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Communication Technologies: Promoting Active Online Learners

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Christopher McGilvery, a lecturer at Angelo State University. The article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine published by Naylor LLC for Texas Computer Education Association members. To join or for more information, visit

We are no longer living in a traditional society. We are living in a digital society. And technology provides us with tools that we use in our daily lives. The Internet has changed the way we think and, not surprisingly, the way we learn.

Communication technologies allow us to connect and collaborate with others around the world. We use the Internet to communicate with each other; we find information that we need; we keep in touch with our families and friends; and we are constantly acquiring new knowledge and skills online.

The rapid development of computer and Internet technologies has dramatically changed the ways of teaching and learning, supporting the growth of online education (Su, Bonk, Magjuka, Liu, & Lee, 2005). The evolution of communication technology provides online educators and learners the opportunity to participate in exciting curricula that are meaningful and purposeful for today’s online learners (Chen, 2011).

To ensure that active communication and collaboration takes place in a virtual learning environment, it is important for educators to consider and determine which communication technologies best suit their needs and the needs of their students. This article is intended to help educators become familiar with the different communication technologies available and to explain how to use each to support online teaching and learning. (At the end of the article, you'll find several examples of online communication tools.)

Online education allows today’s learners to take a class based on their personal interest or even to enroll in a program to complete a certification or degree. Online programs continue to grow, and educators must constantly find ways to keep up with the current trends of online learning. With enrollment numbers continually increasing, quality online education is vital to each student’s success (Su et al., 2005). Interaction with students can encourage them to actively participate in the learning process; therefore, educators who teach online courses should figure out ways to make use of communication technologies to support their online learners.

Communication technologies have the potential to engage learners while also providing motivation and support for both online teaching and learning. But it is crucial for students to become engaged in the learning process. Connecting and communicating with their peers and teachers via communication technologies is vital to support the learning process, the mastery of knowledge, and the skills taught online. Students use technology to communicate, thus they are more likely and comfortable to participate in a technology-driven environment (Smyth, 2011).

Educators should promote the use of communication technologies to provide new and unique opportunities for interaction. Both asynchronous and synchronous communication can help boost active engagement and participation in the learning process while students are taking an online course. In online education, there are currently several technologies used to promote interactions among students and teachers (Su et al., 2005) such as discussion boards, multimedia videos, communication technologies, etc.

The availability of these technologies does not, however, imply that they are presently being used optimally in every online course. It is up to us educators to think, determine, and structure online classes with communication tools that can support students’ engagement and involvement in the learning process in an online learning environment.

It is important for educators to determine and understand how to use communication technologies to support online learning. Taking time to practice and use communication technologies can make it easier to become proficient with these types of tools. Blackboard Collaborate, Skype, Google Hangout, Today’s Meet, and Join.Me (see below for more information on these tools) have several features that promote communication and collaboration in an online learning environment. These platforms are readily accessible and easy to use with a little practice.

There are several effective ways to use these tools to support online learning. However, it is up to each educator to determine which communication technology would work best for their course and their students. Each tool has features that are very similar, but the functionality and interface of each tool are very different. Educators who teach online courses should actively explore communication technologies to become proficient in using tools that can support both online teaching and learning.

Online education is booming, and it is important that learners are given ample opportunity to interact with both their peers and teachers. Online learning is a space created by the teacher. Above all, this space should facilitate on-going interactions where there are numerous forms of communication taking place both synchronously, via video or social communication tools, and asynchronously, via various two-way forms (Smyth, 2011).

Interaction through the use of communication technologies is vital to a quality online education because it allows teachers to promote active online learners, and that engagement translates to better learning outcomes and greater satisfaction with online learning, both for student and educator.

Five Online Tools for Collaborative Communication

Blackboard Collaborate
Blackboard Collaborate allows teachers and students to interact with each other synchronously and asynchronously. Interactions via Blackboard Collaborate allow for active participation and help keep students engaged. This tool can be used to support online learning via live lectures, question and answer sessions, conference calls, webinars, virtual office hours, and much more. Educators can present a PowerPoint, video, etc. while students answer questions via the chat or by responding with a microphone. Students can also take the lead and present a PowerPoint, video, etc. There is a free 30-day trial that educators can use to examine this platform for promoting communication and collaboration.

Skype is a great way for teachers to connect with students, parents, and fellow educators. This free communication technology allows participation in voicecalls, video-calls, and messaging, and it can be used to connect with classrooms from all parts of the world. Educators can use the screen-sharing feature with students so they can provide guidance and help with assignments, projects, etc. Or educators can bring in a guest speaker who may be living in a different city or part of the world. The group call feature allows students to brainstorm, collaborate, and share ideas. Download Skype for free and start exploring this great tool.

Google Hangouts
Connect and collaborate with others on a Google Hangout. This tool is a great way to promote peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher collaboration. Students can work together via Google Hangout and use several features, from face to face conversation to utilizing a Google Document to present ideas or even a formal presentation. This tool allows up to ten participants to asynchronously work together. Explore Hangouts today to promote interactive “face-to-face” virtual meetings.

Today’s Meet
Educators can create a chat room for discussions, facilitate question and answer sessions, post comments, etc., which can take place both asynchronously or synchronously. This tool is easy for educators to use, and creating a Today’s Meet chat room is easy. Teachers have to determine a name for the room and how long it will be available for student use. This generates a URL that can be linked into an online course for students to actively engage and participate in discussion with both their teacher and peers. Try this “backchannel” tool to start promoting structured interactions in an online course.

This tool allows educators to utilize screen sharing and host online meetings. The free basic version allows for Internet calling, screen sharing, 250 views, share control, multi-monitor, chat, and sending files. These features allow educators to promote communication and collaboration as well. It’s great for online tutoring, pair collaboration, live discussions, etc.



Chen, L. (2011). Improving teachers’ teaching with communication technology. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 40(1), 35-43.

Smith, R. (2011). Enhancing learner-learner interaction using video communications in higher education: Implications from theorizing about a new model. British Journal of Educational Technology. 42(1), 113-127.

Su, B., Bonk, C., Magjuka, R., Liu, X., & Lee, S. (2005). The importance of interaction in web-based education: A program level case study of online MBA courses. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(1), 1-19.


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