Teaching communication in an online environment is different from what you’re used to in in-person teaching. Yet the quality can be just as high (or higher), and it can be as effective (or more so) in helping you meet your set teaching objectives.

  Why it’s good to actively communicate in teaching

  • Learning is an active process based on communication.
  • Productive communication improves understanding of the material.
  • Communication promotes better relationships between learners and teachers.

  Why communication in an online environment may be less successful

  • Are you not used to communicating in an online environment, does it make you feel shy?
  • Do you miss the non-verbal aspects of communication and rapid feedback?
  • Students hardly know each other; are they shy to ask and answer questions?
  • The students cannot talk to each other. Can they even talk to their teachers?

While it’s important to identify the possible causes of teaching problems, it’s also important not to confuse this with finding reasons not to do something instead of finding ways to bring about change.

  What supports the quality of teaching communication in an online environment?

  1. Switch cameras on for teachers and students.
  2. Appropriately angle the teacher’s camera so that it takes in the upper body and arms.
  3. Have clear rules for communication (when and how to ask questions, how to indicate you’d like to speak, etc.).
  4. Ask questions correctly (clear, purposeful, reasonably challenging) and respond likewise.
  5. Use activation techniques.
  6. Use online applications to support teaching communication.
  7. Allow learners enough time to think about the answer to a question (wait 12-15 seconds).
  8. Appreciate learners’ communication (thanking them for answering, encouraging them to ask questions, etc.).
  9. Create an atmosphere of openness and willingness to communicate.

  Activation techniques to support teaching communication

As you do in in-person teaching, it’s also possible to use techniques in the online environment that activate learners, i.e. that increase their involvement in the learning process. The primary result is more effective learning, but it also increases the attractiveness of the teaching experience.


The teacher asks a pre-prepared question (ideally an open-ended question that is more cognitively demanding). Learners first think about the answer independently and write down their answers (think), then discuss them in pairs to make sure they are on the right track and to explore the question from a different perspective (pair). Only after the learners have worked through the answer several times in a safe environment comes the time to share the answer and get a discussion going (share), or enter the next phase of the teaching.


The teacher raises a topic which they want to have a conversation or discussion about. Learners are given a short time to think about it and then pair up. One of the pair speaks for exactly one minute on the topic and then the other of the pair speaks for one minute. The pair then has some time to form a conclusion that they could communicate to the others. This then forms the basis for a cooperative discussion which they can now enter with more sophisticated ideas.

Unfinished statements / conclusions without a beginning

The teacher starts a statement and doesn’t finish it. The learners have time to suggest and justify in writing (for example, in the chat) how to continue it. The teacher then carries on working with the completed statements (possibly together with the learners). Or, conversely, the teacher communicates the conclusion of a statement and learners suggest how they might arrive at that conclusion.


The teacher introduces the topic, then divides the learners into two groups, one of which has to write arguments in favour of a certain solution, the other against. In a joint discussion, they can then look for possible consensus and find possible solutions.

And many more such techniques, depending on the teaching objective, topic and nature of the lesson.

These techniques are often based on giving learners a few minutes to think on their own, or in pairs, so they can prepare their answer and gain confidence before presenting it well to teachers and classmates.

Having the teacher raise a problem or topic is not the only way of getting learners to think and discuss. Playing a short video, having the learners read a short text, or looking at a picture on the topic is also a great way to initiate in the process. This gives learners a basis upon which they can think and talk with the support of data, allowing them to grasp the topic better and better focus their minds on formulating an answer.

  Asking and responding to questions

Questions in teaching serve not only to activate learners, but also (and often primarily) to get feedback on what and how learners are learning.

Closed-ended questions that are less cognitively demanding

These questions don’t help stir up communication because they focus on equipping learners with facts that have been presented in some form by teachers or acquired through self-study. Q: When did the longest reigning Austro-Hungarian emperor die?

Closed-ended questions that are more cognitively demanding

These questions are designed to help learners arrive at one correct solution but using higher order thinking operations (e.g. analysis). The answer is not directly available in the teaching, study materials or other resources, but learners have enough information to arrive at the correct answer themselves. If these questions are to spark communication, it’s a good idea for learners to address them in groups. Q: In what rhythm is this poem written?

Open-ended questions that are less cognitively demanding

These questions are asked in the form of simple questioning (brainstorming is also an option) and focus on knowledge of a large group of facts. Ex: Which artists were proponents of Cubism? After collecting various answers, one can proceed to a conversation about which answers are actually correct, which are not, and which are debatable, etc.

Open-ended questions that are more cognitively demanding

These questions require the engagement of higher order thinking operations (understanding, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and creation). They often lead to arguments, which is why they are questions that help to spark productive discussion. For this to happen, it’s necessary to formulate the question very well and to give learners sufficient time to think through their answers. At the same time, it’s imperative to work with learners’ answers in a productive way, encouraging them to build on what has been said so far, clarifying, summarizing, etc. Q: What solutions are possible?

How to respond to learners’ answers

  1. Always acknowledge the answer (even if only by thanking the learner for responding).
  2. Always respond to learners’ answers. In an online environment it’s crucial that the response is both non-verbal (e.g. nodding) and verbal.
  3. If the learner does not answer the question correctly, continue to work with the answer:
  • Closed-ended question – find out how many learners know the correct answer (e.g. by a quick vote), and if the majority cannot answer correctly, explain the issue again;
  • Open-ended question – don’t reject an unexpected answer before listening to the learners’ reasoning or explanations, only then evaluate whether or not the answer is correct and work with it further.

You are running an old browser version. We recommend updating your browser to its latest version.

More info