Communicating online is an essential skill for everyday life, work and study. However, it can be difficult as the style of communication, and the unspoken rules about how to behave, can vary widely depending on the context.
This resource will help you to navigate the main forms of communication used at university. It introduces some of the main principles of good online communication, some things to watch out for and some tools and resources that you might want to try.
Below you can look at some specific information about different forms of online communication, but there are several general principles that should be followed for all of your online interactions:
- Develop your own voice: there is no single right way to express yourself online, so it is important to do so in a way that feels comfortable and natural to you.
- Avoid oversharing: once you have posted something digitally, it can go viral. Think carefully before sharing personal or sensitive information about yourself, or expressing opinions or ideas that may be taken out of context. For more information about managing your ‘digital footprint’, see guidance from the Careers Service on Networking, social media and speculative applications.
- Use your real name and add an avatar or image of yourself if you are comfortable to do so.
- Use your University credentials when logging into systems for online learning (especially with Google) as this can be used to monitor your attendance in online sessions. Find out more about attendance monitoring.
- Be explicit. One of the challenges of online discussion is expressing context. Without clues from tone of voice, body language and facial expression, it’s hard to be certain of how a statement is intended.
- Try to express yourself as clearly as possible and avoid sarcasm - or be explicit when you are making a joke. In more informal settings, you can make use of tools such as emoticons for conveying your tone of voice.
- Remember the human (Shea, 2011): treat others with respect just as you would in a face-to-face environment. Use people’s preferred names and pronouns (e.g. he/she/they). Respect others’ right to confidentiality and recognise the value of difference and diversity of opinions. These expectations are set out in the University’s Student Code of Conduct.
- Your words and actions can have an impact on others. Even casual comments can be microaggressions that make others feel unwelcome. For more information see the video Racism - We Need To Think Differently.
Please explore the tabs below for more information on different forms of online communication.
Communicating in online classes
Participation in online classes can feel very different from face-to-face activities that you may be used to. Your tutor may share some rules or general principles for interactions at the start of the session, which might include advice on use of the chat function, the raise-hand symbol and use of your microphone and/or webcam. As a rule of thumb, microphones should normally be switched off when someone else is speaking to avoid issues of feedback or accidental background noise.
Online classes may include opportunities for interaction such as polls, use of the whiteboard and breakout rooms. Taking advantage of these tools will help to make you feel more engaged with the session and will enrich the experience for everyone.
If you are invited to join a breakout room, there will normally be an expectation that you will switch your microphone on and join in with the discussion. Again, this will be a much more rewarding experience if all participants are willing to get involved.
The following top tips may allow you to have a better experience when participating and engaging online:
- Arrive early: aim to be logged in and online at least 5 minutes before the session. This way you can work out any audio or connectivity issues before the session starts.
- Don’t try to multitask: close down other tabs and put your phone away.
- Your tutor may set boundaries at the beginning of the session as to how/when you ask questions and by what means you can get their attention (raise hand, just start talking etc.). Make sure you follow any instructions for the session.
- Engage with the content/group work (be an active participant) to get the most out of the session - this can also assist you in building connections with others in your group.
- Mute your mic when not talking.
- Be aware that the session may be recorded - your tutor should let you know about this.
- Be careful about sharing personal information about yourself and don't share any personal information about other people without their permission.
- The text chat may move quickly when in a session, the tutor may not respond/acknowledge straight away, be patient in waiting for replies.
- If you are using your camera, think carefully about your backdrop. Is there anything in shot such as posters, images or words on clothing, that is likely to cause offence to others, or reveal personal information you do not want others to see? The same applies to any avatar you choose.
Love them or loathe them, breakout groups are a feature of online learning that you are likely to encounter as part of online lectures and seminars. Within Blackboard Collaborate or Google Meet, breakout groups provide an opportunity for small-group discussion within a larger-group session. Activities within a breakout group may be structured or open, but their usefulness as a learning tool relies on the positive engagement of all members within a group. If your experience of breakout groups so far has been one of awkward silences and muted microphones, or of discussions dominated by one or two individuals, read on for some ideas to help make the most of this valuable opportunity to share your ideas and opinions and get to know others on your course.
- Acknowledge the challenge: it’s OK not to like breakout groups. They can feel uncomfortable and frustrating. It is likely that others in your group feel the same way. You might want to use this shared experience as a way to get things moving: ‘Well this is awkward. But we’d better make the best of it and get started.’
- Breaking the ice: finding out something simple about the other members of the group can be a useful starting point for discussion: where in the world are you? What time is it? What is the weather doing? How are you getting on with x assignment?
- Take ownership: if you are experiencing an especially reluctant or silent breakout group, it may only take one person within the group to break down the barriers. That person could be you! Take the plunge, be the first to switch on your video and mic and you may well take others with you.
- Give everyone a chance to participate: Others in the group may be as comfortable sharing their ideas. Ask their opinions and try to include all in the outcomes of the discussion.
- Focus on the task: Your instructor should provide details of what you will be doing and what the expected output is. You can use this to start conversation by thinking aloud and discussing the best way to undertake the task to reach the outcome, e.g. ‘so we need to think about x, what initial thoughts does everyone have…?’ You may already have an idea of your own that you would be happy to share to get the conversation started. If you are not clear on what is expected of your group, then you can ask for clarification by posting in the general chat or messaging the tutor directly.
- Assign roles: Your lecturer may assign you roles in the group, if not you can assign these yourselves within the breakout room. Group roles can help to make it easier to make progress on a specific task. Do you need a note taker? A timekeeper? A chair? A reporter to feed back at the end of the task?
