This page discusses various tools, techniques, and guidelines that support communicating with your instructor and your peers in an online environment. Of course, picking up the telephone or sending an e-mail are always options. However, in general, course communication should be handled primarily through an appropriate TRACS discussion forum. Communication using a forum will help build a sense of community within the course and allow your classmates to learn from your insights and/or the responses to your questions.
Note: If you are new to online communication, refer to the Terminology section at the end of this document for definitions of words like chat, thread, and forum.
While communication using the discussion forums is encouraged, there may be times you need to use e-mail to communicate with your instructor or fellow students about matters of a private nature. In these cases, the guidelines below will help ensure effective e-mail communication.
- Be sure that e-mail attachments are in a form that is likely to be easily read by others. In general, TRACS users can read files with the following extensions: .doc, .htm, .jpg, .pdf, .rtf, and .txt.
- Be tolerant of your classmates who may inadvertently make keyboard mistakes and misspell words. E-mail is an informal way of communicating and is not generally held to the same high standards that Texas State University encourages in more formal papers.
- Offensive or abusive language will not be tolerated.
- Don’t send messages using ALL CAPS. It is equivalent to shouting.
- Include a subject in all e-mails. If the e-mail is to your instructor, include the course number somewhere in the subject line.
Discussion Forum Rules
The rules below clarify behaviors that are and are not permissible in a forum, while the guidelines that follow provide suggestions for strengthening your contributions to forums.
- Be sure you are responding to the specific post within the forum with which you would like your response associated by selecting Reply to Message. If you select Reply to Topic, you create a new cluster of messages, known as a thread, within the forum. This is sometimes appropriate and desirable. However, not all messages within a forum should be new threads.
- Respect the views of others even if you disagree. You may express disagreement but do so without any harsh words or potentially inflammatory remarks. It is okay to disagree with a person’s ideas, but it is not okay to attack a person. Offensive or abusive language will not be tolerated.
- Do not criticize grammar and spelling. In this case, as with gifts, it is most definitely the thought that counts.
- Avoid ALL CAPS. It is equivalent to shouting.
- Sign your name and provide a subject for all your posts.
Discussion Forum Guidelines
1. Think of your post in terms of a contribution to a dialogue, not a writing exercise. Elaborate a single idea and keep your message to 150-200 words or less. Texts longer than that can be harder to follow. Here are some helpful tips for enriching the discussion:
a) Ask a question that encourages someone to clarify or elaborate on a comment.
b) Make a comment to link two people's contributions.
c) Explain why/how you found another person's ideas interesting or useful.
d) Build on what someone else has said. Be explicit about the way you are extending the other person's thought.
e) Paraphrase a point someone has already made and build on it.
f) Summarize several people's contributions, taking into account a recurring theme in the discussion.
g) Ask a cause-and-effect question—for example, "Can you explain why you think it's true that if these things are in place, such and such would occur?"
h) Find a way to express appreciation for the insights you have gained from the discussion. Be specific about what it was that helped you understand something better.
2. Make your posts clear and pertinent. Offer clarifying examples for complex and abstract ideas.
3. Make contributions but try not to dominate a discussion.
4. Open new threads with a careful analysis, strong thesis, and supporting evidence. Also include open-ended questions that invite dialogue.
5. In response posts, read earlier posts and respond to one that contradicts or supports your own thoughts. Offer evidence that supports the earlier post or your contrasting point of view and ask challenging, open-ended questions. Or add to a post that is lacking evidence or seems to fall short on an aspect that is important to you.
6. Accept some responsibility for the success of the discussion. Return to the forum and respond to anyone who has responded to you to keep the dialogue going. If the discussion appears to be confused or off-topic, simply say so or ask for help in understanding the point or relevance of remarks you do not follow.
7. Disagree with someone in a respectful and constructive way. You might reflect the comment back to the speaker to indicate that you understand his or her point of view. If possible, point out what is interesting or compelling in someone's comment before explaining why and how you disagree.
Role of Student Moderators
In the event that your instructor asks you to moderate a forum, here are some guidelines you should consider.
- Stimulate discussion. Start a thread by posing a topic question that is thought provoking and open-ended. See tips in item #1 in Discussion Forum Guidelines, above.
- Keep things clear. When you see an ambiguous message, post a response asking for clarification by restating what you believe the message means and asking if your take on it is correct.
- Solicit conflicting opinions by playing devil’s advocate. Take a conflicting position and ask why the opposite is not just as valid. This prevents the discussion from shutting down with useless messages, such as, “I agree.”
- Maintain a balance. Develop a sense of intuition in knowing when to post and when to remain silent. Too many postings by a moderator can limit the participation of others.
- Summarize discussions. At the end of a content section, synthesize the discussions in one message.
How to Use the Chat Room
If your instructor has enabled the Chat Room tool, it will appear in the left-hand navigation bar. Enter a message in the typing area at the bottom of the screen and press the Add Message button.
Of course, chat sessions can occur anytime you and your classmates happen to have entered the Chat Room at the same time. You should also consider scheduling chats in advance to focus on a particular question, topic, or task. You can e-mail your instructor to schedule a chat session during my office hours listed in the course syllabus. Or you may find it useful to schedule a chat session with your team members.
Chat Rules and Guidelines
- Become familiar with the chat tool. Enter a reply of some kind early in the discussion to see how it is integrated into the evolving chat session window.
- Do not be concerned about having letter-perfect responses. Typos and grammatical mistakes are common in chat sessions.
- Write simply and directly. Avoid jargon and special terms.
- Respect the right of each participant to have a point of view. Do not become overly negative or express bitterness in your remarks and avoid offensive or abusive language.
- Realize that rapidly written and quickly read responses may be easily misunderstood. Be ready to be humble about any misunderstandings that might arise.
- Chat sessions may require a great deal of concentration. If you leave the session for some reason, you will lose track of the discussion. You may need to scroll back through the discussion to see what has been mentioned already.
- Expect the session to have some informal and off-topic remarks, especially at the beginning. Try to minimize off-topic remarks and do your best to contribute to a focused session.
Asynchronous: Not occurring in the same time frame; e-mail is an example of asynchronous communication.
Chat session: A form of synchronous communication conducted at a specified time.
Forums: TRACS’s term for the online discussion area. Discussion forums can contain one or more threaded discussions.
Flame: An inappropriately critical e-mail or discussion posting.
Main thread: The initial posting or stated purpose of a discussion forum.
Moderate: The act of fostering communication and learning in an online discussion or chat.
Synchronous: Occurring within the same time frame; chat is an example of synchronous communication.
Thread: A line of discourse on a related issue initiated by a discussion forum participant.