Thursday, January 3, 2008

Communication for the Virtual Classroom

It's January, and we all are preparing for a new semester.  Students are in denial about book prices and tuition fees, and teachers are in denial about all that peppermint bark they ate over the holidays.  Those of us teaching our way through graduate school find ourself in both positions: praying we have enough "room" on our credit cards for one more anthology - and trying our best not to look fat in our teacher-pants.  Academics is paradise, isn't it?  Despite my jokes, I certainly think so.  

To start the year - and the semester - I'll address the A-1 priority both distance educators and and online students should share at the beginning of a term:  communication.  

Now, I know.  It is so obvious that it hardly needs saying.  And yet oddly, it does need saying, if not for instructors, then certainly for students.  Here are some common mistakes students make when communicating with their online instructors:

Common Mistake #1:  Not emailing (or calling) with the mistaken view that the instructor is so busy that he or she will be annoyed by so many questions.

My response:  I, speaking for distance educators everywhere, can verify that our entire job is to answer your questions and help you navigate through your courses.   Your emails thrill us.  Your phone calls thrill us too, so long as you make them during reasonable hours (ie, between 8am and 10pm).  So send the email.  Call.  We love it. I am not kidding.  

Common Mistake #2:  Emailing, waiting ten minutes, and then emailing again because you expect an answer at the speed of instant messenger - or - you are under the impression that your instructor is like a ten-year old sweat shop employee chained to a phone in a terrible third-world country where no one ever heard of taking coffee breaks - or eating - or sleeping. 

My response:  Give your instructor a good twenty-four hours to answer you before you decide the email was lost or overlooked.  We work all the time.  Sometimes we are working at 8am, but sometimes we are not.  Sometimes you'll catch us at 2am grading papers.  But not always.  However, the chances that we will stop working and not return for OVER twenty four hours are just about zero - even over the weekends.  Most good distance educators will answer you in less than eight hours, and some routinely check and answer email over the weekends too.  

Common Mistake #3: Getting offended if your instructor refers you to information already listed in the orientation or other materials in the course.   

My response: At the beginning of the semester, many students read a little too quickly through the orientation materials for their classes.  They get the gist of the class, but they miss important details such as deadline policies and due dates and testing practices.  Then they email the instructor asking for the information.  The instructor loves these emails (see item #1) and could answer your question instantly - but in all likelihood, the instructor will email you back telling you to re-read the start-up material again.  He or she will do this not to be snide or hard on you, but to help you understand how the course works inside and out.  Knowing the course that well from the beginning will save you time later, and you'll feel more confident going into the first batch of assignments if you have thoroughly read through the start-up information.  

Common Mistake #4: Neglecting to add your instructor to your instant messenger buddy list.  You might be thinking "But IM is just for my friends and me.  I don't WANT to talk to my teachers on IM.   

My response:  Your instructor is NOT going to contact you via IM just to making pointless conversation, so have no fear of that.  Instead, think of how great it would be if you were stuck on an assignment, and your instructor just happened to be online at 11pm  - just about the time you were about to give up and go to bed.  Think of how great it would be if you IMed your instructor and got the answer to your question in real time - instead of having to wait for an email back in the morning.  It would be great, and you know it.  So don't worry about your social life getting all mixed up with your math homework.  Many instructors prefer to communicate through IM because it saves them time, too.  So add your instructor to your buddy list, first thing.  You'll be glad you did.  

Common Mistake #5: Not calling because you think it's an invasion of the instructor's time or privacy.  

My response:  We don't care that much about our privacy.  It's true that we'd prefer you not drop by our houses at 4am, but distance education is meant to be flexible, and believe it or not, it is meant to be personal.  Computers and the internet are tools for learning, but you paid for  teacher, not a droid, when you wrote that tuition check.  We are happy to talk to you, so call - especially if your issue is urgent and you will be distressed while waiting for an answer.  If a phone call will clear up an issue that is stressing you out, get on the phone.  We don't mind at all.  

That's all for today, folks.  Tune in tomorrow for a more detailed discussion of successful email habits - and perhaps some instant messenger tips, too.  

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