The Importance of Communication  

August 04, 2011

Jamey Boelhower is the newest member of the ESU10 Network Information Services staff. Jamey is the new distance learning instructor for Technology Education Challenges in High Schools (TECHS) classes. He will be responsibile for course design and development. As a former English teacher at Centura High School, Jamey is very innovative in his use of technology and is a skilled distance learning teacher. The growth of the Nebraska Distance Learning Network is due in a large part to dedicated and enthusiastic teachers like Jamey who recognize the potential and power of technology for learning. He and others like him realize that no one approach works all the time and they are constantly searching for new innovations to help students learn. In his new role Jamey will be able to touch the lives of students from all across Nebraska. Welcome, Jamey!

In the recent study, Students' Perceptions of Effective Teaching in Higher Education, faculty from the Memorial University of Newfoundland revealed some interesting expectations students have for their teachers in distance learning classes. The nine main characteristics are as follows:

  • Respectful
  • Responsive
  • Knowledgeable
  • Approachable
  • Communicative
  • Organized
  • Engaging
  • Professional
  • Humorous

The focus in this article will be on the second characteristic, responsive. I have been teaching distance learning classes for nine years and have seen how technology has changed the way teachers and students communicate. Through those changes I have developed three recommendations for meeting the students' expectations, without feeling like you are teaching 24/7.
Recommendation One: Set and stick to a time limit for answering emails. At the beginning of the semester set the time limit to 24 hours. Yes, that includes the weekends. If you have a special event going on, like a birthday, inform the class that emails won't be answered until Sunday night. Emails usually don't need immediate attention, so 24 hours is a fair timetable.
Recommendation Two: Have "digital hours" for your classes. Set a time like Tuesday and Thursday night from 9:00-10:30 p.m. This is when you can answer questions, give feedback on essays or projects, or get a student caught up on lessons they have missed. The tool you use for digital hours is not important. It could still be email; the students would know that an answer would be immediate. The last couple of years I have been using Edmodo and Tinychat for my digital hours. Many learning management systems have a chat option embedded that you could use.
Recommendation Three: Have the right tone. Try to make sure your responses, email or chat, are clear and reflect respect. Just like a real conversation, we can get ahead of ourselves and say the wrong thing. Always make sure emails start with a greeting and also try to reflect back their concern before your answer. That way they know what you think they are saying.
You don't have to be connected 24/7, spending all your free time answering emails, but developing your own guidelines for communicating with your students will help in meeting their expectations while keeping the class running smoothly.