Communicating with Distance Education Students: Do’s and Don’ts

March 28, 2019 Jeff Lang

Last updated on April 2, 2020. 

As higher education professionals who work with technology, we’ve been long time advocates of remote learning. However, we did not foresee the immediate halt to in-classroom learning brought on by the COVID-19 crisis and the urgent need for learning institutions across the world to move to distant learning so rapidly.  

Remote learner studying on their laptop in their kitchen

In last week’s Appirio blog, we highlighted factors and tools related to creating a communication plan to support distance education students. As a follow-up, below are some best practices for using different communication channels, including do’s, don’ts, and use case scenarios.

Email

DOs

  • Make it personal. Always address students by name, and write emails in an engaging and encouraging style. Make it personal on the staff side as well, and include the sender’s contact information.
  • Provide thorough content and clear direction when necessary. Email is the best method of communication to convey information such as step-by-step instructions, but it needs to be clear and concise. 

DON’Ts

  • Simultaneously send multiple emails from different departments. This will result in confusion and may even cause students to ignore emails containing valuable and time-sensitive information.
  • Have multiple, unverified email addresses on file. Using incorrect email addresses can send messages into a black hole, meaning the students will never see the information. Take every opportunity to verify primary email addresses with students to ensure the lines of communication remain open. 

Use Case Scenario - Helping Students Adjust to the Details of Distance Learning

Email is still the best medium for providing detailed and lengthy information clearly and specifically. This makes it an optimal way to help students who are struggling with the details of the switch to distance learning. Take this opportunity to make the communication personal and to build rapport with the student: 

  • Provide clear, bite-sized instructions, breaking things out into steps whenever possible.
  • Offer words of encouragement to get the students back on their feet and provide reassurance that through school support, they can get comfortable with this “new normal”.
  • Use the student’s first name throughout the email when appropriate. 

 

 

Instant Messaging (IM)

DOs

  • Have quick access to links, articles, instructions, FAQ pages, etc. Anyone who will respond to student IMs needs to have links and other documentation readily accessible, so students receive an immediate response with the information they’re seeking.
  • Include the name and photo of the staff member engaging with students via IM. This makes the interaction more personal.

DON’Ts

  • Engage in a lengthy conversation on IM. If it appears the exchange is going south or needs a more formal discussion, switch to a phone call for better results.
  • Have the school website’s IM tool active after hours. If staff are not available to respond, it would be a bad experience for students to send IMs that go unanswered for long periods of time.

Use Case Scenario - Answering Quick Questions

Students will most likely IM with very specific questions related to assignments, due dates, and where to find information. To provide quick and concise answers, have a library of FAQ responses available to all IM responders for easy copy and paste action. Organize the information based on a specific page, topic, or keyword for ease of discovery and to quickly send it to the student.  

Telephone

DOs

  • Call students regarding sensitive situations. Academic advising, finances, or student conduct policy issues are topics best suited for a phone conversation. 
  • Leave messages, always. If it’s a delicate issue, be vague but reinforce the sense of urgency for a call back. If it’s general information, be succinct but detailed. 

DON’Ts

  • Call to deliver a quick message about something optional or relatively unimportant. These messages are best delivered using another medium, such as texting.
  • Ignore time zones. Call students only during appropriate daytime and early evening hours.

Use Case Scenario - Handling Issues That Need a Human Touch

Though “voice” isn’t a part of our lives as it once was, sometimes only a phone call will do. In addition to the complexities of distance learning, we’re all going through an emotionally challenging time. Strong academic performances that suddenly begin to decline significantly can be a sign that a student is coming up against these challenges. If grades continue to slip, an advisor or instructor may want to send a quick text or email encouraging the student to make contact and talk, but a phone call is probably the most effective and personal communication method for situations like these. 

Although some students may prefer not to talk on the phone, getting a voicemail and hearing someone’s voice expressing concern and support could make the student feel better, or may even spark a callback. If the staff member is lucky enough to actually reach the student via phone, a personal conversation can be the best option to find out what is going on, and provide support, sympathy, and resources to help the student deal with personal issues.

 

Texting 

DOs

  • Keep messages short and within the 160-character, single-text limit.  Using more characters breaks the message into multiple texts and could reach the student out of order.
  • Add links to more information. This is especially useful when sending a time-sensitive alert that requires the recipient to access additional information.

DON’Ts

  • Schedule messages when staff are gone for the day and unable to respond. This defeats the purpose of the quick and timely exchange texts are best for. Students are likely to respond to texts right away, so ensure staff are available to engage in that one-on-one exchange.
  • Send negative messaging. When sending important alerts regarding tuition balances or attendance violations, show a sense of urgency but also use encouraging language, so the student will contact staff. Alerts should have a link to the situation’s details.

Use Case Scenario - Checking In

“Schooling from home” is a new concept for many of us - specifically students. We might find some students getting lost or falling through the cracks. A simple text message just to check in and make sure they’re okay and feel like they’re keeping up, can go a long way towards establishing a sense of connection and normalcy. These do’s and don’ts, which are based on best practices and experiences, are not an exhaustive list. Keep in mind every school (and every student) is different, and it’s important to use the tools and messaging techniques that best fit your community. The primary goal is to keep communications open with your students open and personal to help them succeed during this difficult time - so do your best, it will be great!


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About the Author

Jeff Lang

Jeff Lang is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He writes about innovation, creativity, and work culture. He has also been an advertising creative for over two decades.

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