Best practices - Communication Strategies

The information on these Best Practices pages comes from the State of California Online Educational Initiative (OEI) Peer Online Course Review (POCR) rubric, as well as information from SRJC's Distance Education Department regarding best practices, and SRJC Board Policy.


The instructor’s engagement and involvement in the online classroom is critical. A present, engaged instructor helps create coherence in the online classroom and builds a sense of community that leads to students’ learning. Online instructors should guide their students through the course and take an active role in facilitating learning.

Studies have shown that students who feel as though they are part of a community of online learners will be more successful in online courses. Creating that community requires an intentional strategy on the part of the instructor to foster dialog and interaction between students and between students and their instructor.

The instructor’s engagement and involvement in the online classroom is critical. A present, engaged instructor helps create coherence in the online classroom and gives students the sense that they are being guided through the learning process by a subject matter expert, who is taking an active role in facilitating learning.

Consider the following strategies for building strong instructor-student and student-student communication.


Course Review Rubric

Tips and Best Practices

Contact information for the instructor is easy to find and includes multiple forms of communication (for example, e-mail, phone, chat, etc.)

Instructor contact information should always be in the syllabus (as required by SRJC Board Policy). It may also be helpful to post it at the top of the course, at least for the first couple of week of class since that is when most students will have questions. When possible, try to give students options for how to contact you. Email is good, but some students may prefer a phone call, an online chat, etc.

Expected response time for email replies (or other communication tool) is included

When possible, instructors should let students know they will get back to them within 48 hours. It's very helpful to also let them know if there are certain days of the week when you are always unavailable. However, it's important to consider this when you are scheduling your due dates. For example, if you are never available on Sundays, it's probably not ideal to have due dates on Sunday evenings, since many/most students will be finishing assignments that day and will surely have questions.

The instructor’s role within the course is explained (for example, instructor participation in discussions and activities, role—if any—in tech support, etc.)

Post days that you will be checking the class message list, blogs, and/or student email, for example T/Th, M/W or M–F, etc. Advise students of the average turnaround time they may expect for instructor feedback on assignments. If you will be unavailable for a period of time during the semester, notify students beforehand.

The instructor’s methods of collecting and returning work are clearly explained

  • Automatically Graded Assignments: Results of tests and exams that are automatically graded should be available to the students immediately after their due date.
  • Instructor Graded Assignments: Feedback should be individual and meaningful. Students should be informed about when they can expect feedback. Feedback should be given as soon as possible so that students may learn from instructor comments before encountering new lessons and assignments.
  • General Feedback: Provide general feedback to the entire class on specific assignments or discussions.
  • Weekly Introduction and/or Wrap-up: Provide a weekly “wrap up” before the next lesson begins.
    Introduce a new week with an overview (including deadlines) of what is coming up.
  • Feedback From Students: Gathering feedback is an important activity for improving your course. Anonymous surveys the beginning, middle, and end of the course are highly effective. Early feedback allows an instructor to change direction if necessary; feedback at the end of the course will provide good overall information about the effectiveness of the course.

There are plentiful opportunities for synchronous and/or asynchronous interaction, as appropriate

Discussion Boards or Message Lists: 
Online courses often require students to interact on a discussion board. Deciding how to assess such participation requires some forethought and will affect overall grading schemes. Ensure that discussion topics are focused and meaningful. Take into account issues such as whether or not the discussions will be required, and, if they are required, how to fairly and consistently reward students for their interaction. Carefully consider the amount of time discussion board assignments take to complete (students frequently complain about discussion board activities as being too time consuming). Also, consider the required format for responses, including proper English usage, and appropriate etiquette, as well as how to encourage more hesitant writers (including emerging language learners) to participate.

Consider providing more than one discussion forum—specific discussion boards (or pages) for responding to assigned questions and tasks, and a general discussion board where students may ask and answer general class-related questions. If more than one discussion board is used, a distinction should be made between graded discussions and non-graded discussions, and where the instructor will post comments and/or feedback.