- Communicate in the way that feels comfortable: some people prefer to speak their thoughts out loud and others prefer writing them down. Let your group know how you want to communicate, e.g. ‘I can’t get my mic to work so I’m going to use the chat today’; ‘I need to lipread so I’d really appreciate it if you could put your cameras on when you’re speaking’. Sometimes seeing each other can make the conversation feel more friendly and seeing people’s facial expressions and body language can help the discussion to flow more, but there is no obligation to put your camera on if you don’t want to.
- Dealing with technical issues: others in your group may be having genuine difficulties with mics and cameras. If this is the case, encourage them to contribute to the discussion through the chat, or through a shared google doc or similar. If all of you in the group are experiencing a technical issue such as mics not working, flag with a message in the general chat to the whole session as this may be a problem faced by all participants in the session.
- Have a go, even if you think that you might be wrong: Do not worry about making mistakes when you speak or write, or with the answer as the other people in your group will just be happy that you are getting involved. Often saying “I’m not sure, but I think …” will start a conversation.
Using Discussion Boards
You are likely to be invited to engage in online discussion with other students and your tutors via discussion boards on Blackboard. This presents a great opportunity to enter into an academic dialogue around key topics.
On discussion boards conversation is organised by topic (or “thread”), and there may be a large number of people trying to take part in the discussion. Trying to make your voice heard can be a challenge, and many online forums have (written or unwritten) rules and social hierarchies about what can be posted and appropriate use of language. Some tips on how to make the most of discussion boards are as follows:
- Get involved. Taking part in discussions makes your learning active (using your knowledge) rather than passive (only absorbing knowledge). As a result, you’re more likely to remember the facts or ideas you’ve learned.
- Check in frequently to make sure you are involved in a discussion as it evolves.
- Be prepared to respond to others’ comments as well as posting your own thoughts - it can be extremely rewarding to receive feedback or enter into a dialogue around your contributions.
- Be clear and concise. Try to keep to a single point in your post as this will make the discussion easier to follow.
- Only post if it's relevant to the discussion. If you want to talk about a different topic, consider setting up a separate thread.
- Elaborate on answers to encourage discussion rather than using yes/no answers.
- Ask questions. If there’s something you’re puzzled about or don’t understand, other students and tutors may well be able to help.
- Use the discussion board for the right purpose - stick to academic discussion where boards have been set up for that purpose; use a social discussion board or other communication channels for more general social chat.
- Check your spelling. Use a plugin or write out your comment in a google or word document first - that way you’ll have a record of them. They might come in useful as a starting point for future assignments.
- Follow any agreed rules, whether these are set by your tutor or agreed together as a class.
- Be nice! Listening and engaging with different opinions will allow you to explore new perspectives. It's okay to disagree with others, but criticise the argument not the person.
Communicating Via Email
Email is a really important communication tool in university and professional life, but you might not have much experience of using it in this way. Generally, email communication is less formal than a letter and more formal than writing on social media, but the tone and level of formality can vary hugely depending on context. Because of this flexibility, it can be harder to judge if you’re pitching it at the right level.
The key thing here is to know your audience and to meet their expectations. Would you (or should you) really email your tutor in the same way as you email your friends, for example? What do you think they’re expecting from you? What seems to best fit the situation?
To pitch your emails at the right level of formality, try tuning in to how different audiences are using email, and responding in ways that are comfortable for you both. Some top tips for good email communication are as follows:
- If this is your first contact with an individual, it is generally better to be more formal. Try using a formal introduction like ‘Dear…’ and signing off with ‘Best wishes…’ or ‘Best regards…’. Once you receive a reply, you can judge from its tone whether it is appropriate to adopt a less formal manner.
- Email communication may not receive an immediate response. Be patient and recognise that your tutors may have set days and times to respond to student queries.
- Check your University gmail account on a regular basis, preferably at least once every day to make sure that you are on top of the most important and urgent matters relating to your course.
- Adopt a folder system to make sure that your inbox is not getting overcrowded.
- If you are writing an email in response to something that you feel strongly about, it is worth pausing before you send it. Try to resist sending it right away and delay overnight if possible to reflect on the tone and whether it is appropriate. Once an email has been sent, it cannot be unsent!
Using Social Media
Social media platforms can be a good way to develop your networks and keep up with recent developments. You might find that staff, your department or other services are active on social media, so it can be a good way to find out what is going on around the University.
Social media can also be useful for connecting with peers, in particular when you may not be able to make it to campus. Finding a platform that works for everyone can be a good way to plan and organise your time on group projects, when it may not always be possible to meet face-to-face. There are a few important points to consider when using social media:
- Not everyone will be comfortable using social media in an academic context, so make sure that you are not excluding anyone in a group by using a particular platform.
- Social media companies usually make revenue by analysing your post activity to target adverts to you. When signing up to a social media platform, do some research on how your data will be used, and how to set your privacy to a level you're comfortable with.
- Although social media networks may feel private, anything you post on social media should be considered as if it was in the public domain as you may not have control over how your content is shared. If you wouldn’t say it in public, don’t post it!
- Staying active on social media can become extremely time consuming! Develop positive habits like switching your phone off to study and overnight, checking in at set times, and avoiding too much screen time in the evenings.
- Social media can be a source of stress and anxiety. If you or someone you know is experiencing bullying or harassment online, seek advice and support as early as possible.
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