Online Communication Options

The Best Choice .... according to the experts

Takimoto-Makarczyk (1999) – "Incorporating effective interaction is central for a successful online learning experience.... In both [online learning and the traditional classroom experience], interaction is critical for successful learning."


  • One research study suggests that students in online courses required more interaction than the face-to-face courses to achieve similar degree of student satisfaction (Richardson & Ting, 1999).
  • Electronic communication technology allows for communication to continue even outside of official "classroom time" or "office hours".

Basic Information

The following are several methods of online interaction along with their benefits and hidden pitfalls.


Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) – The term relating to software and networking hardware enabling correspondents to communicate with each other via a computer.

Asynchronous Communication - Any online communication where participants can be online at different times. Common methods of asynchronous communication include e-mail, listservs, blogs, bulletin boards, newsgroups areas and threaded discussion areas.

Threaded Discussion – The pedagogical technique of using and structuring discussion forums communication in topics or "threads" to allow students to explore and express their ideas as related to an instructional topic. The Discussion Forum in the ANGEL Course management system is a threaded discussion area.

Synchronous Communication – Methods of CMC where correspondents are all on-line at the SAME TIME. Software enabling synchronous communication is also known as chatting software.

Chat – A synchronous CMC method where participants send text messages to each other at the same time. Two Penn State tools which include a chat component are the ANGEL course managment system and Breeze (Adobe Connect). Other well known chat systems include AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), iChat (Mac Only), IRC, and ICQ.

Online Conferenicing – Online conferencing systems allow users to talk over the Internet, send video signals, view each other computer screens, take polls or view online presentations over the Internet. Breeze (Adobe Connect) is a Penn State conferencing systems; others include Centra and WebEx.

Voice Chat – A chat system in which speakers can speak over the Internet.

Discussion Forums (Threaded Discussion)

The Discussion Forum in the ANGEL Course management system allows students to leave messages on a given topic at a time of their choosing. Users can communicate with each other at different times.

Threaded discussion means that instructors can create individual discussion forums for specific topics, thus allowing instructors to guide directions of discussions more than in other tools.

A topic contains a starting message and replies to that message. Any user may read any messages created previously, create a new topic, or reply to an existing topic.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Benefits Drawbacks Suggestions
  1. Students can write messages at their own convenience.
  2. Discussions can be organized into different topics, reducing the processing load for participants
  3. Introverted students feel often more comfortable writing online than speaking in class
  4. Students have more time to reflect on their answers
  5. Can simulate some blog functionality
  1. Students often need "encouragment" to post or send replies.
  2. Many instructors not sure how to grade responses.
  1. Make threaded discussion a required portion of the grade
  2. Provide template answers or a guideline of how long or in what format you want answers
  3. Grade discussion forums like in-class discussions or presentations rather than written essays


Online Chat

Chat refers to any system that allows any number of logged-in users to have a typed, real-time, online conversation via a network, where each individual is at an individual computer, and individuals are usually geographically dispersed. Chats are synchronous discussions in that participants talk to each at the same.

Two Penn State tools which include a chat component are the ANGEL course managment system and Adobe Connect. Other well known chat systems include AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), iChat (Mac Only), IRC, and ICQ.

Benefits Drawbacks Suggestions
  1. Students can talk to each other at the same time.
  2. Participants can be at different locations yet talk to each other (e.g. virtual office hours)
  1. Very "informal" - Students may make innappropriate comments they wouldn't do in a face-to-face class
  2. Loss of audio and body language information may mean misinterpreted messages.
  3. Quick typing skills required
  4. Can get disorienting if too many participants are online
  1. Provide online ettiquette guideline
  2. Allow for abbreviations and non-standard capitalization
  3. Use for planning or quick communiction, rather than in-depth discussion
  4. Make sure the chat times are scheduled in advance if they are required
  5. Restrict number of chat-room participants

E-mail and Listservs

On the one hand, e-mail is easy to use and is almost universally used. On the other hand, communications can get "lost in the shuffle." Below are some suggestions on how to more efficiently administer student e-mail.

Additional suggestions are listed on E-mail Tips and Strategies for Faculty.

Benefits Drawbacks Suggestions
  1. Almost all students use e-mail.
  2. Easy to learn and access.
  3. Ideal for communicating quick unexpected announcements
  1. Instructors may get overwhelmed with messages
  2. Easy to lose track of messages
  3. Students don't always identify themselves clearly.
  1. Provide guidelines to students on expected reply time.
  2. Request students include class information and name in messages.
  3. Use the same mailbox for all messages. Some instructors restrict e-mail to ANGEL mail only; others only use Penn State e-mail.
  4. Create folders in your e-mail utility to sort messages.

Online Conferencing

Online conferencing systems, such as Adobe Acrobat Connect which include audio, video and chat support are one of the newer options available. There are great benefits because of the ability to hear and see each other, but there are currently start-up requirements (microphones, headsets, cameras) that not be automatically available to all students.

See the Adobe Acrobat Connect page for information on how to get started, including suggested headsets, cameras and equipment.

Benefits Drawbacks Suggestions
  1. Live audio, video feeds
  2. Share computer screens for live demos
  3. Includes a chat utility
  4. Can be recorded for an archive
  5. Supports Friends of Penn State accounts (for guest speakers)
  1. Users must have headsets if they want to hear audio
  2. Users must have cameras if they want to transmit video.
  3. Users should test set-up at least 15 minutes before each session.
  1. Announce scheduled meeting times in advance.
  2. Review set-up of virtual meeting room well before the first meeting.
  3. Allow time in meeting to resolve set-up issues for students
  4. Provide non-Breeze e-mail, phone number or AIM address as an emergency contact.
  5. Post materials on a non-Breeze site as a backup.
  6. Speaker phones can be a backup audio system


Dwyer, C.(2003). Engaging students. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from Pennsylvania State Angel Web site:

Garrison, D. R. (1990).  An analysis and evaluation of audio teleconferencing to facilitate education at a distance.  The American Journal of Distance Education, 4(3), 13-24.

Garrison, D. R.(1993). A cognitive constructivist view of distance education: An analysis of teaching-learning assumptions. Distance Education, 14(2).

Moore, M. (1989).  Editorial: Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2),1-7.

Oliver, R., & McLoughlin, C. (1997).  Interactions in audiographics teaching and learning environments.  The American Journal of Distance Education, 11(1), 34-54.

Richardson J. & E. Ting, E. (1999) Making the most of interaction: what instructors do that most affect students perceptions of their learning. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from:

Sutton, L. A. (1999). Interaction. Retrieved May 14, 2003 from:

Takimoto-Makarczyk, Keiko. (1999). "Online interaction" in The Encyclopedia of Educational Technology. Retrieved 15 Dec 2006 from

Additional Penn State Links

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