Article by Simon Day, Vice-President of Education at Toastmasters International – a not-for-profit organisation which has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924. The article was originally published in inTuition’s Summer 2020 issue.
The Online Educator: The Art of Effective Online Communication
If you’re a teacher, you were probably expecting the routine of teaching to be fairly stable for the next however-many years. Go to classroom, teach lessons, come home. I was. Of course, there are the ‘expected’ changes, like deadline pressures, marking, exams, schemes of work and so forth, but I don’t think any of us saw this coming!
It can be overwhelming to think that we, the teachers, have now become the students. We are having to rapidly upskill ourselves to support and educate others effectively. Although, in my view, online conversation will never match being stood in front of a class of students, I hope to share a few pointers that might help settle some nerves and help you realise how many transferrable skills you already have as an educator.
Once I adopted online communication, I quickly discovered that a couple strategies that have served me well as a teacher are equally vital when communicating via technology.
Eye contact – this should be maintained 30% of the time for a conversation to be deemed fit for purpose. To establish and maintain relationships of trust and respect, this rises to between 60% and 70%.
In online communication, it is incredibly tempting to look at the face on screen for much of the time, thinking you are making eye contact. You are not. Eye contact is made by looking at the camera lens. Stick a Post-It Note or arrow near the lens (or, if you’re like me, a pair of sticky eyes) as a reminder that when you speak, this is where you should look. It takes practice, but it will pay dividends as students will feel more involved in the experience.
Vocal variety – When you deliver a live lesson or presentation, people can see your entire person and can therefore read facial expression, body language and gesture. Speaking on camera limits this, which places more emphasis on the voice. Varying pitch, pace and volume can help you tell your story with greater authenticity and emphasise key points with greater authority. It will require an investment of energy and commitment, but your voice will need to compensate for these other aspects of communication that are hindered by the limitations of online platforms to help your message be delivered with clarity. If you are delighted, sound delighted. If you are optimistic, sound optimistic. If you are concerned, sound concerned. This will make it much easier for participants to correctly interpret your intended message.
Sending the right message – Call me old-school, but if I’m in a classroom teaching, it’s a white shirt and a tie. If I’m online in a professional capacity, I dress in a professional manner. Sometimes a tie, other times a shirt and jacket, but I deliberately dress and groom to say, “Here I am. I’ve tried. I care.” Sometimes we must reverse the situation and think about how we will be received by our students – do they get the impression we care about them by the language we use, our mannerisms and our dress? How would we feel if someone turned up to a call speaking, acting and looking like we do? If there is even a slight amount of discomfort at this suggestion, perhaps some revisions are in order.
A good word for preparation – If you were going to stand up in front of a class and deliver a session, how much preparation would you put into it? It is easy to think that because we are in a more familiar, comfortable space with no live audience, we can get away with less preparation. This is dangerous ground to walk on. We don’t need days and weeks of rehearsal, but reviewing key objectives in advance and having a clear structure to an online session will also communicate to students that we care about them and ensure the session content is better received and retained.
Improving the experience
Communication is highly nuanced. When we speak in person, it is much easier to read facial expressions, observe gestures, detect body language and discern variations in vocal tone. All of these combine to give us a clearer a picture of precisely what is being said from how it is being said.
Online communication can present barriers to detecting some of these nuances. Poor video quality may obscure facial expression, intermittent audio reception may betray the subtle variations of the voice and restrictive camera angles may hide the true meaning of body language or gestures.
Though it may require a small financial investment, a HD webcam, good pair of over-ear headphones and USB microphone are three pieces of equipment that have notably improved my online communication experience: I can see more clearly, hear more clearly and speak more clearly. My hands are also free to use appropriate accompanying gestures, not being encumbered with wires or handheld equipment. I would estimate the total cost to be around £100, but they have proved invaluable to my communication. I highly recommend this investment, especially if you are educating; anything that improves the user experience to improve retention is worth investing in to facilitate a more immersive experience for all participants.
I sincerely hope that you – and all that concerns you – will be safe and well during these challenging times. I am convinced that learning to communicate more effectively online will benefit you, your family, your students and all you work with in times ahead. I look forward to communicating with you and hope you will find greater joy and meaning in your communications with others.
About the author
Simon Day is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, please visit the Toastmasters website.
For more information on inTuition and how to receive the quarterly journal, visit the Society for Education and Training’s website.