BRB, or use emoji and emoticons. Be sure you use proper grammar and spelling, write in complete sentences, put borrowed sentences in quotation marks, and identify your sources. Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, all class communication, even instant messaging (IM), should be regarded as formal—correct spelling and punctuation apply.
  • Cite your sources. When responding to others, make sure your comment or response is accurate. Don’t just guess or make things up. And if you’re sharing someone else’s thoughts, be sure to give credit where credit is due.
  • Brevity is best. It’s unlikely that anyone will take the time to read through your tome when your response could’ve been more succinct. Stick to the point and avoid tangents.
  • Read first, write later. Before you write a response to a post, go ahead and read all the responses, including your instructor’s, to avoid repeating comments or asking questions that have already been addressed.
  • Read twice, send once. If you’ve ever sent an email or text message that you wish you could’ve taken back, you’ll know the importance of this one. Read your post, email, or message at least twice before you hit the Send button to make sure it says what you intended it to say.
  • Be involved. Your contributions help your classmates as much as they help you. In an online classroom you’ll need to speak up, ask questions, and share your thoughts. If you’re thinking, “Eh, not me,” think again. Some instructors make communication a requirement; your skills and frequency of interaction may be a portion of your overall grade.
  • Be forgiving. If a classmate breaks the rules for good online etiquette, let your instructor know, and let them handle the situation.

“I work a full-time job and have a family. An online program was the only way that I would be able to complete my degree. I expected it to be challenging, and at times, it has been. The support that I have received has been amazing. I actually feel much more connected than I thought I would.”

Communication Tools

Generally speaking, if you have a question that the whole class needs an answer to, use a group communication tool, like a discussion board dedicated to whole class discussion, or send a group email. If it’s personal–about your own work or grades, for example–send a one-on-one email to your instructor. With this in mind, have a look at some of the more common ways to communicate with your online instructor and peers.


This is the most common way to communicate with your online instructor and classmates. Check your email regularly, or you may miss something. For each of your classes, check your syllabus to find out how quickly your instructor will respond to emails. Is it within the day? Two days? Three days? Be advised—your instructor may expect the same response time from you. Make sure you respond as quickly as your instructor expects.


Yes, it’s old-school. But if your instructor posts a phone number and you have a complicated question about your own work or grades, a phone conversation may be the way to go. Just be sure that if you call your instructor, you do so according to the times posted in their syllabus. Upside: phone calls may be the most efficient way to talk through a complicated issue. Downside: there’s no permanent record. If you want to be sure you get an instructor’s answer for reference later, use a method that gets it in writing. Or, write a follow-up email after your phone conversation, restating the important points, and asking the instructor to confirm your notes as accurate.

Instant Message (IM)

This is a type of online chat with one or more people that takes place at the same time (or, as some say, “synchronously” or “in real time”). From Google Hangouts to Yahoo Messenger, there are plenty of instant messaging clients to choose from for your desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. To make things even easier, sometimes your Learning Management System (LMS) has a chat client built right in!

Skype, Google Hangouts, and other online meeting tools

Occasionally you may need to meet synchronously with your entire class, a small group of your peers, or just with your instructor. These real-time meetings usually require audio and or/video from all participants. Depending on the meeting’s requirements, you may need to use a program such as Skype or Google Hangouts. Some university campuses use more robust tools such as WebEx, GoToMeeting, Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, or Adobe Connect. Whether you’re meeting with your instructor or with your classmates, be sure that everyone tests their equipment ahead of time, and everyone knows what time (and in what time zone) a meeting is taking place.

Discussion Board

Depending on the learning management system (Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Sakai, etc.), an online course will employ a discussion board where instructors and students can start and contribute to discussion topics. Often you will be asked to post and reply to peers by sharing typed comments, but your instructors might encourage you to share your thoughts via audio or video, too.


ACTIVITY: Communicating in an Online Classroom

Knowing how to respond in certain online situations is important. The following activity introduces you to a fictitious student named Chuck who is seeking your advice on how to handle different situations as he completes his online class.


Your good friend, Chuck, has run into a few issues with an online class he’s taking. Since you’re pretty on top of your online classes, he’s reached out to you. Can you help him out?



Seriously? You’re just going to leave your good friend hangin’ like that? That’s cool. If you change your mind, let me know.


Choosing the best way to communicate

Hey! I’ve got a question for you. Well, more like I need your advice on something. I’m a little worried about my Russian history class. I’m having trouble understanding my professor, Dr. Ivanov, who has a heavy accent. I have my first test in a few weeks, and if I don’t figure out a way to understand the information from his video lectures, I’m worried that I’ll fall too far behind to do well on the test.

I’m at the point where I should probably contact Dr. Ivanov about my concerns. His syllabus says he’s available over the phone and on Skype between 10AM and 4PM, and that he’ll respond to emails within 24 hours. Considering I’m having challenges understanding him, what do you think would be the best way to reach out to him?


Phone call

Yeah, a phone call might not be the best way to communicate with Dr. Ivanov, since I’m having trouble understanding him in the first place. Is there a better way?



Hmmmm, maybe. Skyping with him during office hours is a great way to connect with him and get extra assistance. But since I’m already having trouble understanding him, that might still be an issue here, even if we talk via Skype. Is there another way that I could try contacting Dr. Ivanov that would help address my concerns about the language barrier?



You’re absolutely right. Since I’m having trouble verbally communicating because of a language barrier, an email would be a good way to address those challenges, because it focuses on written communication. Great recommendation!

