The element that sets successful online courses apart from old-style correspondence courses is presence. Well-taught, well-designed online courses can allow students to get to know each other and their instructors even better than in traditional lecture classrooms. Interaction is the key. Online course presence may require instructors to communicate much differently than in their classroom comfort zones. Online communication focuses less—or not at all–on body language and tone of voice.

Follow the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA)

One-on-one communications between students and their instructors and/or advisers can be particularly challenging in a virtual environment. It is imperative that Instructors follow all Federal Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) guidance on the Registrar’s Policies website.

In particular, review and bookmark the Sharing Sensitive Student Info-FERPA page. This page outlines which software may be used to communicate private information.

Begin with these steps

Keep in mind; online courses do not run themselves. Competent instructors leverage precise, frequent messaging, and thoughtful planning. Ongoing instructor availability for timely questions is vital. Instructors must stay engaged daily to keep students progressing and adding value to each other. Online teaching takes as much time as classroom teaching; it just happens at different times and locations.

Create introductory Discussions with detailed question prompts to break the ice and help students connect personally. Example:

“Please introduce yourself to your classmates. Include your name and why you are taking this class. You may also choose to include your major, your interests, hobbies, a photo, and something fun or memorable that will help people get to know you. (Approximately 5-10 sentences.) As you reply to your classmates’ posts, ask questions, look for interesting details, and keep your upcoming group projects in mind.”

Introduce yourself to your students and encourage them to get started on their studies.Communicate with your students by starting a conversation via the Canvas Inbox, creating an announcement, emailing via your regular e-mail program, scheduling a conference or creating a discussion.

Start a Conversation

The quickest and easiest way to communicate with your students is via Conversations in the Canvas Inbox. This is the primary method of communication in most classes at Iowa State University. Learn how to use Conversations and get started by sending a message to all users in the course. Students and instructors receive notification of a new Conversation in the global navigation of Canvas.

Depending on their notification preferences, instructors and students may also receive an email notification when they are added to a new Conversation. Both instructors and students can customize their own Canvas notification settings.

Note: There is the potential for students to have disabled notifications of new Conversations. If this is the case, students will still receive the message when they log into Canvas.

Create an Announcement

Another method of communicating in a Canvas course is to create an Announcement. Announcements are contained within your course and can be scheduled to post at a later date and time.

Note: Announcements may optionally send a notification to students’ email, depending on their individual notification preferences. Students will see a notification of a new Announcement on the course card in their Dashboard.

Email via Outlook or Mail

Traditionally, electronic communication between instructors and students occurred via email. As students have become more accustomed to checking Canvas for grading feedback and other class communication, email is no longer the preferred method of communication. This is especially true when communication includes grades and other student information protected under FERPA.

If you still wish to use email to communicate with your class, you will need to copy/paste the students’ email addresses from AccessPlus.

Next steps

  • Incorporate discussions. Some students who may not speak up at all in classrooms will often write more in an online discussion post.
  • Clarify expectations. In addition to the official policies in a syllabus, be sure to include separate discussion board etiquette instructions and essential explanations of the course structure. Example: “Access all materials and assignments through the Modules link. Discussions are due each Wednesday by 10:00 p.m., and major assignments are due on Sundays by 10:00 p.m.”
  • Include an Instructor Bio content page with a photo or short, personal video. Avoid reciting information that is already in the syllabus. Reveal what you love about your field, what you want students to gain from the semester, and assure students that you are looking forward to working with them.
  • Include Week 1 setup assignments for using Canvas at ISU success (notifications, profile, assignment submissions, and system requirements.) Include an email requirement for immediate student questions or comments to you as the instructor.
  • Answer each email personally. Use repeated student questions to trigger your creation of general Announcements and course improvements.
  • Grade weekly assignments before the next tasks are due. Students cannot improve without timely feedback.
  • Post due dates for the entire semester on day one so that busy students can plan for success. Lack of pacing and direction is counterproductive. Canvas Assignment Due Dates trigger the To-Do List reminder system and populate the student calendar for your course combined with all of their other classes. (To reduce your instructor communication burden, avoid available and until dates unless necessary. Example: A Final Exam with a solid end date and no re-takes needs an until date.)
  • Be present in your course daily and strive to complete some type of communication with each login.
  • Aim for twice-daily [minimum] to respond to messages and questions. State your communication policy in advance to inform students who generally prefer a 15-second response to messages.

In addition to the official policies in a syllabus, be sure to include separate discussion board etiquette instructions and essential explanations of the course structure. Example: “Access all materials and assignments through the Modules link. Discussions are due each Wednesday by 10:00 p.m., and major assignments are due on Sundays by 10:00 p.m.”

