Sunday, November 09, 2014

Do you answer email? Student academic question in online courses

I often get new online instructors who tell me that the amount of email questions they had to answer during the semester was debilitatingly high. Some get discouraged by this mountain of email and they often say teaching an online course takes more time that teaching a face-to-face course. Well, don't despair.

If students send you academic questions via email then you have an opportunity! The current student culture has as a default to ask academic questions via email. However, I think everyone can benefit if Teaching Teams actively try to resist this practice. For every question raised by one student we know that are others that have the same question (especially when the class is large). So I like the practice of reinforcing, whenever possible, that academic questions are to be asked in the discussion forums on the class website (i.e. on the Learning Management System).

In addition to writing it in the syllabus, I have used several tactics over the years, such as:
  1. If you send out a regular weekly News item to students, mention there that academic questions should be placed in the discussion forums on the class website and openly encourage students to answer questions from their peers.
  2. I model the behaviour in the discussion forum early and I pose academic questions in the forum myself (usually I try to link it to a current event, an interesting academic resource, or I try to use the opportunity to discuss a particularly difficult question on a recent assignment, etc).
  3. When I get an academic question from a student via email, I answer the question and then I strongly encourage that the student communicate the question and the answer to the class in the discussion forum (for everyone's benefit)
  4. I also include in the email reply that in the future, academic questions should go into the discussion forum because peers may be able to provide feedback quicker than I can as the instructor, and that open discussion of these issues can benefit many students.
  5. I gently praise those students that answer questions posed by their peers in the class discussion forums, and I very gently correct or add to the discussion, if required.
Every instructor is different in how they strategically guide the ship when they are teaching online; however, with some effort, one can foster a greater sense of group community in online classes with these types of approaches and students can benefit from this. Secretly, the instructor benefits as well.

Do you have any tips or tricks on how to keep you student generated email under control? Share it with us in a comment below.