6 Strategies for Improving Communication Practices in Online Education

There is a movement—yes, a dedicated movement—to kill the apostrophe.

Although apostrophes may seem like a harmless punctuation mark, KillTheApostrophe.com says that “current technology (text messaging in particular) makes it timeconsuming to use them. Why give ourselves this stress when itll make no difference anyway?”

The site believes that our language has outgrown the apostrophe and indeed that technology makes it obsolete. In fact, it goes so far as to tell defenders of the apostrophe “shame on you…for prioritising form over content.”

The debate over the apostrophe is a debate I see on a larger scale with online learning content. Technology indeed is changing the way we communicate, but which communication practices should we cling to and which should we leave behind?

I have been a copy editor for online learning content for more than four years, and even in that short time, content practices have changed dramatically. Here are three practices I think we should fight for and three we ought to abandon.

Three Practices to Fight For

Publishing Standards

Before the Internet, publication was limited to ink, paper, and industrial printers, which cost more money than most writers could afford. Thus publishers assumed all the financial risk and therefore held their content to high editorial standards before it went to print. A biased author or an embarrassing typo meant a defective product and could lead to losing customers.

The Internet, however, makes publication much faster and cheaper. When all writers have to do is type and hit “Submit,” the temptation becomes not to hold ourselves to high publishing standards because the up-front financial risk is much less.

However, colleges and universities should continue to view the content they publish in the online classroom as their product and their students as their consumers. If students trust us enough to train them for better careers and better lives, why run the risk of breaking that trust with error-ridden content?

Audience Focus

Any intro to writing class will emphasize the importance of considering one’s audience. This is all the more important in online education.

As learning management systems become more sophisticated and opportunities for interactive learning increase, we have to keep putting ourselves in our students’ desk chair. As Learning House’s Online College Students reports show, online students are a much more diverse crowd than on-campus students. We can’t risk alienating anyone by using a regionally or generationally specific joke or analogy.

The beauty of good communication is that it allows readers a clear picture into the writer’s mind. Especially with education, we can’t let any ambiguously written directions or lack of body language cues hinder that connection.


As a copy editor, I tend to want rules for everything. If I come across a word that is not in the dictionary or a form of writing that is not in a stylebook, I get panicky.

The “problem” with editing for online content is that new types of content appear all the time. Instructors constantly come up with new ways to present written words, and graphic designers work miracles with videos, infographics, and user-interactive activities.

But this is not really a problem at all. In fact, it’s thrilling.

If you think of a fun way to present content that you’ve never seen done before, try it out. If you have an idea for an activity that will capture students’ interest, make it happen. If you want to try a new way of assessing student learning, do it.

The opportunities are there. Publishing standards will catch up.

Three Practices to Abandon

Static Content

I love e-books. I had a Kindle before Kindles could stream movies, sync to your phone, display real-time video tech support, and clean your bathroom for you. But I think we can do more than e-books and PDFs for online content.

Learning House’s instructional media specialists are experts at creating interactive content. Among their accomplishments are:

  • A replica of Campbellsville University’s chapel (down to the number of rafters in the ceiling)
  • A virtual art museum that allows students to take a “walking” tour
  • A choose-your-own-adventure game
  • A Spanish Jeopardy game show

The more we can harness the Internet’s power to make content a tactile, interactive experience, the more we can reach students who have a variety of learning styles.

Dense Content

English majors may delight in reading large paragraphs all day long, but most Internet users do not.

A world of text messaging and 140-character tweets reveals a world of impatient readers who want information fast and condensed. This, of course, is challenging when trying to communicate the fine points of economic theory.

Far from condensing content, however, I think we can reimagine content to capture modern readers. Why not make a table or a timeline to explain the evolution of modern psychological practice? Why not see if we can take a 1,000-word summary of critical reading techniques and make it into an infographic? Why not delete a paragraph describing ancient pottery techniques and replace it with a YouTube video?

I’ll be the first to defend the power of words, but if students’ coursework can keep their attention as well as BuzzFeed and Reddit, I think we’ve tapped into something powerful.

“Casual” Content

Online education is a unique hybrid between scholarly publishing and social media. Instructors are imparting high-caliber knowledge that often demands a formal tone, and yet schools constantly look for ways to make the online classroom more social and interactive.

Instructors sometimes worry that using a professional tone in syllabi and unit introductions will make them less personable and approachable to students. However, keeping official course material as academically minded as possible will allow instructors to use the content over and over again and allow other instructors to pick up where one has left off—essentially giving the product a longer shelf life and a higher return on investment.

In addition, keep in mind that students are learning from us even outside the “official” course material. They are seeking to become experts and better communicators in their field, and we should seize every opportunity to demonstrate those skills to them. What a privilege to be able to lead in both big ways and small!

About Jennifer Bell

As the Senior Copy Editor at Learning House, Jennifer works to improve course content for Learning House and its partner schools by ensuring that it meets readability and stylebook standards. Jennifer has also edited a number of books and recently spoke about online editing at the American Copy Editors Society national conference. She can be reached at jbell@learninghouse.com