How well do you communicate? You might tell me that you communicate better one-on-one than you do speaking to a crowd, or maybe you can put your ideas down on paper better than you can convey them over a coffee with a friend. The fact is all of us have preferences in how we communicate and it's no different when trying to convey a message through Digital Technologies. The medium may have changed and will always be changing but the skills required to communicate effectively to learners over and through new technologies can be learnt. In my experience the general principles of good communication apply in a digital space and in many ways the experience is improved. We now have hashtags, geotagging, short sharp messaging services and video blogging and understanding all these things is important if you are to embrace what eCommunication can offer your E-learning strategy.

The reason I have written about eCommunication is that I think it has become a critical skill for modern life and workplace and more attention needs to be given to its power to transform practice in the education sector. The 'e' in eCommunication is simply to acknowledge that in addition to general communication skills we now require a unique set of skills when communicating over and through technology. What we are talking about in practical terms is communicating with others through such tools as Email, Forums, Live Chat, Webinars, Blogging and Social Media.

You already make decisions about how best to communicate in situations everyday. Some ways we can improve eCommunication in E-learning include learning how to use the most appropriate technology at the right time. This takes experimentation, observation of your learners and lots of practice. Just a few years ago I remember facilitating my first live Webinar session with a group of teachers. Although the technology was novel, I was left feeling like we spent half the time problem solving with participants' audio settings and that surely I could have just emailed the group a PowerPoint with some notes instead. As I've said before things change quickly in this space. These days my Webinars hit the ground running and are a highly engaging and interactive experience for all involved not so much because of me but because the audience knows how to appropriately use this communication tool. Discussion points around stimulus material and a shared real-time experience, this is where Webinars come into their own. There are still times that I realise a Webinar is NOT the appropriate eCommunication technology to get a message across to an audience and a simple illustrated diagram sent by email would be far more efficient (email is not dead, just disrupted). To often people focus on the tools and not on the medium and interactions, they actually require to communicate effectively.

Static, Over-Time, Real-Time.

The key to effective digital communication is in the right mix and appropriate use of communication modes that are what I call either Static, Over-Time or Real-Time. Each mode has unique qualities and suitability's to the context we are communicating in and in meeting the goals of our communication. Static is fixed content intentionally communicated from one person to another. This could be a Web Page, a long form Blog Post, a Video, it is essentially 'one way' communication. This is useful when no immediate feedback is required and you need to get across a semi-permanent and sometimes detailed message. Over-time is useful when we need to have an ongoing conversation that is recorded, accessible, but not necessary in Real-Time. An example of an Over-Time tool is an Online Forum, an Instant Message system. Even a #Hashtag creates an 'anchor' for Over-Time communication. Real-Time is exactly that, communication in real time (at the same time) and can be anything from a phone call to a five-way video conference.

Two people talking at the same time Real-Time Communication

Increasingly we have communication technologies that merge all three modes into one. If you think about the Facebook 'Messages' feature, they are recorded in a Static location, they facilitate a discussion Over-Time and by push notifications and instant updates they become a Real-Time chat tool as well. In this case it's good to understand that what you send as an 'instant' message, may be received/perceived as an 'email' and that sender and receiver might have different expectations about how the communication mode is working.

People taking turns talking Over-Time Communication Someone reading information Static Content

I've often seen Real-Time webinar tools used to capture and create Static Video Content. The problem is watching a recorded Webinar or a Video of a face-to-face lecture is often a painful experience, why is that? I would rather watch a set of clear visuals with voice over eg. Embedded presentation media, because the Real-Time technologies were never originally meant to be used as Authorware. If you want to primarily use Real-Time communication and capture it for static consumption then I encourage you to do so, but if your main goal is to create quality Static content then you're much better off choosing tools that support your intended Communication mode.

E-learning or E-teaching

I am sure you agree that the role of the teacher is still important. I think of the teacher Jack Black plays in the movie School of Rock and the complexity of the teacher-student relationship and all that occurs in a learning process. The teacher brings enthusiasm, motivation, compassion, facilitates a community of learners and most importantly frames up some context for the learning experience. We think we can take all of that online! The truth is we can't take all of this online, at least not in the same way.

many things go into what we call the role of online teacher, including being  role model, reflecting back, answering questions, direct learning, leading discussion, providing context, industry inssights, motivating learners

Often what happens is our communication online never moves beyond, Complementary Resources, as mentioned in Chapter 1. It is simply a means to an end. To say E-learning is not often enough E-teaching is not just playing with words. I think we are in danger of only focusing on the learner and their experience and create increasingly isolated and automated online environments. I have found that learners are starting to reject online training with no facilitator (except when learners arrive at a stage of self-driven professional learning) and prefer a mix of Self-Paced learning with a Real-Time facilitator. Consider a mix of live weekly webinars to compliment your online course work and I think you will find your learners retain higher engagement and achieve better outcomes. Consider Skype/Phone calls with learners to just 'touch-base' or even conduct one of your assessments this way. I think you will find as I have that the learner will feel more connected and more motivated having a human to talk to amongst all this content.

