Teaching an online course? 5 things to do at the start of the semester [from the archives]

This blog post was originally published August 22, 2011.

I had intended to make another Made from Scratch video before the start of the semester but, well, you know how that goes. Instead, I will share with you 5 things I do at the start of the semester to get my online course started on the right foot (yes, I realize the inelegance of that idiom). These are 5 things that will help you or your students at the start of the semester and perhaps save some of your sanity as the semester progresses.

Here goes:

1. Reach out to your students

Though this seems like a no-brainer, the sentiment behind it is to not assume that your students know what they are supposed to do. I try to make sure that students know how to access the course management system, know how to log in, and know where to access help. I send an email detailing this information 1 week before the start of classes and then again on the first day of classes. I also try to open the course shell a few days prior to the start of classes to give students some exploration time. I am always a little surprised that I have several students at the beginning of the semester who don’t “show up” to class during the first few days. I try to follow up again with those students by the 3rd day of class and again at the end of the first week. These MIAs (missing-in-action) may need just a little prompting or they may need to reconsider their taking an online course.

2. Introduce yourself

Studies on online teaching have shown that students’ perceptions of the instructor’s interpersonal interaction are important in how they view and invest in the course. I provide 3 kinds of introductions: 1) a content section in the course with my contact information, short biography, and a picture; 2) an introductory post on the self-introductions discussion post, typically a more informal introduction; and 3) a short video introducing myself and the course. Each of these elements is added to the course with the intention of demonstrating a personal care and interest in knowing the students.

3. Create a space for questions

Online students have lots of questions. They may have questions about the technology, the course organization/format, the course calendar, or your expectations for students. Your email Inbox will be flooded with these questions…unless you create a space for questions in the course. Create a Q & A board where students can post questions. Often, more experienced students will answer the questions of newer students or students who have read the syllabus carefully will answer others’ questions. You will save yourself a lot of time if you respond to questions in a public format so that students with the same question can see your responses.

4. Create a course orientation

The course orientation can set the stage for your course and highlight your expectations for students’ work. In my course orientation, I try to provide a context for the course, answering the “why are we studying this?” question. I also outline some of the major assignments for the course through the lens of the course context so that students begin to understand how their work fits into a bigger picture. Next, I provide a bulleted list of my tips for “How to be successful in this course.” These include tips about reading course materials and being an active member of the discussions and groups (yes, I am doing group work in my online course).

5. Start with low stakes

I try to offer several low-stakes assignments at the beginning of the course, spanning the various types of assignments they will have in the course (e.g., a discussion post, a short quiz, a wiki post, etc.). The goals of these assignments are to familiarize students with the technologies they will be using to complete later assignments and to familiarize students with how I will be grading their work. The low-stakes (i.e., worth few points, thus reducing the impact on their final grade) nature of the assignments reduces (somewhat) the anxiety that the students feel as they take on those first tasks. Help students take small steps at the beginning of the course so that they can more easily complete higher-stakes assignments later. As Bob and Dr. Marvin said, “Baby Steps.”

Do you have tips for the start of the semester? What do you try to do to help your students? What worries do you have at the start of your online courses?

Share your thoughts, ideas, and questions in the comments area below. Happy start-of-semester!


Image from flickr cc user Darren Larson. Used with permissions of the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

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