Silence in the online course: What does it mean and how do you respond?

From my experience as an online learner and online teacher, “silence” in an online course is almost always a sign that something is not right. Quite often, it is the equivalent of sleeping, staring out the window, or now showing up for a face-to-face class.  The following image illustrates some of the possibilities.

Silence in the Online Course

If you are teaching an online course and find that one or more students are silent or not active for an extended period (days or more than a week), then you might want to consider one or more of the following.

Contact Them – This seems obvious, but it first requires that you are monitoring student activity close enough to notice when a student isn’t involved.  That is part a good online instructor’s job.  Once you notice, then it is best to send them an email.  If you don’t hear from them right away, consider using an alternative email or even giving them a phone call.  If they are having technical difficulties, then email may not be a good option.  Use any communication methods that are proper and available to you.

Check With Others in the Class – Perhaps others in the class know the student.  It doesn’t hurt to ask if they have seen or been in contact with the student.  They may be able to help you get in touch.  Of course, do this in a way that is discreet and respects student privacy.

Elicit Help from an Advisor or Other Members of the Support Team – Even after repeated contact efforts, there are times when the student is ignoring you, hiding from you, or not accessible via the communication methods available to you.  In that case, consult with others to try contacting the student on your behalf.  If the student is hiding, upset or embarrassed, then this can be very effective.  It is also important because your school likely has some sort of automatic drop policy if students fail to get started with a course by a certain time or if that are inactive for an expended period.

Check the Roster, Ask the Registrar, or Ask Others Involved with Registering and Dropping Students – Sometimes students drop the course without telling you, and the system keeps their name in the class. That is usually done on purpose (even a feature built into some learning management systems) to keep a record of student activity.  This is important for when the information is necessary for financial aid or other academic appeal purposes.  Whatever the case, it might just be that the student dropped the course.

Try the Emergency Contact – If you have tried to contact the student multiple ways, as well as these other strategies, then there is the chance that something more serious happened to the student.  At this point, it is time to work with the proper school authorities to follow up with an emergency contact listed for the student (check with someone at the school, as there may well be policies and protocols in place for such things).  This may seem extreme, but I’ve had enough situations where there were serious life circumstances, and following up was the right and important thing to do.


Student “silence” in an online course demands prompt and persistent action.  In most instances, simply following up allows you to help the student work through whatever was preventing them from being fully engaged.  Very often, it helps prevent students from performing poorly or dropping the class.  it also gives you one more chance to support, encourage, coach, and mentor students…just what we want to see in an effective online teacher.



Posted in blog, e-learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.