We communicate each time we interact with another person, and in more ways than just with words. Body language, facial expression, inflection and silence are all forms of communication.

In the online environment, spoken or written words are the most common vehicle for communicating with others. It may be verbal via a headset microphone, or more commonly through a a forum, chat or email in written form. Acquiring fluency in both methods of online communication are vital at university. The same expectations exist in the workplace, so adopting a few key practices whilst you are a student will be of long-term benefit to you.

Online ‘etiquette’ largely reflects regular face-to-face communication. For example, if you wouldn’t shout at a person, then do not use CAPITALS in written communication, unless for structural reasons. More guidance around appropriate written communication is in Forum discussion below.

Compose an email

Email style differs depending on the recipient and your relationship with them. It can also change over the course of a conversation involving multiple reply emails. However, when introducing a topic with someone by email, begin as you would in a formal letter. Here is an example:

Dear Brian,

RE: Writing emails

I have noticed that an email related to university matters begins with ‘Dear’ like a formal letter. It may have a ‘Regarding’ line, although this can be encapsulated in the email’s Subject line. The style of writing at the outset is also formal, with the key points stated in a brief, factual manner. The email is finished with a formal salutation such as Regards, Sincerely or Faithfully.

A Student
Course: 1001

You will note that in signing off, the student has included their name, student ID and relevant course. Lecturers and tutors may have hundreds of students in numerous courses, so be clear who you are and where you fit in. In subsequent emails it may be acceptable to reduce the formality, if continuing an existing conversation. Here is another example:

Hi Brian,

Further to our discussion regarding email style, I note that subsequent emails may be a little less formal. They should still avoid slang terms or ‘sms’ style language and acronyms such as ‘lol’ and smiley faces (emoticons). They can be signed off with a simple Thank you, but student data should still be included.

Many thanks,
A Student
Course: 1001

The formal letter is a device of business. It is important to be able to use this form of communication. You are likely to need this format in the future, regardless of your field of work. For example, in:

  1. A cover letter for a job application
  2. A letter to a government department
  3. A communication with a client
  4. A request from another department
  5. A complaint regarding service.

In the university setting, consider using email contact when you need to raise a personal matter with your lecturer/ tutor. It may be about a administrative matter, or to seek an extension, or any other issue affecting your studies. Academic-related questions and discussions are usually best raised in the class forums.

Forum discussion

A Forum is an online ‘place’. Only people with access to that forum can participate in discussions in it, which are usually written. A topic within a forum is called a Thread. Individual contributions and comments in a thread are called Posts. There can be many threads active in a forum at the same time, but not everyone can start a thread. Your course Moodle shell will contain a News forum where your lecturer can make general announcements relating to the course. Assessment tasks may have a component that requires you to be active in the forum. This includes making contributions such as starting threads, or posting comments into threads started by others.

Forum posts allow us to enter into dialogue with our peers and tutors in the online environment. Through this exchange, ideas are questioned, new information proposed and discussed, and evaluations made. This dialogue helps ideas to evolve. Forum posts are a valuable place to engage in the process of questioning, affirming and/or rebutting key concepts in your course. Being able to see the written conversation thread helps us remain on the topic too, unlike in verbal conversation. Read about how to post to a forum.

Barriers to effective communication

Whether online or verbal, you will come across numerous barriers to good communication, some obvious and some less so. Ask yourself if any of these apply to you when you are in conversation with someone:

  • Judging the other person​
  • Not paying attention to them
  • Using jargon or technical terms
  • Giving unwanted advice or solutions
  • Avoiding the concerns of others

Any of these tendencies could emerge in your conversations at university, whether you want them to or not. Being aware of them is the first step to ensuring you get the most out of your communication, be it face-to-face or online.

Is it an attack, or poor communication?

When another person questions an idea you are passionate about, it can generate an immediate emotional response from you, one of feeling attacked. Replying emotionally to their post will degrade the dialogue.

Instead, look for a question in their post; a counter-argument always poses a question for you to answer. And it is possible that their grasp of written language is not the same as yours. By directing your comments to an implied or obvious question, you will advance the discussion and deflect unhelpful conflict.

Then, critically consider the point made by the other person. Balance the evidence. Does the other have a stronger case? If so, you may need to concede the point. This can lead you to do further research that will improve your argument. Admitting that your argument was based on incomplete evidence is valuable – not only to your development as a critical thinker, but also to future communication. Others will appreciate your input far more than someone who loudly stands by their poorly thought-out argument.

Sometimes, simply the words you chose to express your view may not be understood by others in the same way. When your idea is challenged in an online post, consider using new words to communicate it.

