Beyond the limits of the LMS: ways to communicate effectively with students

How to communicate with students in the online environment in effective and creative ways that go beyond relying on the learning management system, described by Kris Erskine

Kris Erskine 's avatar

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Athens State University

Athens State University
25 Apr 2022
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Tools to engage students in online courses

If you do a lot of online teaching these days, you may find yourself grumbling about how inefficiently your learning management system (LMS) platform manages your communication with students. The LMS is behind the curve. Effective communication technology abounds yet LMSs have been slow on the uptake in relation to improving communication between instructor and student.

This is not necessarily a criticism; every user of educational platforms has seen massive recalibrations of how those platforms are used. Who could have envisioned Zoom-bombing before 2020? Education-oriented platforms have adeptly navigated many of the most pressing needs. Yet perhaps the most important of those needs – emailing our students through the LMS – saw no significant change.

Pros and cons of LMS communications

However clunky, communicating with students through an LMS platform has advantages. Instructors have a permanent record of all communication and can email all students, individual students or select groups of students. Yet that’s where the upside ends.

The downside? Sending announcements through an LMS also requires regularly logging in after your session expires, and from login to “message sent” the instructor has multiple clicks. Worse, LMS apps for mobile devices are severely limited and make communication almost impossible. So, what alternatives can facilitate smoother communication with students?

Using group messaging to keep students updated

There are many popular mobile-friendly apps that make communicating with your students quick and easy on the fly, do not require regular logins, and require only a single click. Telegram Messenger and WhatsApp are two of these and chances are most of your students are already using one or both. These messaging apps support group conversations and have browser-based versions, so users can communicate from a phone, or if typing longer messages, a computer. Since there is no login or timeout on these apps, messages pop up in real time making it less likely that things get missed. 

These messaging apps are not without downsides. They can make communication too easy and immediate so instructors must set, and adhere to, strict virtual office hours from the start of the semester. However, when the instructor is out of the virtual office, they may find that students within the group will answer the easy questions posed by other students.   

These messaging apps can be used for virtual office hours, or “coffee with the prof,” and as needed you can also host voice or video calls with students if an impromptu question or clarification on an assignment is needed. This quick, easy and accessible method of communication is appreciated by the students and provides an element of personal contact that email through an LMS cannot.

Another challenge is persuading all students in your class to adopt the technology. Not all students care to read messages from the instructor, but these same students are also unlikely to read and respond to emails you send through the LMS. Perhaps the most significant downside for some instructors, and their institutions, is the lack of an automatically archived record of all communication. 

Edmodo serves a similar purpose. It is a social media platform rather than a messenger app, but on a mobile device or browser on your laptop it functions very similarly. As with Telegram and WhatsApp, instructors can post links to articles, videos, documents, or whatever they want students to access. Like WhatsApp and Telegram, instructors can create groups for each course they are teaching. Edmodo is ideal if the instructor wishes to create multiple threads on various topics within a course. It is Facebook for educators.

Effective tools for scheduling student appointments

LMS scheduling tools are often inadequate. Yet there are platforms that enable students to view instructors’ availability and to schedule appointments that automatically populate their calendars. Setmore, Calendly and Picktime are a few effective options. In each of these a virtual meeting link is generated automatically and students can indicate whether they want to meet in person or online.

The final bastion: video mail

Most LMS platforms now integrate with a video capture system, but the process is rarely intuitive. Most teaching staff do not wish to take an online workshop or watch an instructional video to learn how to send a video to their students – they feel, understandably, that this should be simple and easy. Having sat on a university committee to select a new video capture system for an LMS, and after exploring the leading providers, I can attest there are, as yet, no good options offering video capture to students that are intuitive and simple to access and use.  Until LMS platforms are able to catch up with the learning curve of user needs, a good but imperfect solution is to record a short video message on your phone, upload to a video hosting site (such as YouTube or Vimeo), and then share the link in your course’s Telegram group chat. The disadvantage to this method is the inability to have the granular analytics for each user that an LMS platform would provide. The upside is that it saves the instructor time and is easier for the student to access.

Kris Erskine is assistant professor of secondary history and social studies education at Athens State University.

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