But what about nonverbal communication?—A look at interactions online

With the continuing growth of online learning in the past few decades, one significant argument against it has been the perceived loss of non-verbal communication and human relationships within the course. Instructors new to the modality often believe that the online delivery format is less interactive than face-to-face, and therefore assume it’s harder (if even possible) to get to know the other participants. Some university instructors even hesitate to teach online because they feel there is a lack of connection and communication, which then creates more room for misinterpretation, negative reviews of the experience, or even failure for some students. Today, I’d like to share the data behind this topic and help to point to the fact that this is not as worrisome as these instructors assume. 

What is nonverbal communication?

First, we need to clarify our understanding of the term “non-verbal communication” (NVC). According to one author, “a study of the literature reveals that some scholars use the expressions, “nonverbal communication” and “body language” interchangeably. Therefore, they assume that text-based online courses lack any type of nonverbal communication because body language is non-existent” (Al Tawil, 147). From this, we can conclude that NVC references all the components of interaction beyond actual words and text—such as timing, body movement, inflection, and facial expression. It’s all the unspoken dynamics of expression involved in forming the relationships between individuals. NVC helps create the trust, comradery, and vulnerability we want to develop between individuals in a learning community to create effective knowledge exchange.

What’s NVC’s role in learning?

When we consider this information in any learning environment, we find a variety of applications. But it’s vital we consider context when it comes to cognition and learning. The course material, required involvement, instructor engagement, and the individual’s perception and desire to engage alter the learner’s ability to retain new information. Retention and recall improve as the learner makes more connections between the content and different sensations or environmental pieces. This increases the correlations within their mental map, therefore enhancing their learning.

For example, have you ever wondered why seeing a particular facial expression or noticing a certain scent triggers an old memory? Both experiences are examples of the mental connections made beyond words that have long-lasting impact. That NVC you interacted with created learning through association of a certain sensation with an individual or experience. Every feature of the environment and individual perceived by the receiver plays a role in how we store and remember information because of the increased number of mental connections—which is fundamental in the learning experience.

Why is it essential in any classroom?

So, what does NVC provide in an instructional setting? Why do we need it when we have verbal communication? To answer this, let’s begin by looking at community, and its role in making learners feel committed to the material. 

Each student values verbal and non-verbal communication differently. As these two features of communication interplay, it creates a picture of the environment the individual perceives and gives them a sense of the community they are in. When designing the information and interactions for these environments, our goal is to make sure learners feel engaged in learning by giving them opportunities to interact with their peers, instructor, and the material.

Additionally, we need to ensure the various forms of communication complement each other. If learners feel instructors say one thing and do another (like making students respond to peers within 48 hours, but not answering emails for four days themselves), they’ll see us as not genuine. This inconsistency hurts the teacher-student relationship.

Nonverbal communication also provides accountability, enjoyment, and connection. It can come from many places, like a highly dynamic instructor passionate about their work or peer study groups, where students can evaluate other’s actions as genuine (or not) based on nonverbal cues. On the flip side, a face to face instructor reading slides while lecturing in a monotone does not create an engaging class—the lack or disconnect of NVC from verbal cues causes them to miss out on those relationships and effective learning opportunities. 

What does NVC look like online?

So, how do we integrate these pieces into online learning? When designing online, we want to be able to reach the same cognitive learning goals and objectives as a face to face class, but in attempting to do this, many fall into the trap of trying to replicate the experiences and lesson design found in the face to face setting. We cannot do the same thing, therefore need to return to the underlying theory and find a new way to incorporate the same learning outcome. 

Many think of online course involvement and interaction as being primarily text-based (and in some design models, this is true). Yet, incorporating additional tools allows us to increase the variety of communication patterns available and provide the benefits of non-verbal communication. But it can be challenging. It forces us to step out of our comfort zone, learn new technologies, and put our face and voice out there with more interactive tools.

In asynchronous courses, we cannot always control when students are able to respond to the material within the time frame given, but as instructors, we can provide timely feedback. Students will mimic the commitment of their instructor, and the faster and more organized our communication is, the more likely it becomes that students will believe we’re active participants in their learning. If you do not set the expectations for communication, they’ll be unsure how to proceed. We establish that model in our first interactions with students, so we get to decide the particulars. (Ann shared some great tips on engaging students with announcements).

