Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

Communicating Effectively Online

In the online classroom, most communication takes place through writing. What does this mean to online students?

  • Written communications can enable you to get to know your instructor and classmates on a deep, rather than just a superficial, level. Communicating through the written word enables you to think through your ideas thoroughly before presenting them. And, you can take the time to make sure your words express exactly what you want to say.
  • If your writing abilities are limited, you may need to take some additional writing classes before, or as part of your online learning experience.

Discussion boards

Many online classes utilize a discussion board. The discussion board allows students and instructors to post and reply to text based messages. You can post and read messages when it is convenient for you rather than at a scheduled time.

  • The discussion board groups together messages that relate to the same topic in a “threaded discussion.” For example, if an instructor posts a question, then each student’s individual reply is grouped with the original heading.
  • Each person’s response is displayed for everyone else to see. Perhaps you are interested in something written by one of your classmates; you can post a message in response to your classmate. Don’t be surprised if you discover responses to what you’ve written from several of your classmates!


Email is a great way to communicate at times that are convenient both for you and the recipient. You will probably use email to communicate with your instructor and classmates.

Some things to keep in mind about email
  • Double check to whom you’re sending email. It can be embarrassing when an email that you meant for one person ends up being read by others.
  • Using all capital letters in email is equivalent to shouting.
  • Use a meaningful subject line so your readers will have a clear idea of what your message is about.
  • Misunderstandings are more common with email than other communication methods. It is hard to interpret tone and intention in written form.
Times to use the phone instead of email
  • When security is necessary. A private conversation or phone call is more secure than email, which can be distributed to many people.
  • Email is best for the dissemination of facts. When you’re dealing with an emotionally charged subject, you may want to use the phone instead.
  • When you’re communicating with someone who doesn’t read or respond to email regularly and you need an immediate response.
  • When it’s hard to discuss the topic in writing without your intent being misinterpreted.


A chat session is like a classroom discussion because the instructor and students are all participating at the same time. But unlike a classroom discussion, you are all working in separate locations from your own computers.

As you can imagine, this can sometimes be a little confusing. You will need to type quickly to express your thoughts as you’re thinking them. Chats can also be hard to follow. Since each contribution displays when its writer finishes typing, it is easy for conversations to appear out of order. Experienced instructors find ways to remedy this: for example, your instructor might ask students to indicate when they have something to say and then call on them to “speak” (type) so the conversation can be more easily followed.

The advantage of chats is that they allow people in separate locations to “talk” to one another in real time.


There are special rules of personal conduct that apply to all online communications. Here is a sampling of some of them.

  • In general, email and discussion forum messages should be short and to the point. Although, there are exceptions to this rule, such as assignments that are submitted by email or discussion forum.
  • Make sure to have a meaningful subject line for your email and discussion forum contributions so others will know what to expect.
  • Be polite and respectful. It can be tempting to let yourself go in an environment that feels anonymous, but remember that there are real people reading your messages. Good online manners are vital to a productive and supportive online learning environment.
  • Be tolerant of views expressed by others. Your online class may include people from all over the world. Keep in mind that you probably have something to gain from exposure to views and backgrounds different than your own.
  • When reacting to someone else’s message, address the ideas, not the person. Again, remember that there are real people on the other end.
  • Be careful when using sarcasm and humor, and don’t include any obscenities in your messages. Without face-to-face communications, people may take your humor personally, and you never know who may be offended by expressions that are commonplace to you.
  • Don’t send commercial advertisements or “chain mail” to your classmates.