How Can Teachers Leverage Online Communication?

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The online space is the ideal environment for teachers and students to communicate.
"By fostering the use of online communication, teachers can create a distinct space that's just for learning."

It wasn’t too many years ago that communicating with colleagues, students and their parents via email became an expectation of classroom teachers across the country. Since that bold first step toward moving the educational conversation into the online space, the evolution of that dialogue has stagnated badly in the majority of schools and districts.

Most teachers, administrators, students and parents understand a few transparently useful applications of online communication (getting assignments for missed classes, making appointments for in-person conferences, asking quick questions about grades or projects, etc.), but it would be an exaggeration to say we’re harnessing the power of the online space to even 10% of its full potential. Here are some strategies that you can put into use in the upcoming school year to ensure you’re leveraging online communication to support learning:

Carve Out a Space Exclusively for Learning-Related Conversations
Many different activities occur at various times in your school: academic lessons, sports, lunch, assemblies, plays, meetings and of course the machinations of the complex social/political scene. With all those factors hanging over students’ heads, it can sometimes be tough for them to clear their mind of other stressors to focus on learning - which should really be priority number one!

By fostering the use of online communication, teachers can create a distinct space within the school and the classroom that is just for learning. Teachers can create a class website or message board using tools from an LMS (learning management system) or even a simple, free toolkit like Google Classroom and curate that space as an area for academic and exploratory discussions only.

Once those expectations are established, learners will buy in and latch onto the system because their status as digital natives means they’re hungry for structure - they simply look for tech to provide that structure rather than nearby adults. In this way, teachers can invite their students into an entirely new kind of classroom, where the anxieties and distractions of school life can be minimized and focus on learning is maximized.

Create an Individual Dialogue with Each Learner
Throughout the twentieth century, it was generally accepted that teachers should try to build a rapport with each student; however, it was equally widely believed that there simply wasn’t the time and space to do that. The era of that excuse has ended, as the tools exist for teachers and administrators to build strong, collaborative, positive relationships with all learners.

Students can be closed-off or hard to get to know for any number of reasons, but if we as educators embrace the fact that many young people feel safer expressing themselves online than in person, we might be able to build a higher understanding of our students than we’ve ever had before. By using online communication with students, we meet them on their level and in a space where they have the time and confidence to process, wait and craft a thoughtful response rather than simply giving a shrug, a stare at the floor or an “I don’t know.”

A deep, personal understanding of each student as an individual is crucial to finding the best access points for skill and learning targets and understanding how to leverage individual strengths and navigate weaknesses. In the online space, students are much more likely to present those insights than in a traditional conversation. LMS tools known as Learner Profiles provide a structured, lively way for students to discover and communicate insights about themselves and their learning style to teachers, administrators, parents and peers.

Build a Two-Way (or Three-Way… or Four-Way) Feedback Loop
Over the last two decades, it’s been commonplace for schools and districts to provide students and their parents with access to online grade books to check scores and assess progress. While the intent of this initiative was to provide transparency and empower families to support their young learners, the result in many places has been a culture of fixation on numbers, scores, quiz retakes and missed homework assignments rather than creating an actual dialogue focused on learning and improvement.

Using a class website, LMS or even email system, teachers, students, parents and administrators can come together in focused, effective, positive ways to maximize learning and support. Like building any relationship, though, the key is work: teachers and administrators must lead the way by modeling focused, constructive feedback and professional-level responsiveness. Once all stakeholders are invested in and taking regular part in assessing and providing feedback on behavior, classwork and progress toward long- and short-term goals, students can approach school with the knowledge that they are in a culture of high expectations and strong support.

Online communication also creates more opportunities for students to reflect on work and self-assess in authentic, thoughtful ways. While pen-and-paper reflection sheets for projects, papers and assignments frequently fail to stimulate and engage students, the online space is a place where students are primed to think like a curious learner, consider personal growth and provide honest insights as to their feelings and evolving understand of self.