Communication Tips For Professors

By Kurt Birkenhagen · August 29, 2017

You can avoid a lot of higher education’s nuisances and headaches with the help of internet tools and software. Here’s how communications technology can make your department run smoother, your office hours more effective, and your students more engaged.

Some of the software we recommend will require a modest investment by your institution, but it’s nothing that will break a department’s bank. They’re the kind of thing that you should be able to convince your chair and colleagues to try out. Other products we’ve recommended—like Google Drive and Dropbox—have useful free versions.

“Institutions are trying to find ways to best serve the students that they seek to engage,” says Christopher Paul, an associate professor at Seattle University. “There are interesting challenges and opportunities in online education, and it’s up to each school to figure out what works for them. They need to experiment and play around with it—and it’s up to faculty to find out how best to do it.”

Move Your Syllabus To The Cloud

If you teach the traditional cohort of college students, you probably hand out a lot of replacement syllabi to forgetful teenagers.

Fortunately, you can easily share the syllabus for all of your classes online. It’s easy—and free—to create a living syllabus document, in the cloud, on Google Drive. There, you can attach links to academic literature, news clips, or images. You can even link to video. Creating that document will help you teach; you’ll have all the relevant materials in one place when you want them.

You’ll also be able to make changes, cuts, or additions to your syllabus as the term progresses. A course changes every time you teach it. The composition of the class, new scholarship, and your own opinion of the material can each change the way you want to teach. With an internet-native syllabus, you can make those changes as you go.

Use Learning Management Software

Learning management software (LMS) can do the same thing as a cloud syllabus, and even more. LMS platforms like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle, or project management software like Slack or Basecamp, allow you to share materials and assignments with all of your students simply.

You can track their progress on important deadlines and be confident that they have access to all the relevant materials. You can also set up collaborative tools that allow students to comment on shared documents, which can create lively discussion outside of class.

Set Up Virtual Office Hours

All LMS and project management platforms also feature chat. Chat is less formal and time-consuming than email. It’s the perfect place to ask a simple question. Extended chat conversations can even be a substitute for office hours. Consider setting up chat office hours, during which you can help students without a commute to campus. You can even set up video office hours for the same reason.

“Students aren’t always able to make office hours because of other classes they are enrolled in, and sometimes because of standing work or family obligations,” says Melanie McNaughton, an associate professor at Bridgewater State University. “I commute an hour to work, as do many of my students. Having face-to-face meetings over video is one way to facilitate connecting with students when it is challenging to meet in person.”

Indeed, you might find that video chat makes your office hours meetings more useful.

“I did think (video chat) worked really well with a teen,” says Jenn Kennedy, a therapist. “I suspect this is because they are more accustomed to technology. While many teens don’t make eye contact and feel distant in the room, with the technology focused on their face they tend to talk more.”

Office hours can be intimidating to students, especially if they’re struggling. It’s paradoxical: students might be best helped by a one on one meeting when they’re behind, but they might be too embarrassed or uncomfortable to go to your inner sanctum and work it out. If they can reach out to you online, just like they would a friend or family member from home, they might be more comfortable and forthcoming.

Run Your Department Online

Departmental politics can be agony. Even cordial departments can run off the rails if the chair of the moment is disorganized.

So move everyone onto Slack or Basecamp. Instead of digging through your email inbox for a nine-month-old email, you can use their powerful search tools to find the seminar room’s schedule. Post everyone’s publication schedule in the same place. Get all the department’s correspondence in an easy to read chat thread instead of an illegible and intimidating email mess.

You can even assign absentminded or lackadaisical colleagues specific tasks—with reminders!—to make sure that all departmental business gets done on time. Or as close to on time as possible.

Record Your Lectures

Consider recording your lectures to audio or video and sharing them over the internet. You can serve two purposes by doing so. First, your recording can be distributed to your students after class is over. They’ll have a new resource to refer to when they study or they’re working on a project.

Second, you’ll make class itself more accessible. Sick students won’t have to miss a class—neither will sick professors, for that matter, who can conduct lecture classes over video conference or conference call. Consider setting up a call in number or live stream of your lecture classes.

“In the summer we do a lot more online and hybrid,” says Paul. At Seattle University, many of the students’ required classes are offered during the summer, so that they can dig deeper into their majors during the semester.

Paul says that online teaching has also allowed SU to teach people who might not be otherwise able to attend a four-year liberal arts school. “We also have a school of New and Continuing Studies targeting nontraditional students. They do a lot of online and hybrid learning to reach those communities better.”

In short, online communication tools can make your job easier. More importantly, they’ll help your students have meaningful conversations with you about what you’re teaching them. If you can lead your institution to embrace new technology, you might even be able to reach a whole new set of students.


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