Discussion boards are also a common asynchronous tool, and we begin to build community by adding due dates and making the students respond to peers. These additions may seem forceful, but it becomes a launching pad for students to acknowledge the thoughts of their peers and build off each other’s ideas. 

Increased use of video conferencing also employs elements of NVC. In virtual classrooms, we can see each other and begin to connect to some of those non-verbal physical cues like posture, facial expression, and hand gestures. For example, consider the success of companies like Peloton or Les Mills. These companies have you exercise the same way as on-screen individuals to create comradery, motivation, mirroring, and community to develop better fitness habits. 

Would it be the same experience if you read an instruction booklet of what to do for exercise? The emotions and mental connections these videos tap into are the same ones we reach for when adding virtual conferencing to our course design. 

Instructors can also use video in the asynchronous online course by adding video instructions or announcements each week. These help the student feel connected to the instructor and improve their investment in the course. It adds a name and personality to the information, creating a connection, and also helping the student understand the communication patterns of the instructor so that they are able to decipher both written and visual messages more effectively.

In many cases, you can access video tools through a computer with a camera, mic, and the internet. Video conferencing companies like Zoom offer a beginning package for free. Additionally, learning management systems often come equipped with video conferencing as well. As designers and instructors, we need to be aware of and willing to use these tools to create a dynamic course.

One last nonverbal element I want to point out is experiencing NVC through the text we write. Experts sometimes refer to this as the socio-communicative style, which is “the way the receiver perceives the style of the source…these constructs are seen as highly related to communication competence across communication contexts” (Patterson & Manusov, 431). 

We’ve all received a text message or email that elicits an emotional response (laughter, confusion, motivation, etc.) based on the word choice, an emoji, or organization and length of the message. These clues give you an idea of the sender’s demeanor, and how invested they are in this communication while sending it (but keep in mind that miscommunication can still occur both online and face to face). Formatting, organization, and pictures are not the actual text, so while written messages are the online equivalent of verbal communication, these elements work with the text to convey more meaning for the receiver just like an eye-roll from the instructor during a lecture conveys a meaning to interpret. 

Even if we create a highly engaging course with phenomenal verbal and nonverbal features, there’s one common concern often called into question: the old mantra that only highly self-motivated and organized students can excel online. What happens to the other students when we push more classes online? Taking this viewpoint puts us as designers and instructors in an odd place. Motivation is born internally and externally. If we present material that is engaging to a student and pushes them to be involved in the learning for themselves and their peers, we can help the student develop motivation. 

When talking about the online environment specifically, learners actively seek ways to connect through participation in guilds or groups on virtual games such as Clash of Clans or Guild Wars 2 or social media interactions like Facebook and Twitter. It is not an issue of the learner’s motivation in the online environment; it’s an issue of creating engaging content and a thriving community, which falls on the designers and instructors to enable through appropriate tools.

Overall, we need to be willing to invest in nonverbal communication in the course. Whatever that may look like, we need to move past the idea that text is sufficient for all communication (and when it falls short, blame the modality). While there are many examples of NVC online that I did not cover in this post, ingenuity and problem solving are two existing ideas in all of them and the online environment. As the internet expands in capability and availability, designers have an ever-growing toolbox of ways to make the course more dynamic. But that is only effective if we find ways to incorporate the multiple forms of communication and forge the community through the use of non-verbal avenues. 

Even though non-verbal communication seems absent online, it just has a different look. But by excluding NVC from the conversation, we lose a critical piece of the course and limit learning potential. Relationships and community are still created online both in class and outside of it, and these communities can add value to the educational process if—we remember to include them. It just takes us doing our homework and investigating the tools available in more than a read-only format.


Rima, A. T. (2019). Nonverbal Communication in Text-Based, Asynchronous Online Education. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 20(1) p.144-164.

Patterson, M. L., & Manusov, V. L. (2006). The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=474714&site=eds-live&scope=site

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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