Effective collaboration using email depends upon the instructor’s creation of clear and specific guidelines for interaction and explanation of tasks and goals for collaboration. When requiring students to connect with other students, first consider setting up dedicated message lists for group assignments. If students will be connecting via their email, inform the students of their right to privacy, they may want to use a newly-created Google or Yahoo email account and keep their personal email address private.

Use good communication practices:
Be aware that some of your online students may be non-native English speakers from other cultures. Provide definitions for key vocabulary,summarize main ideas, reinforce important concepts, review prior content, and be mindful that using slang and idioms may be problematic for some students. A course Glossary can be very helpful in this regard.

Communication strategies promote critical thinking or other higher order thinking aligned with learning objectives

When considering the types of questions you will ask or discussion topics you will post, try to avoid questions that will evoke simple, declarative statements. Ask students to post replies and comments that are carefully thought out and constructed in order to promote quality discussion.

Communication activities benefit from timely interactions and facilitate “rapid response” communication (i.e., students gain practice discussing course content extemporaneously without looking up basic, declarative information)

  • Live Online Lectures using CCC Confer
    Using CCC Confer/Blackboard Collaborate, instructors can lecture live and interact with students connecting remotely. Instructors can share their desktop with students, enhancing online instruction. Students can ask questions via telephone, or by microphone. Sessions can be recorded and archived, and live captioning service is available upon advance request.
  • Chat rooms 
    Chat rooms offer opportunities for students to interact with the instructor or fellow students synchronously. Students can build community and chat with other student when questions come up as they work on their homework. Chat rooms can be used as a replacement for in-class discussions. Protocols for interaction should be clearly defined. To create an effective chat, have a clear agenda and make sure the chat flows in a meaningful pattern. For example, assign students the task of reviewing information that will be relevant to the chat and give students questions in advance that focus the discussion, or have students write something in advance and begin the chat by posting their text. Allow students time to concentrate on reading rather than typing in comments in the beginning; then direct the discussion to responding to the posts.


Course Review Rubric

Tips and Best Practices

  • Instructors have a plan for initiating contact prior to or at the beginning of class and at regular intervals during the course
  • On your course syllabus and section page, state clearly how the student is to access the course materials and class message list.

  • Greeting Your Students:
    A welcome message should be the first thing students see when they initially log into the course. Keep the tone of this message warm and inviting. 

    Introduce yourself to the class, and have students introduce themselves to you and to one another in order to begin building a “community of learners.” Consider asking students to post photographs of themselves or of something they care about, such as a pet or favorite flower, to their personal Web pages, discussion board posts, or Blogs, so that you and other students can create a personable visual connection. Post a picture of yourself (or of something you care about) to the course Web site as well.

    Possible student activities include:

    • Sending an email in which they explain why they enrolled in the course, what they already know about the content of the course, and what they hope to learn.
    • Introducing themselves in the discussion board.
    • Posting a message in the appropriate group discussion board with a link to a Web site they think will benefit students in the class.
    • Building a Web page or Blog.
    • Consider making the first week's assignment fairly simple. One possibility is a quiz during the first week that includes questions about the syllabus, class Web site and procedures.

Communication activities are designed to help build a sense of community among learners


Student-to-student interactions are included as part of the course. Students are encouraged to initiate communication with the instructor.


Collaboration activities (if included) reinforce course content and learning outcomes, while building workplace-useful skills such as teamwork, cooperation, negotiation, and consensus-building



Course Review Rubric

Tips and Best Practices

Guidelines explaining required levels of participation (i.e., quantity of interactions) are provided


Expectations regarding the quality of communications (e.g., what constitutes a “good” answer) are clearly defined


A rubric or equivalent grading document is included to explain how participation will be evaluated


The instructor plans to participate actively in communication activities, including providing feedback to students


The instructor plans to use communication tools effectively to provide course updates, reminders, special announcements, etc.