Communicating Online: What Else Your Words are Saying
We all know that text message-the one that says “HELLO?!?!” and we all have the same reaction when we receive it. “What is it?!” We might wonder- is there an emergency? Is their message so much more important than what else we might be doing? Do they think I have gotten into a terrible car wreck and are legitimately worried? In any case, there are few among us who have the nerves of steel to weather it. This is the power of all caps and duplicate punctuation.
It is helpful for our purposes to think of the online classroom as this type of scenario played out over and over. We have video and other synchronous tools we may use, but the majority of our communication is at separate moments, through email, discussions, feedback, and other places. It may not be as overt as ‘text’ speak-with its shorthand and emoticons-but it is the space of digital, written dialogue, most of which is passing like ships in the night. You may think the feedback you posted on a student’s assignment is measured, helpful, and straightforward. The student may read it as impersonal, critical, and robotic-such is the way of interpersonal dynamics. However, some benefits of the online learning space is that we have a buffer zone to be specific, precise, and most of all engaging with the students. Here are a things to remember the next time you find yourself sitting down to send a message:
Try to stay away from using color and all capitalized letters to add emphasis
We may have students overlook the same important detail, over and over. You may have a student that comes to you in the 11th hour to tell you they didn’t know what they were supposed to do or were unclear-even after you have stated it in plain language. However, if you try to curb this result by emphasizing this point to the max degree through (for instance) capitalized, bright red letters-it sends a signal that you already expect the students to be irresponsible. It also can come across as draconian, establishing an unspoken dynamic of you as an authoritarian rather than a subject matter expert.
Split up your message into smaller paragraphs
The block of text can be overmuch for a reader. Think about your spacing in the same way you would have natural pauses for breaks or emphasis if you were speaking in person. Also, if you are delivering a difficult message, giving them time to digest in between points will help them absorb what you are saying.
Know the ‘charge’ of your punctuation, size, and bold/italicize
If you need to emphasize something, do not go all caps. Capitalizing is shouting, and is best reserved for excitement. If you capitalize in any other place, it will come across as scolding. Also, one question mark is simple, but two or more add urgency-the same applies to exclamation points.
Finally, using bold, underlined, or italicize type is a fraught thing. Italicized words can be smug in the wrong context. Bold exerts a directness; think of it as that one friend who says “you aren’t right but you are wrong.” However, to the general crowd bold and italicized words may be just the ticket if your student is in on it with you-rather than being pointed at:
“Please reread the rubric It states grammar is worth more than voice” vs. “Please reread the rubric, it states grammar is worth more than voice”
The first is meant to draw their attention to the point you are making-but the undertone is that you didn’t think they would see it unless you pushed it in their face. Here is an example of inviting them to be in on it:
“It can be confusing, so please reread the rubric and please note: grammar is worth more than voice.”
It bears repeating: Give your student the benefit of the doubt
Staying neutral is going to be the most effective way to keep the communication open, and to give the student opportunity to rejoin. You can stay inside of neutral messaging by avoiding blame (both for yourself and for them), and avoiding ‘sorry’ statements to simply move past the moment quickly. “I hear you” and “that makes sense” and “I can understand that” are examples of neutral engaged statements. Hot tip: it is helpful to begin with these.