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Communication 101: How to Make a Well-Thought-Out Point Online

"The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it."

— Edward R. Murrow

"The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it." — Edward R. Murrow

Some things never change. What you say and how you say it defines you in an on-campus class, and this is even truer in an online class because all you have to show for yourself are your words. Though video communication is now easier and more widespread, text and words will be always be predominant because they are so efficient if used properly in expressing an idea. All modern electronic media, from film, to radio, to television, to games, begins with someone sitting down and writing words, which are then translated for various media. First impressions are lasting, and as an online student most first impressions are made in a chat session, on Twitter, Facebook, or email — so the words you choose are even more important.

The Classroom Online

You can see that most online classroom tools are used for sharing words.

  • Email. This is a direct descendant of the hand written letter and is the most direct way to contact a professor or fellow classmate online.
  • Live. This is part of the online class in eCollege and is a combination of video chat, text chat and shared desktops. This allows students to effectively collaborate on group assignments, or even just meet for study sessions.
  • Discussion forums. Also called message boards, these are threaded discussions for posting and responding to supported points of view. The majority of online universities use these forums as a way to encourage conversation about class topics, which in turn will deepen student understanding or at least provide them with an alternative way to look at a subject. Some professors use the forum as a way to monitor student class participation, mandating that each learner begin a discussion or contribute to one a set number of times each week.
  • Doc Sharing and Dropbox. These are about sharing more formal written documents often following style sheets such as APA or MLA. This allows for students to turn in their assignments and for instructors to return assignments to them. Some schools may even allow students to do peer-editing for essay projects through these tools.
  • Journal/Blogs. These are a format that crosses formal writing with less formal email. These tools allow students to post about whatever class topic is on their mind, and provides other classmates with a way to comment on their blog or journal posts for further conversation.
  • Webliography. This is an adaption by eCollege of the traditional bibliography, but for the web. It's is a space shared by teacher and student for outside resources.

As a college student, you are expected to think and communicate in a particular formal fashion. In almost all cases, your classes will have grading rubrics to guide you in how formal your writing is expected to be. Below is an example of instructions that might be given for an assignment along with a rubric that helps calculate your grade and shows area of strength and weakness.

Write your article and save it as Case_Study_lastname_firstinitial.doc. Follow APA guidelines to write the article and cite any sources. Submit the article to the Dropbox by Friday, Jan 1, 2011.

By Sunday, Jan 3, 2011, constructively comment in the Discussion Area on the answers submitted by your peers.

Assignment 1 Grading Criteria Maximum Points
Stated what aspects of the case study were successful. 10
Stated what aspects of the case study were unsuccessful. 10
Stated the main ideas relating to strategy that can be extracted from this case study. 10
Stated how the material learned in this week's lectures applies to the case study. 15
Commented on the article in a substantive fashion by asking a probing question, providing a point of view with citations, challenge points in the article, or point out relationship. 10
Followed APA guidelines and cite any sources. 5
Total: 60


Email and discussion forums will be less formal than this type of assignment, but you will still be expected to use proper grammar and spelling. A college class on-ground or online is not the place to use emoticons, acronyms, and strange phonetic spelling with your peers and instructors even if you are accustomed to using them with your friends online. So, regardless of the medium, it is a good idea to do all your writing in Microsoft Word or LibreOffice with complete grammar checking and spell checking turned on. Take advantage of the outline mode to turn all of your thoughts into a cohesive piece with reasonable flow. Once your thoughts make sense on the screen, use cut and paste so that your words are error-free in the classroom.

Another important reason to use formal writing online is to prevent someone from misconstruing your thoughts. In an online class, your classmates and teachers may be from a variety of time zones and possibly countries, so culture enters the picture. If a reader is not a native English speaker, they may not have a clue what you mean when you use idioms as simple as "high as a kite" or "can't cut the mustard." Your words and thoughts are always open to (mis)interpretation.

Common Sense Goes a Long Way to Winning Friends, Influencing People, and Getting an ‘A'

  • Don't say anything online you would be embarrassed to say face to face. Or, as your mother may have said many times, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Besides, if it is on the Internet anywhere, always anticipate that your words will be read by a wider audience.
  • Be forgiving, particularly in the Discussion Forum. The Discussion Forum is the most conversational area of your online classroom. Conversation is about give and take, and good conversation is very improvisational. The basic rule of improv theater is to never deny the other person's thoughts and actions, and to end each response with an ‘and' instead of a ‘but.' Denying stops improvement and conversation, and ‘but' slows the conversational flow down. Question postings, but question them positively to make the conversation better.
  • In discussion forums, you will be posting and responding to other posts. If someone comments or responds to a post or comment of yours, it is only polite to respond and acknowledge the comment. If your instructor asks you a question, he expects an answer. The essence of communications is speaking, listening, thinking, and responding. Online, your postings and responses are your involvement in the class.
  • Avoid jargon, idioms, and acronyms, and assume your reader, even your teacher, has no understanding of your topic of conversation. Err on the side of wordy so everything is clearly explained.
  • If you can find an outside reader for your paper reports, you can quickly find the areas which are confusing and work on them before posting.
  • If you say "I believe" or "in my opinion," you have to follow with the word "because" and provide adequate support to support your belief. You cannot just think and believe in college. You think and believe for a stated logical reason.
  • If you didn't write it, think it, say it, draw it, compose it, or program it, you must cite the original sources. Just because something is available for "free" on the Internet does not mean you do not have to attribute ownership. Citing is called footnoting, and anything less gets you a bad grade and possibly expelled from college. It is easy to do and shows evidence of research, which will impress your instructor and potentially lead to a higher grade.
  • Maybe the biggest advantage of online learning is actually having the time to think before you speak or act, so use your time well. When the on-ground instructor asks, "So, what do you think?" she means now. Online, she means you have time to organize your thoughts and present your ideas clearly.

To Recap

Read first, write second, and cite everything you didn't create yourself. Take the time to think, spell, and grammar check every thing. Be considerate of everyone in the classroom. Try not to ‘deny' in the discussion forum. Find a friend to proofread all your papers, and in the best of all worlds, see if your instructor is willing to read a draft to get feedback before grading. If you are willing to make the extra effort to write early, most instructors will be more than happy to read a draft.

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