"One of the best tools I use for communicating with students is actually video, it doesn't take very long to shoot a short video, upload it to Youtube and share the link or through social media and it's really important to be excplicit with students about what communication channels you'll be using, (social media, Learning Management System), be clear about how often and when you'll be checking and responding and keep your promises!" Kim Tairi - librarian, educator, ukulele player

Recent trends in eCommunication

Always Faster: The internet is getting faster and almost just to keep up so is our computer processing power. Efficiencies created through High-speed broadband for all communications across the globe include near Real-Time sharing of texts, audio and visual data. Video services are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and most importantly for E-learning the expectations we have are changing in an online space. Your learners don't like to wait even five seconds for that video to load anymore and if they have to wait 10 seconds they will go somewhere else.

Short and Sharp: What can be said in a paragraph of text might now also be said in one photo and three words. Think of the persuasiveness of online Image Memes as a communication tool, containing shared meaning in a way that is parallel with the power that political cartoonists have had for years.

Data doesn't stand still and we are always saying something to someone. When you switch off your devices and stop sharing data you are saying something most profound.

Non-Permanence: There are a rising number of communication technologies that delete messages seconds after arrival. Obviously there is a generations of people using this for flirtatious activity, however it also mirrors the fast moving and quickly forgotten nature of the social 'feed'. There is no permanent or long lasting record of communication, or if there is the trend is towards staying in the moment. The past is gone and insignificant when you have Real-Time information ready at your fingertips.

Portable Wearable: Smartphones and emerging wearable technology has radically increased the frequency and immediacy we communicate with others and the world around us. It's not just communication through a message alone, but messages that are stamped with data about our location, who we are with, what time of day it is and even our heart-rate and all of this is collated into big data sets that shape our collective knowledge. Data doesn't stand still and we are always saying something to someone. When you switch off your devices and stop sharing data you are saying something most profound. Location services are telling a story about where we go and our communication comes loaded with context largely due to portable technology.

Big Social: Email is not dead and neither are Newspapers, but Social Media has staked it ground as one of the most influential and disruptive communication technologies we have. Social Media has in many ways pioneered the merging of Real-Time and Over-Time communication technologies. The aggregation of content, the swarming effect towards trending topics and the very nature of modern online communication is influenced by Social Media and it will continue to be an influence on E-learning and learner expectations.

Synchronous & asynchronous delivery

Synchronous delivery refers to Real-Time delivery or engagement through eCommunication technologies. The sending and receiving of a message is happening at the same time like a live Video Chat or Collaborative Whiteboard.

Asynchronous delivery by contrast means that the communication is not Real-Time but Over-Time such as a Discussion Forum or Wiki.

These differences between the terms are most commonly described when discussing online video conferencing but nearly all categories of Educational Technologies can be either Synchronous or Asynchronous. This includes video, audio, text, polling and more. Asynchronous communication uses technology that does not require immediate response.

Reasons to use Synchronous Delivery;

  • You require the authentication and evidence of Real-Time participation
  • You want the positive dynamics and 'banter' of live discussion
  • To structure your learners experience around set time frames.

Reasons to use Asynchronous Delivery;

  • You require time for a considered response between messages
  • Sharing ideas over-time such as group work or reflection exercises
  • To collaboratively build and improve a body of content.

Some learners are unable to be in the right place at the right time and will simply miss out on Synchronous events such as Webinars. Many online conferencing platforms allow for a video capture of the session so those who missed an online gathering can playback the video, audio and interactions of participants as if they were present. Twitter Feeds and other backchannel technologies that capture real time responses from an audience can also be captured for later viewing.

eCommunication Tools

It's just after lunch on a Wednesday afternoon and I get a reminder email about a Webinar that I am running at 2pm. I click on the facilitator's link and am taken through a number of login screens to finally arrive at the virtual room where I will be teaching a group of twenty teachers about Social Media Policy for the next hour. As people arrive I quickly write a welcome message in the chatbox and ask people to share what School they are from and a little bit about themselves. While uploading my slide presentation to the center of the screen for everyone to see I check my headset microphone is working and the participants give me a 'thumbs up' to indicate they can hear me fine. I open my webcam just for a quick hello to everyone but joke that I'll be turning the video chat feature off for the session as nobody wants to look at my ugly head all day. I draw a circle on the screen around the first point in my slide to grab the audiences' attention and begin my talk. My office is quiet, there is nobody here but myself, my headset, a coffee and my connection to twenty wonderful educators who have logged in from all over Australia.

What you see here in this example is a robust communication platform where we see the convergence of multiple communication technologies working together and enhancing the overall experience. If you are conducting Real-Time eCommunication in such environments you shouldn't take for granted the complexity of what is happening with every action and in every moment. I have found the acceptance, confidence and engagement with Webinars from learners is growing exponentially and have found that half of the workshop facilitation requests I now get are for Webinars instead of face-to-face.

