Online Now: Introduction to Communication Tools

What you will be able to do after this section:

  • Differentiate the uses and purposes of synchronous and asynchronous tools.
  • Identify the benefits and limitations of each communication method.

Within all disciplines, we develop and utilize tools that can make our lives easier. Some tools can allow tasks to be completed more efficiently, while others may assist in fostering meaningful conversation. The online classroom is just as well-equipped for these needs. There are a variety of tools available that can enhance the learning and teaching processes, so it is important to explore what the learning platform has to offer.

While you may think about what you are going to say in a classroom, you may not take into consideration the length of time it will take for the class to process it.. In a face-to-face classroom, a lot of our communication with students happens at the same time, in the same place. You may be accustomed to holding full class discussions, where the students can participate all together in real-time.. In contrast, if you were to record a lecture, learners might watch the video at a time that is most convenient for each individual student. Therefore, it is imperative to consider how communication time frames shift in the online classroom.

Much of the process of learning is rooted in communication. As the instructor, you communicate to students, either in a lecture or facilitation. You also have less formal communications, perhaps through one-on-one interaction with students, answering questions in office hours, emails, or perhaps announcements in a learning management system.

In an online environment, communication can feel more complex due to the many possible tools and functions of communication technology available in the online space. Generally, when we talk about interaction in online environments, we talk about whether those communications are synchronous (everyone is on and participating at the same time) or asynchronous (participation is generally bounded by time, but not necessarily at the same time).

Which is the right tool for me?

Neither asynchronous communication or synchronous communication is the “right” tool for learning. The tool itself does not directly impact learning, rather it is the design of the learning experience and method of instruction that really matters. Remember, the point of communication is to bridge the gap from learner to the classroom community. Some tools are more adept at certain tasks than others, so it is important to weigh the advantages and challenges of both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools.

Synchronous Tools:

Good for: quickly building community, answering questions quickly, small group work, students who are all in the same time zone, continuity of a “typical” class.

Challeges: Learners with time constraints or different time zones can’t always participate, learners who depend on extra time for writing/reflection struggle with the syncronous nature, need to build social etiquette.

Types of tools: Instant messenger/chat (Google hangouts), Video conferencing (Zoom, Blue Jeans), Slack

Asynchronous Tools:

Good for: Developing more thoughtful and reflective answers, students who may not be comfortable speaking, geographically dispersed populations or adult learners who may struggle to be able to be online at the same time

Challenges: Students lack immediate feedback, careful moderation is needed to make sure all students participate, tends to be a lot of text which can be overwhelming

Tools used: Email, discussion boards (Canvas, Coursera, Piazza), Slack, annotation tools (Perusall), blogs, wikis.

  • Think strategically about your course goals and learning objectives before choosing communication tools, particularly your first time teaching or designing a course. Sometimes more tools for communication only breeds confusion, so try to limit your choices to a select couple tools
  • Help students understand the logic behind which communication tools you are planning to use. For example:
    • Email will be used for personal communication with the instructor, as well as weekly updates about the class
    • The discussion tool will be used for weekly topic discussions
    • The web conferencing tool Zoom will be used for learner’s bi-weekly small group synch chats, and for office hours.
  • Become familiar with the technologies that you plan to use. There will most likely be instances in which students need troubleshooting advice or things do not go according to plan. Deeply explore your tools and become proficient in their usage.

University of Michigan

CRLT: Teaching and learning with Piazza

Other Resources


Harman, K. & Koohang, A. (2005). Discussion board: A learning object. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 1(1), 67-77. Informing Science Institute. Retrieved December 9, 2019 from

Kannan, J. (2017). Fostering a Community of Inquiry using the Flipgrid video response system – a Pedagogical Inquiry. 1–6.

Osborne, D. M., Byrne, J. H., Massey, D. L., & Johnston, A. N. B. (2018). Use of online asynchronous discussion boards to engage students, enhance critical thinking, and foster staff-student/student-student collaboration: A mixed method study. Nurse Education Today, 70, 40–46.