The language of bullying

Put simply, statements you make about another person that are in anyway degrading is bullying. This is not dialogue, and it is an inappropriate behaviour. Using degrading language online at university can result in disciplinary action. Here are some examples of inappropriate statements:

  • “You would have to be stupid to believe that…”
  • “Why should I care what you think?”
  • “You are talking garbage, show me your evidence”

Dialogue is extended by placing value on each person’s contribution, in the same way that research builds on the work of others. Here are some alternative, more helpful and balanced, responses to those above:

  • “The weight of evidence seems to be against that idea …”
  • “I appreciate your opinion, on what do you base it?”
  • “Do you have some specific references for that idea?”

This is not about ‘giving in’ to someone whose argument is not strong. Rather, it is about being diplomatic, a skill that you will need for life.

Making forum posts

Be nice:

  • No ‘flaming’. Avoid personal attacks, pettiness, abuse. Respect other users, and if you disagree with them, explain why.
  • No ‘trolling’. Trolls are posts deliberately designed to provoke an angry response. This is not the same thing as being controversial.
  • No personal disputes. Take those offline.
  • Don’t be patronising or sarcastic; it does not translate well to the online environment. It comes across much worse.
  • Avoid TYPING IN ALL CAPS. This is considered shouting in text.
  • Learn to let go: harping on about the same thing or back to previous arguments is rarely productive.
  • If someone else’s post really troubles you, don’t respond emotionally. Take it to your lecturer instead.

Be effective:

  • Post in the most appropriate forum (and only in one forum).
  • Stay on topic. In particular, don’t change subject in the middle of an existing thread, just start a new topic. Conversely, don’t start a new topic if your post relates to an existing one – reply to the existing thread instead.
  • Ensure you reply to the appropriate post, not just the last post in the thread.
  • When starting a new topic, write a clear and informative subject line. This makes the topic easy to find.
  • For the best chance of being understood, write full sentences, and avoid text-message abbreviations or slang.
  • If asking a question, provide as much information as possible, including what you’ve already considered, what you’ve already read, and so on. You are more likely to get better quality replies.
  • Read what’s already there before posting. You may be repeating what others have already said or asked. It is fine to agree with others, too.

Confusion or clarification?

Replies to a forum post should advance the discussion somehow. Useful replies can come in several forms:

  • A request for clarification
  • A suggested answer
  • A counter-proposal
  • A request for evidence
  • Agreement
  • Extension of the idea
  • Request for additional evidence
  • Provision of supporting evidence
  • Provision of counter-evidence

Unless specifically requested, your personal opinion is not necessarily needed in a forum post. A response based on evidence is more relevant in the university context.

Online chat

Chat communication can occur within your Moodle course, during a virtual class or on social media. The real-time nature of chat can lead to fast typing, which can increase grammatical and punctuation errors as well as typing errors. Check your chat message and repair it before pressing send! Innocent typing mistakes can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings. Whilst emoticons are now common, do not use SMS speak. For example, ‘U’ is not a replacement for ‘you’. Communication is more effective when the guesswork is taken out. Aim to spell words correctly and keep abbreviations to a minimum.

Chat can be problematic when the conversation thread moves on while you are typing your comment. As a result, it is common for a chat to have several related conversations going on at the same time. Try to retain clarity by contributing to each in separate replies. If confusion emerges, suggest taking the chat to a different platform – like the phone!

Contacting staff

If you need to discuss your enrolment or academic progress, first make a telephone call to your School. You will almost certainly need to put a request into writing at some point, and a conversation with administration staff may help to direct your email to the correct staff member. Alternatively, email the admin staff directly. Remember an email of this sort is a form of business correspondence so should be composed carefully, and after checking that it is free of errors.

Contacting your Course Coordinator

Direct general questions about your course to the forum in Moodle. This is a great way to communicate as it means other students who were thinking about asking it will see the answer.

Reserve email communication for matters of a personal nature which directly apply to your studies. The coordinator’s contact details will be included at the front of the course descriptor in the course Moodle shell.

Contacting your lecturer/tutor

There are many ways to contact teaching staff. They will let you know their preferred manner of being contacted, such as having open office hours when you can drop in, or having virtual office for online contact.

Use the course forums in Moodle for any course content-related questions. One answer may help many students if you use the forum. For personal study issues, use an email. How long you will have to wait for a reply to an email depends on whether the staff member is full-time or part-time. The response may be within an hour or take as long as a week.

Audio-visual communication

While most laptop computers have built-in microphone, speakers and web camera (web-cam), many desktop computers need these to be added as separate purchases. Many modern monitors have a web-cam built in or one can be purchased which sits atop the monitor or on the tabletop. A headset is the most efficient combination of microphone and speakers for real time communication.

Within your computer system, programs known as ‘drivers’ interact with these devices to make them work. There are also options within your system to select between various microphones, speakers and web-cams.
Before engaging in online communication, ensure each component is activated and working.

If you come across a technical challenge, you have options to solve it:

Download our helpsheet, Email Communication.