Communicating Online: What Else Your Words are Saying

Posted by | 6 comments

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.

One man leaning over another man watching a video in a classroom

Photo by jose aljovin on Unsplash.

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.

Bold red letters that read "what do you feel reading this?!?!?"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.



Poppe with speech bubble


There are 6 comment for this article. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x by Max Macias 5 months ago

Thank you Casey!

The online world is vastly different than the off-line world and your tips are great for people who are trying to get a grip on the differences.

I often encounter people online who write pages of stuff–but they don’t realize most people only read a paragraph or two, or if you are lucky they will scan the full-body of text….

Thanks for the great post–all the other aspects are spot-on as well.

x by bryan 5 months ago

Great topic, Casey!

I wonder how personality and authenticity dovetail with what you’re saying. I don’t think we all should sound a like, but I think on-line confrontation can easily spiral. How does one balance “being oneself” with appropriate-sounding faculty responses?

x by K J PATAKI 5 months ago

Very helpful. I will integrate it into my OL dossier: message and person (it-me-them-the unknown and not really predictable.)

x by David Davis 5 months ago

Where can I locate the rubric “grammar is worth more than a voice”?
David D

x by Casey Twining 5 months ago

Bryan-this is an excellent question. I think having some time between draft and send can help a ton in this regard. Perhaps, the first draft can be pure instinct, and then after a few hours you can revisit it and elevate the message away from the unnecessary pitfalls. I also think if a student is prepared for you to ‘speak plainly’ there is more wiggle room here (though that can be a tender situation so exercise caution!). Lastly-if you are concerned your ‘real voice’ isn’t coming across, there is always the option to switch to video message to pick up some of the nuances of your messaging (and your personality). Let me know if you need some assistance with creating video/audio feedback! x7265

Max-This is such an important thing to remember that I couldn’t sum up in one bullet point…editing down is such a key piece to this. You don’t have to add a ton of words/explanation for the student to feel respected-and it just may be overlooked because of it’s length. I think breaking up into paragraphs helps this a little, but when in doubt read it out-loud that is! I tend toward more words than necessary, so I am reading things out loud all the time. Thank you!

David-That was an example straight out of my imagination, but if you would like to explore using rubrics I’m around! x7265

K J Pataki- I totally agree, some of the messaging can be unpredictable. I guess that makes it even more important that we hold the ‘calm’ space as best as we can. Thanks for reading!

x by bryan 5 months ago

While I think on-line correspondence are ripe for misunderstanding sometimes, I do think, I guess, now thinking about my question a bit more — that the emotion behind the comments matters. If I am coming out of a place of love for a class, I think that somehow is conveyed. Contrast that … if I come out of a place of judgment/frustration/annoyance … I think that’s when I can get in trouble. Maybe. Certainly, it’s much more likely I’ll make a bad situation worse. I like what you hint at … that a student gives some clues at how I might communicate with them/him/her. Sometimes, I just get tired of bending my communication style to fit the student’s expectations or desires. Can you tell it is May?

Add to the discussion

PCC offers this limited open forum as an extension of the respectful, well-reasoned discourse we expect in our classroom discussions. As such, we welcome all viewpoints, but monitor comments to be sure they stick to the topic and contribute to the conversation. We will remove them if they contain or link to abusive material, personal attacks, profanity, off-topic items, or spam. This is the same behavior we require in our hallways and classrooms. Our online spaces are no different.