  • Be clear and make no assumptions. Write detailed instructions for the least tech-savvy students. Include info links, definitions of terminology, and expectations of writing length. Include links to specific Canvas Guides for Students in your assignment instructions for those who need step-by-step tutorials.
  • Seek support. Don’t forget all the support available to you at ISU – including 24/7 Canvas support. Use Canvas Instructor Guides to avoid creating navigation challenges and frustration for your students. For example, Double-check that hyperlinks to outside sites are functioning and use built-in modules navigation. Internal Canvas links can open in a neighboring tab. (Use HTML code snippet target=” _blank” to avoid links within the text that divert your students to another location in Canvas. Students won’t finish reading a page if they click a link mid-sentence and land elsewhere.
  • Before each project, curate multiple successful examples of completed assignments for students to emulate and surpass. Varied assignment examples will invite more in-depth learning inferences and creative thinking. For guidance, use the Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) in Higher Education website.
  • Use Rubrics. Students will know where to spend their energy on assignments and have fewer complaints or questions. Rubrics help instructors give consistent, fast feedback without writing the same comments again and again. Learn more from the Interactive Feedback page.
  • Student View. User test your navigation and course layout to ensure it is not confusing. The adventure is in the course materials, not in the navigation. (Research QM Quality Matters Rubric for Online Course Design, and other quality assurance standards.) Interested in Quality Matters? Visit the Quality Matters at ISU page.
  • Plan. When scheduling due dates and pacing use the ISU Academic Calendar and the Interfaith Calendar website. Many students work during the week and appreciate Sunday night due dates. 
  • Be available. Clarify your anticipated response times and weekend availability for questions. This is especially vital for questions immediately before deadlines/exams.
  • Request early student feedback. Approximately week 2-3 in a semester—to gather student feedback on the course design, not the instructor! Minor course adjustments and clarifications can create significant attitude improvements and student success. Use the Plus/Delta Feedback and Critical Incident Questionnaire page along with the Quiz tool for a required survey, grading only the student’s participation and not the answers. 
  • Aim for quality, not quantity. Use the auto-grading quiz tool for low-stakes chapter quizzes to ensure that students read materials. Save precious grading time for the most meaningful projects and writings that require your human touch.
  • Participate with your instructor comments intermittently for the most substantial results. Watch discussion spaces and participate subtly to allow students to converse more authentically.
  • Plan group projects in detail. Include detailed outlines, expectations, and suggestions for group roles that align with grading rubrics. Use collaboration spaces like GoogleDocs and Presentations that allow group members to work asynchronously and visibly.
  • Offer forums and opportunities for students to answer questions for each other.
  • Create open peer reviews in Discussions and set parameters for meaningful feedback where students take on the teaching & feedback role for each other.

For more ideas, use CELT’s Engaging Students Online page.

  • Become a coach. Online courses are designed and polished in advance to free instructors for the coaching role rather than being the Sage on the stage.
  • Distill your life wisdom to re-examine the most efficient ways to think like an expert. Then, add inspiration for creativity and allow your students to add value by teaching you in return. Courses are improved semester-to-semester by engaged students.
  • Help students create their tools for life and work.
  • Help students create proud evidence of what they have learned in the form of research papers, meaningful projects, and creative ePortfolio artifacts.
  • Keep feedback positive and encouraging, wherever possible, use the Interactive Feedback page.
  • Be specific when revisions are needed. If your requirements are strict, then assignment instructions and rubrics must match that precision. If your instructions are loose and flexible, your grading should reflect this style of teaching.
  • Be human. Use a conversational style in your Announcements and assignment directions that balances professionalism and friendliness. The written format is automatically more cold sounding, so account for this in your writing.

Canvas has two ways in which you can communicate with your students. At the course level, there is “Announcements”, and at the global level, there is “Conversations” also known as “Inbox”.


With announcements, you can create messages that will be visible to all of your students and remain on your course site.  If individual students have notifications for announcements turned on, they will also receive an email notification with the announcement. This setting is turned on by default.

Below are a list of a few use cases as examples:

  • Example 1: If you have to update a reading and want to give the students the link when they log into your course.
  • Example 2: Changes to a due date to class schedule.
  • Example 3: Clarification of a course-related issue (i.e. content-related or system related).

For more information on Announcements:

Conversations (Inbox)

Conversations (Inbox) can be used as an in-Canvas email system. Inbox is a messaging tool used instead of email to communicate with a course, a group, or an individual student. You can communicate with other people in your course at any time. Unlike announcements, the inbox tool allows you to talk back and forth with the people you are communicating with. Although you have one inbox for all your courses, you can filter by course and by section.
  • Note: You can only send messages to individuals who are enrolled in the same course as you.
  • Note: In order to receive a copy of the conversations you send out to students, your notifications settings will need to have “Conversations Created By Me” turned on.

Below are a list of a few use cases as examples:

  • Example 1: If you need to email a specific section or student within the course.
  • Example 2: If you would like to view and reply to assignment submission comments.

For more information on Inbox (Conversations):

Gradebook: Message Students Who…

You can use the Gradebook to send messages to your students using the Message Students Who option. For example, you can message students with specific characteristics (such as those who haven’t turned in a particular assignment). You may also message students individually in the Gradebook by using the student context card.

Other tools for communicating with your students

Communication Instructional Strategies, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Communication Instructional Strategies, is a derivative of Sweeten, R. (2019, December 5). Being There: Basic Strategies for Online Teaching Presence in Canvas LMS* Part I (retrieved on May 4, 2020) from