Perhaps you are thinking about taking your first online course. You've taken traditional courses before and you are wondering – how does it work? How do these interactions take place online? Online courses use a combination of techniques and technologies that allow you to interact and learn. You can expect three main types of interaction
- Student-Content: you will read, view, and listen to books, articles, videos and recordings provided as part of the course content
- Student-Instructor: you will communicate directly with your instructor and receive feedback from your instructor
- Student-Student: you will engage in conversations with your classmates and even work in groups on activities and assignments.
The amount and type of interaction and communication required in an online course will vary depending on the type of course, the instructor, and the course format. The more effective and thoughtful your interactions become, the better your learning experience will be. Good communication is part of what makes a successful online student.
Online classes generally provide two ways to communicate: asynchronous and synchronous. A combination of these techniques is used to carry out the various course interactions that have been designed to enhance your learning.
Asynchronous communication tools allow students to interact at different times. Not everyone has to be online at the same time. You add your contribution at a time of your own choosing (within assignment deadlines, of course!) Examples of asynchronous communication include:
- Email: You are probably already using email now though a free account such as Yahoo or Gmail. Your school may also provide you with an account.
- Discussion forums: For more information about how to communicate in online discussions, take a look at this article: Dos and Don'ts of Online Class Discussions.
- Video, Audio, and Podcast recordings: The course content may include recorded lectures and other presentations for you to watch and/or listen to. Review this iTunes list of tips for finding podcasts and explore Academic Earth for examples of online lectures.
In your course, these tools may be provided by your school and linked to your course materials via student accounts. Be sure to review your school’s requirements and use the accounts provided as instructed.
Synchronous communication tools allow students to interact in real time. These tools require that everyone be in the same (virtual) place at the same time. Synchronous events require you to schedule this time on your calendar. Examples include:
- Instant messaging or Group chats: This type of interaction is usually text-only, but these technologies are evolving quickly and often allow for audio and video as well as text. Skype, AIM, and GoogleTalk are all examples of tools that allow for instant messaging and group chats.
- Videoconferencing: You may be asked to participate in a class videoconference where you and your classmates can all be seen on screen. This kind of tool may also be useful when meeting with your instructor for virtual office hours or advising appointments. Skype and ooVoo are two Internet videoconferencing systems you may be familiar with and can try out for free.
- Virtual classrooms: These online meeting tools offer an array of features including text chat, audio, and video. Virtual classrooms also allow the group to view presentation files, break out into smaller discussion groups, and collaborate on whiteboards. Elluminate and Adobe Connect are two popular systems used in higher education.
If you are not sure about when these events will take place in your course, be sure to ask your instructor! These tools may also require you to set up accounts or download software. Again, review your school's requirements, review available tutorials and user guides, and practice with these tools before your first synchronous session.
Effective communication skills come with practice. You are probably already using several asynchronous and synchronous communication tools everyday. Consider how you might use these in your course and with your classmates to complete group projects and set up study groups. Make the most of the opportunities to communicate in your online course!