Webinar tool with video, chat, recording and virtual whiteboard Webinar Environment

Categories of eCommunication tools;

  • Scheduling and Registration
  • Document Sharing
  • Audio/Video
  • Text/Forum
  • Whiteboard/Drawing
  • Presentation Sharing
  • Screen Share/Screen Capture
  • Short Response: Polling/Survey/Quiz

Facilitation Skills

One-to-one or one-to-many, you may find that communication over digital platforms is like learning to ride a bike for the first time. You really need to get on that bike now because the move towards eCommunication as an everyday task means your facilitation skills in this new space are essential in the toolkit of the education professional.

Do you remember that one awkward dinner party where the guests all seemed to just take turns speaking one at a time? Perfect, it can take some getting used to but that is what online meetings are like.

When I facilitate an online meeting it is much like face-to-face teaching, we break the ice, people share names and introductions, I have visual aides, we ask and respond to questions. It is also nothing like face-to-face teaching in that we are not physically in the same room, eye contact and other natural human feedback indicators are not at your disposal. The nuances and flow of conversation is not the same either. Do you remember that one awkward dinner party where the guests all seemed to just take turns speaking one at a time? Perfect, it can take some getting used to but that is what online meetings are like. Most of us are out of the habit of taking turns and leaving space for others to speak, but you will need to relearn this habit fast to be an effective meeting facilitator. The same goes for allowing someone in the group too much air- time versus being so rigid in turn-taking that people feel unable to express themselves naturally.

Online Meetings are;

  • a place where etiquette is important, be early, welcome guests, respond to questions, indicate if you step out for a while
  • not just about audio visual communication, but also writing, visual communication, whiteboard annotations, polls, gestures, file and screen sharing. Learn the toolkit and use it appropriately
  • about modeling behavior to participants. Many might be experiencing an online meeting for the first time so use the range of communication tools and others will follow your lead
  • can be done anywhere but it's almost polite to be prepared with a good internet connection and little background noise
  • are worth preparing for, upload content early, test your audio settings before guests arrive, tell your colleagues you'll be busy for the next hour, invest in a quality headset, pre-open links you will be sharing. Prepare, prepare and then prepare some more.
Francis Kneebone conduction a webinar from a computer wearing a headset with microphone

Stages of an online meeting

Obviously there are stages to an online meeting. Beginning-Middle-End. Most people focus on the middle but it is the 'before' and 'after' a meeting that are often neglected. It's important to play your part well at each stage for an effective meeting to take place.

Invite Invitations to Participants need to include Who is invited, What the meeting is about, Where to meet (online room links), When, Setup Instructions.

Setup Arrive early and test all the applicable technology including audio in and out, slide content, open links to visit or share in advance, test polling tools or any other things your plan to do involving the technology during your meeting.

Opening Etiquette doesn't have to be preached but certainly needs to be modeled by you, Ice breakers can include some images or a quote that participants can relate and respond to, taking turns sharing names and expectations of session. If you're recording your session, don't forget to hit the record button!

During Just like in a physical room you need to be the ever-observant teacher watching for signs and feedback from your group to respond to their needs. Are they paying attention, did someone just raise their hand, is someone not getting a chance to speak, do you need to slow down and make yourself more clear, do you need to move on to the next point.

Closing Share a summary of information you want the group to keep fresh in their minds after the meeting has closed. This could be key points, next steps, follow up links and contact details. Be the last to leave as there may be final questions or discussion points participants need to have with you that they didn't get the chance or feel comfortable sharing during the session.

After Follow up with what is promised to participants, including any links to session recordings, slides, notes or any other relevant material post-meeting either at a designated space online or through an email. I've even invited a Webinar group to a specific social media destination for further discussion.

The role of a Moderator

The Web Meeting Moderator (extra support person in the virtual room) can be critical in managing larger groups in online meetings and help you with every stage of a meeting. To really understand the Moderator role you should take turns being Moderator with your colleagues so you can experience a Webinar from a Moderators point of view.

How Moderator's support a Webinar;

  • Test Settings, Slides and Polls are working
  • Welcome guests as they arrive and support their audio/visual setup
  • Switch on countdown timers, recordings, send participants documents
  • Answer Questions, direct questions to you
  • Let the speaker know when your going too fast or you are running out of time

Go and...

  • Draw three columns on a piece of paper with these three headings [ static content, over-time, real-time.] and write which or your current technologies/E-learning strategies fit into each column.

  • Look at your most visited news and information sites. What is it about the way they communicate digitally that appeals to you?

  • Go Offline: Don't forget to keep Phone Calls and Coffee Shop in your eCommunication toolkit!

  • Consider how you can use (or put back) Real-Time teacher lead experiences into your program. Examples of this are Weekly scheduled classes via Webinar, or a Skype call to each learner once a month.

  • If you haven't done so already you need to go and facilitate a Webinar, even with some of your colleagues, to experience this exciting, complex but fresh communication technology. You will build confidence overtime. Go through the stages of an online meeting and plan out your meeting first, then invite participants.

  • Be a Moderator in an online meeting for someone else who is presenting. This will give you better insight into what is really important in supporting the technology, participants and the facilitator. I am often a Moderator for a friend who is presenting online meetings and they then return the favor.

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