Becoming an online learner
Online communication and collaboration
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Contacting your lecturer and other university staff
It may feel a bit daunting to contact teaching staff, especially if you think that your question is trivial or unimportant. We recommend that you ask questions as soon as possible, rather than waiting or not even asking them at all – you’ll feel better for making contact with someone and the answer to your question may help others on the module too. This is especially important if your course involves studying online. Staying in contact with course mates and teaching staff will help you feel more connected with your school and your learning.
Our top tips for successful and effective online communication with tutors and university staff are:
Use email where possible
Contact your lecturer, module or programme leader, School Education Service staff or your personal tutor as soon as problems or questions arise. Most of the time you’ll contact staff using email. Staff may also set up a Minerva discussion board for general module enquiries, but if you find it easier to communicate via phone or video chat, check with your tutor whether this is acceptable to them.
Respect working hours
University staff will have set working hours and may not respond to messages outside of these hours. So if you email somebody on a Friday afternoon, they may not respond to you until after the weekend. Bear this in mind and try not to leave important questions to the last minute, as you may not receive a reply quickly.
When you contact staff, be polite, use a formal tone, and make sure your messages are as clear as possible. If you have several questions, you could ask them as a numbered list, to make it clear that you’re asking more than one question.
Check your emails regularly
Check your university emails at least once every day, to make sure you don’t miss any important announcements from your school or from the University. If you receive a high volume of emails, consider setting up rules to filter them into different folders, so you’re less likely to miss important messages. This LinkedIn Learning video explains how to organise your inbox.
Communicating with other students
Most of us are used to talking to our friends and family online through apps such as WhatsApp. However, using an online learning environment to communicate and collaborate for university work requires a different approach. If you’re not used to studying online there are some simple conventions that will help you effectively contribute to and get the most out of your online interactions with fellow students.
Here’s our advice to help you build your confidence as an active online learner and foster relationships with your course mates and tutors.
Be constructive in your discussion with others. Think about how you would feel receiving the comments you are writing. For example, instead of “you’re wrong, I think that...” you may want to write “that’s interesting, but you might want to consider this ...” The aim is to encourage each other.
When using written chat or discussion boards, tone can be difficult to get across. Although it might seem a bit childish, emojis such as a smiley face can help to convey your tone.
Show your face
If you are meeting in a small group for a class or an online meeting with other students, consider using your camera, even if it is just at the start. If your internet connection is weak and you need to turn off your video, you can still use the microphone to speak up and talk, rather than using the chat bar. This can help make it a more personal and friendly experience and creates a stronger relationship with your course mates.
In live online sessions, mute your microphone when you are not talking. This helps keep distracting background noise to a minimum.
Keep on topic
If you use the chat function in an online meeting, stick to discussing what’s happening in the meeting or class. It can be really distracting to have a separate chat conversation happening.
The keys to successful group work are good communication and organisation. Here are some strategies that could help your group to work together effectively.
Create a shared space
Set up an online space that the whole group can access where you can upload, collaboratively produce and share documents. A shared notebook in OneNote, or a folder in OneDrive might be good starting points. Make sure that everyone can access the same apps or software.
Not all students can be online at any time of the day due to their wider commitments, such as childcare or work placements, so remember this when agreeing timeframes, and when responding to online collaborative work.
To keep the group on track, use a tool such as Trello or Planner to assign tasks to people in the group. Each task can be assigned a deadline and marked done when completed.
Nominate a chairperson for each meeting and a minute-taker to record actions. It might be possible to record online meetings. Check that the group is happy to have meetings recorded and only share those recordings within the group.
Set an agenda
As a group, set an agenda before the meeting so that you can all be prepared and use the time in the meeting effectively.
Before the meeting, make notes of anything you need to share or ask about. Send any links or documents that you will refer to in the meeting to the group beforehand or upload them ready to share in the meeting.
Informal study groups
Setting up informal study groups is a fantastic way to enrich your learning experience. You have valuable ideas to share and testing them out through discussion and gaining different perspectives can transform your understanding. It’s also a great way to build friendships, make you feel part of a learning community and keep you motivated.
Study groups are great places to discuss the readings you have been set, what you have understood from lectures or practical work, how you have interpreted or applied key concepts, how placements are going and anything else related to your learning.
You might decide to set up a chat group through Microsoft Teams where you can message each other at any time, or you may prefer to set up regular online chats through Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom or similar apps. Make sure you choose software that will work well for everyone in the group, taking into account the technology they have available and where they are based. Microsoft Teams can produce automatic captions for accessibility, whereas other apps may not.
While working with other students is invaluable, make sure you know the difference between collaboration and collusion. Check the academic integrity tutorial if you’re unsure.