Communication Overwhelm And Other Challenges for Online


In my last post, I shared the challenges student-facing school staff face in getting a full picture of their students.


Today’s post focuses on two other challenges and creative ways folks are tackling these issues.


Challenge #2: Managing communication across platforms and people
"I'm on email, Slack and my LMS inbox all day. It's impossible to keep up."

A cornerstone of teaching is meeting students where they are. This guidance also extends to communicating with students. Today’s online schools now offer multiple ways for students to connect and engage with their instructors and student success advisors. From email and text messaging to discussion boards and communication platforms like Slack or Discord, schools are giving students a lot of choices. But with that flexibility, these staff members are often bearing the brunt of managing multiple “inboxes.” We heard from instructors and student success advisors that it’s often a struggle to keep up with messages and worry about missing time sensitive communications.


Further amplifying the communication challenge is the trend towards teams supporting students rather than an individual person. Yes, a lead instructor may be delivering the live lectures but there are often TAs, advisors or student success coaches also involved in the academic journey. Coordination, particularly around communications, is critical for a seamless student experience and smooth operations.


To tackle these challenges, here’s what some instructors do:

  • Establish communication norms - Many set expectations with students at the beginning of the course like establishing email as the platform for “official” course communication, Piazza for curriculum or concept questions and Slack for social only. For this approach to be successful, the instructor must be consistent and model the norms like redirecting a homework question posted on Slack to Piazza and answering in Piazza.

  • Pick one platform only - Others have championed picking and sticking to one communication platform that instructors exclusively use. They report that students are often equally confused as to which one will get the quickest response from their teacher.

  • Set up smart notification triggers - Another creative solution is to streamline by setting up a Zapier integration to get all notifications shared to one destination.


Challenge #3: Limited opportunities to learn from peers
"I miss those in-person moments where I used to get quick feedback from peers or observe a master instructor handle a student question."

One common way that student-facing staff onboard and improve their craft is through shadowing their colleagues. This kind of learning happened organically when schools operated in-person - sitting in on each other’s lectures, overhearing how a colleague responds to a student question or getting ad hoc advice by the water fountain. This knowledge forms a “shadow curriculum” that lives in an experienced instructor or student success coach’s head and rarely gets documented. But those who operate online have described a much more lonely experience. Beyond the typical onboarding activities, many are often left on their own to figure out how best to deliver their courses and support students.


Luckily, there are some great online communities for like-minded teachers. A few that were mentioned to me were the Cult of Pedagogy, Modern Classroom and r/professors on Reddit. These are just a couple examples of online spaces that encourage best practice sharing and learning. Ultimately, most also desire to learn closer to home - on the job, from peers who are delivering the same curriculum and supporting the same types of students. Here’s a few ideas that you might consider trying with your team:

  • Set up a regular virtual meetup - even a few minutes out of a busy week to reflect can help get ideas and learnings flowing

  • Group annotate on a master curriculum or calling script - there is a lot of nuance that’s worth annotating and sharing across the team

  • Establish an internal, private slack group - this can become a digital home for real-time troubleshooting or idea generation and job aid for onboarding new instructors

Here at Ribbon Education, we’re on a mission to help online instructors and student success teams tackle these challenges through software so they can get back to where they are best - supporting students. We believe data and software should be an enabler and never a replacement for relationship building. And it's those human touchpoints that deliver the best student experience and outcomes.


If you have found or built solutions that have worked for you, I'd love to hear from you.