Thoughts on Online Course Beginnings

When special efforts are made, online education actually can enhance learning experiences, expand horizons and facilitate group collaboration.

Remember when you were a college student and attended your first course? Did the method by which the course and the instructor were introduced affect how your felt about the course? Did the instructor read the syllabus to you and then dismiss class? Perhaps the professor began with an “ice-breaking” activity?

As you contemplate the start of a new semester or new online course, it is important to step back and consider the overall course experience you want your students to have. How will you introduce yourself, get to know your students. How will you present course expectations, content and assessment guidelines? What impression do you want to leave with your students at the end of the day?

Because student's today are likely to be more "socially" oriented and technology-aware, it is a good idea to take advantage of this as you plan the introduction to your course. Your studentʼs have had access to a wide variety of technologies that allow them to instantaneously know what their "friends" are doing or thinking. This experience with connectivity will likely extend into your online classroom environment.

No matter the method you choose or create, it is suggested that you provide a personal introduction to your course. A personal introduction offers the students a glimpse of their instructor and provides them with a model for interaction and communication styles within your course. What you include is really up to you.

In general, you should include a mix of formal details of your career and academic interests and, if you like, some informal details about you or your interests or hobbies outside of your day job. Some instructors encourage (not require) students to add photos by emailing them to the instructor, uploading them to course webpages or by attaching their image file to a discussion thread. Photos personalize the biographical information and help classmates form a clearer image of their fellow students, especially if they should run into them on campus. Another suggestion is to share your passion for the topic/subject of the course. Students will ultimately develop their own relation with the topic/subject. However, knowing how you feel can influence their performance in the course. Your goal should be to form a sense of community within your online course.

You should also determine which elements of your course and syllabus are important enough to be highlighted in your introduction and then point them to these resources so they can read and review them later. Helping learners understand the reasons behind  participation requirements and course expectations will better enable them to use this information to expedite their own learning.

You may want to share information about your teaching style/method as well as share educational values that you would like exemplified in your course. Faculty who have taught online for a number of years have learned to express their expectations in short and simple terms with great success. Include personal suggestions or guidelines for students to ensure their successful learning experience in your class. You may want to touch upon grading procedures, rubrics, or subjective grading criteria if applicable. Share with your students how you will provide informative feedback, assessment feedback and acknowledgement feedback.

Even though our students seem to be technology-savvy individuals, it is always a good idea to discuss online course/communication etiquette (netiquette) - preferably from your personal perspective. Remember, not all faculty are going to conduct their courses online in the same way. Your expectations for online conduct may differ greatly from that of your colleagues. Many faculty expect students to already understand how to conduct themselves online. You should let students know what your values and expectations are for their conduct in your course. How do you want students to communicate with you? What is permissible when students communicate within your course and with each other? Sometimes, creating a single, open discussion forum for "off-topic" discussions by students can help them to understand the "time and place" concept and to adhere to professional standards within the formal discussion areas.

Finally, be sure to discuss your expectations regarding time. An online environment is very much like a Casino; no clocks, no windows, no sense of passing time. Students come and go when it is convenient for them. If you have a need to control when a student needs to be online, make this very clear. It can be very helpful to delineate those components of your course that are "time sensitive" and those that are not!

Now that you have a sense of what you want to include in your introduction, letʼs take a look at some of the ways in which you can deliver this introduction to your students. You can choose to engage your students before the course formally begins or within the first days of the course offering. The options for introducing your course include, but are certainly not limited to the following:

1. Create a document for students to read
2. Create a Course Announcement
3. Create a Podcast
4. Create a Video
5. Create a Discussion Forum
6. Student web pages
7. Face-to-Face (F2F)

What you may want to include:

1. Picture or Avatar
2. Short Bio
3. Personal expectations for the course/students
4. Opening “thought-provoking” question

(Note: Consider the following as “spices” for your online meal. Consider blending several spices to achieve the best results.)

Documents:
While some consider this approach the easiest, it can also be considered impersonal depending on how it is structured. If you choose to create a document that introduces you and your course, then carefully consider your “voice” when composing it. The tone you set in your document will likely imply a tone for the course communications.

If appropriate, include images, links or tables. Instructors that have been successful in using documents to introduce their course generally use a variety of graphics, organize the information carefully and provide contact information, references, and helpful hyperlinks. An introductory document should be concise and not lengthy. One advantage documents have is that they can be referred to often either in print or online.

(Note: a word document can have embedded links, images, audio and video!)


Announcements:
Most if not all Learning Management Systems (LMS) have a system for providing course announcements. The better systems will provide options for the display of the announcement either as the student signs in (pop-up), as an email, or with some sort of flag or color designation to attract the attention of the student once they are in the course. The announcement feature can be a very effective way to grab student attention and introduce your course. One caution though, some LMS have a character limit in their announcement tools which would make them inappropriate for this task.

Podcast:
Podcasting, or simply audio recording, is a very good way to introduce your course and yourself to your students. Podcasts are generally small audio files and are easily managed online within most LMS's. If you choose to do podcasting, and have a significant amount of information to extend to your students, consider "chunking" them, meaning, create more smaller podcasts on single topics instead of one very long podcast. Students are more likely to listen to all of your individual clips than they are to one single podcast, even though they may require the same amount of time.

Video Streaming:
Ideally, the best option for many instructors. Many computers today, especially laptops, come with a built-in camera and software allowing the user to create video clips. And, a video introduction is the closest thing to an in-person experience an instructor can offer their students. Some suggestions for creating your video introduction would be:

• Keep it simple and relatively short. If you find that you have more than 5-8 minutes of video, consider creating more than one clip. As with the podcasts, breaking the content into smaller units (chunking) has been shown to be an effective strategy for delivering multimedia content online.

• Choose a suitable setting such as your office or work area

• Practice a couple of times

• Work from a script or outline

• Look into the camera as often as possible

Discussion Forum:
If you choose to post your introduction in a discussion forum, be sure to email your students and let them know where how to join the forum. You can combine an announcement with this as well to ensure that all students arrive a the correct location within the LMS to view the discussion. The email you send or the announcement you post can do much to set the tone and expectations for your course. These “first words” can also provide models of online communication for your students. Your introductory remarks should reinforce what is contained in your syllabus and other documents
students will encounter as they begin their online class.

The discussion forum should also encourage students to share and relate to others in the course. You can initiate this by providing similar information about yourself. For instance, you could share some of your personal experiences teaching and learning online. Do you teach from your office, home, or pool-side? Perhaps your read email at Starbucks? Maybe you have overcome some challenges related to learning online that you can share?

Student Pages:
In some LMSs, students have access to tools that allow them to create their own "webpage". You can utilize this feature to have students create autobiographical websites that they can share with other students. In this way, students can archive the information, and refer to their own or others as needed throughout the course.

If you carve out a separate area for this activity or create a page of links to students' webpages, your students will be able to refer back to the biographical information throughout the course. It is best to keep the requirements for introductions simple, meaning, "please say a few words about yourself and your reason for taking this class" or, "tell a little about your background in this subject."

F2F Meeting (on ground)
Of course, there is always the Face-to-Face option. This can be a very effective method in some special circumstances, especially when course requirements dictate it; for example, if a proficiency must be met. However, if you do not have special requirements, and you are teaching 100% online, it only makes sense that you utilize the online environment to deliver your introduction.