Click NEXT to continue

Writing an email to Dr. Ivanov

I really appreciate the advice you gave me the other day about emailing Dr. Ivanov. I have to admit that I’m really nervous about writing him, though. I want to be respectful of him, but also ensure that I learn what I need to know for the course. I’ve drafted a few different email approaches, and I was hoping you could help me decide which email you think I should send.


Draft 1

Yeah, maybe this email isn’t my strongest. I mean, you understood it, but it’s not exactly professional, is it? Besides, I didn’t include my name or which class I’m enrolled in. I should probably also include a greeting and avoid the text lingo. Ugh! I’m so stressed. Is one of my other two drafts worth sending?


Draft 2

Yeah, this is definitely the one. This email contains a lot of important information that will help Dr. Ivanov recognize who I am. I made sure to include my name, the class I’m enrolled in (including the section number), when the class meets, and the issue I’m having. And, since emailing a professor is considered a “formal” type of communication, it’s important that I make sure my emails are always polite, include correct spelling and grammar, and have both a greeting and a closing. Man, thanks a bunch. I really appreciate you taking the time to read through my draft. I’ll keep you posted.

Click NEXT to continue

Draft 3

Not that I don’t trust you, but… are you sure? I guess at first glance, it looks pretty decent. But you know, now that I’ve re-read it, I can see some problems with it. I mean, it’s a good start since I included a greeting and closing while also explaining the issue I’m having. But it looks like I forgot to include specific details about what class I’m talking about and when the class meets. And then there’s the misspelling and grammar. I really need to be careful about that. OK, so this one is a bust. What about the other two?


Discussion Post

I heard back from Dr. Ivanov. He suggested I turn on the closed captions provided for the videos, and he also said he’d post transcripts of the lectures in document format in an upcoming announcement. I didn’t even think about the captions, and the notes…man, how awesome is that? Thank you for helping me out with this. I feel a lot better about the upcoming exam.

So… since you were so helpful with my history class, I thought I’d run something else by you. In my biology class, we were asked to write a concise response to the instructor’s question, “Does an increase in activity result in an increased or decreased breathing rate?”. This is what I came up with. Would you mind looking it over and seeing if it’s good to go?

Increased activity results in increased breathing. The body is doing more work, so it needs more energy. In order to gain more energy, the body needs more oxygen and it would increase the rate of breathing in order to get more oxygen to turn into energy.


Option 1

Yeah, you’re right, three sentences is probably a bit much. I changed it to this:

Q: Does an increase in activity result in an increased or decreased breathing rate?

A: The body is doing more work, so it needs more energy.

But if I drop the first and last sentences, I’m actually not answering the question at all, right?

Maybe we should take another look at this…


Option 2

Yeah, I think three sentences is probably overkill, too. Supposed to be a short answer, right? And actually, this looks pretty solid — I guess the third sentence was the only one I needed after all. I’ll change it to this:

Q: Does an increase in activity result in an increased or decreased breathing rate?

A: In order to gain more energy, the body needs more oxygen and it would increase the rate of breathing in order to get more oxygen to turn into energy.

Thanks — I appreciate the help!

Click NEXT to continue

Option 3

So I should leave it as:

Q: Does an increase in activity result in an increased or decreased breathing rate?

A: Increased activity results in increased breathing. The body is doing more work, so it needs more energy. In order to gain more energy, the body needs more oxygen and it would increase the rate of breathing in order to get more oxygen to turn into energy.

I don’t know, something about it just doesn’t read right to me. The Bio professor can be kind of a stickler about this type of thing. I think it’s probably too long, and I could get rid of a couple of the sentences to make my point more clear. What do you think?


Group Project

Thanks for helping me out by reviewing my discussion post response a few weeks back. Made the world of difference. I was hoping I could get your advice one last time. We’re getting to the end of the semester and I’m working on a group project in my creative writing class.

So my role on the project is Editor, which means I have to review everyone’s work and make sure spelling and grammar are correct, and everything looks nice and clean before we submit it. Well, I edited like I was supposed to and sent the group an email when I was finished. One of my group members responded with: NICE EDITING!!! LOL!

I really thought I did a good job with this, and to be honest, I was kinda ticked off by that response. I need to send a message back to the group and figure out where I might have gone wrong, but I wanted to make sure I send the right kind of message to everyone. What’s my best strategy here?


Response 1

You know, looking at it now, this reads a little… hmmm… hostile. I guess I shouldn’t bang out a response straight away, when I’m a little steamed. This might make things worse, and then I’ll have everybody in the group mad at me, not just this…uh, person.


Response 2

You know what? If I messed up, I messed up. We all worked pretty hard on this project, and I know I’m not the only one who pulled late nights on it. That’s my fault, not an excuse, and it doesn’t really fix the problem, right?


Response 3

I think you’re right. Yeah, it was kind of lame for this person to just throw a snotty message my way — I mean, if I messed up, I need to make it right, so I need to know where I messed up. It’s probably best to make absolutely sure, and let the group know I’m on top of it and doing my part.

Click NEXT to continue


This has been super helpful — I can’t thank you enough. You really know your stuff! I figured this communicating online stuff would be easy, but there’s actually a lot to think about. This is going to make a big difference — thanks!

Psst! There’s nothing left to do here. Feel free to move on to the next lesson.

Sounds good. Feel free to move on to the next lesson.