It is often said that much, if not most, of communication comes not in what we say but in how we say it. We might say something that sounds angry, but our facial expression demonstrates that we are joking. Conversely, we might say something that sounds very friendly, but our facial expression indicates that the words should be taken as mocking. This is why emoticons exist: to recover the fidelity lost when a face-to-face message is translated into text. In fact, the ability to convey nuance in communication is one of the many advantages of providing voice or screencasting feedback to students—an issue I have covered in past columns.
But Rima Al Tawil (2019) demonstrates that there is a variety of ways in which nonverbal cues make their way into online learning, and it is important for instructors to understand these communication influences to monitor and manage the tone of their courses.
One feature of online education is that its relationship to time differs fundamentally from that of face-to-face learning. In a face-to-face course, the institution determines time. A student needs to be in class at specific times each week. Within the class the student must pick up the information the instructor covers, at the instructor’s pace. If the student zones out for a minute or just doesn’t hear something, they cannot rewind and replay what they missed. Yes, they could ask the instructor to repeat what they said, but how many students are willing to do that? Similarly, class content must fit into the scheduled time period. The instructor must cover a topic within the allotted 50 minutes even if it really deserves 40 or 60 minutes of time. Also, students who speak are usually cognizant of the time they are using and whether they are losing the other students in the class. By contrast, online students have far more control over time. They can access the material on their own schedule, write discussion postings at their leisure and pace, and review material as many times as they need to understand it.
As Al Tawil notes, the timing of events can send its own message in an online course. For instance, an instructor who posts replies to student discussions daily appears to be far more invested in the class and thus in students’ success than one who posts only once per week. The same is true of personal communication with students in response to questions. Online students regard an immediate response much more favorably than they do one that comes a while later. Of course, the worst is no response at all. As one student said, “If I am ignored, I take it as a negative response. If, and when, this occurs, I tend to only contribute sufficiently to get my marks” (p. 151).
This does not mean that the online instructor must remain chained to their computer, waiting for the next discussion posting or email. Like everyone, the instructor needs to set up a work schedule that balances all their responsibilities. But there are things instructors can do to improve the timing of their work with students in an online course. For one, instead of checking in on a course twice per week for four hours each time, the instructor can check in four times per week for two hours each time so that there are shorter lags between student communication and instructor response. For this reason, I suggest that online instructors check in at least every other day. I also suggest that instructors check their class email daily during the work week and at least once every weekend. This schedule seems to provide a reasonable balance between instructor presence and workload.
Another option is to use social media for some of class communication due to its immediacy. Students are accustomed to texting and using social media at all times of day. While an instructor cannot very well be on-call throughout the day, those who are used to texting throughout the day can tell students that they are open to text messages for questions to reduce response times. A student who needs a question answered to complete an assignment due the next day will appreciate the timely help.
Those who have been around for a while might remember the television show The Paper Chase (1978–79, 1983–86), which follows the fictional lives of law students. One character is the strict law professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., who wears a suit and bowtie, speaks with a measured tone that conveys high-brow academic discipline, and expects his students to emulate him. There is no place for humor in his classroom, and not surprisingly the effect is to put students on edge when they come to class.
Leaving aside whether a style such as Professor Kingsfield’s is good for learning (I suspect that it is not), instructors must be cognizant of the atmosphere they are establishing with their communication. I personally prefer a lighthearted atmosphere, which I believe puts students at ease and in turn allows for authentic expression of their ideas, increases their willingness to contribute to the course, and encourages discussion that ranges beyond just “giving the instructor what they want.”
I establish this tone right at the beginning of my courses with welcome and bio videos. I shoot my welcome videos with a webcam in my home office. The room used to be a child’s bedroom, and over my shoulder dinosaur cartoons are visible along the tops of the walls. In one video I begin, “Hello, I’m John Orlando, the instructor for this course, and yes, there are dinosaurs on the wall. Is there a problem here?” Now students know that humor is accepted in this course. I go on to discuss why the class is important, alert students to anything unusual about the course, and end by inviting them to contact me with any questions. It is important these welcome messages not simply repeat the syllabus; students can read that themselves. Instead, they set the tone for the course and motivate students.
I also provide a video biography. When asked to talk about themselves, many faculty just cover their CVs. This is a mistake. Nobody picks a course because of where the instructor went to school or what they have published. Students are interested in the instructor as a person. Thus, I talk about how I was born in Wisconsin and moved to Vermont. Here I use the digital storytelling format of combining narration with imagery, never bullet points. I use a cow to represent Wisconsin and a skier to represent Vermont. Students are likelier to remember where I am from and where I live when they associate this information with images than if I read them bullet points. I also talk about why I became interested in online teaching and my subject matter. My doing so helps create interest in the subject among students. Whether you follow this same format is less important than understanding that your tone and the format of your communication establish an atmosphere and expectations. It is important to send the messages that you want to send.
Al Tawil also noted how the format of instructor discussion postings conveys a message to students. She compared a posting in the form of a single, long paragraph—much as you would see in an academic article—to the same text formatted as an email. The second version started with “Hello Everyone” and then used short paragraphs broken up by headings, introductory questions, and numbered lists. Students interpreted the first version as coming from as “someone who did not have time” for the class and “did not put enough effort into making their thought/opinion meaningful to their peers” (p. 154). Students had an entirely different impression of the second one as coming from someone who was “friendly, warm, inviting, open, inclusive, engaging, pleasant, fun, thoughtful of the time of others.”
Consider how to use nonverbal communication cues in your online courses to set the tone and atmosphere of the classes.
Al Tawil, R. (2019). Nonverbal communication in text-based, asynchronous online education. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 20(1), 144–164. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v20i1.3705 [Open access]