Anyone who has taught online for just one semester can relate to the frustration of getting students to feel at ease in the early days or weeks of class. Of course, this isn’t unique to online courses. It can be a challenge in a traditional, face-to-face class as well. But the physical barrier that is erected in an online class makes it all the more difficult to convince students that you are a warm and caring person who wants them to succeed, and not just the person who will hand them a final grade in sixteen weeks. The isolating nature of online courses is not naturally conducive to students feeling like a member of a community, but studies indicate that a feeling of community is vital to student success in online courses.
Consider all that is stacked up against it, and the chances that a student will immediately feel at home when they first login to a typical online class are slim. First off the student is trying to navigate a new environment. At the same time they are attempting to make sense of a new course schedule and rules. They are reading lots of dry text, and staring, glassy eyed, in front of a cold and impersonal computer. Toss in just the slightest extra monkey-wrench onto this scene, and it might be the final nudge that a reluctant student needs to cause them to drop the class.
So what is an online instructor to do? Is it possible to warm this scene up even a little bit? Can we stack the cards a little more in favor of students wanting to stay, and actually looking forward to logging in to the online class each day? Yes, it is possible and here is one way to get started.
Your very first communications with your students will lay the groundwork for the tone of the course. Therefore, it’s important to carefully craft your communications, especially the first few, so that they send the right message. After years of academic writing, it can be difficult to make the transition to writing for an audience of students. Because of this, many communications that instructors send out to students sound clinical, prescriptive, and overly authoritative. Students who read these types of messages don’t typically feel welcomed into the classroom community. Remember that you are building a community in your class, and you want a community of learners who feel comfortable not cornered.
Think in terms of a conversational writing style that is focused on positive phrases. For example, instead of this: “The weekly assignments will move the student toward the completion of a final research assignment that will demonstrate the student’s comprehensive understanding of the course material.” Go for something that sounds more like this: “Our weekly assignments will help you prepare for the final research assignment that will showcase your understanding of everything that has been covered in the semester.“
Using words like “our” and “we” helps to reinforce the notion that you are an involved member of the class community along with the students. One of the best ways to work out a conversational writing style is to read your communications out loud. If it sounds too academic and impersonal, rewrite it. Also, don’t be afraid to interject smiley faces or occasional light humor into your communication. You don’t want to overdo it, but these modern writing touches can help to send the message that you’re friendly, approachable, and you have a sense of humor. All of this can go a long way to helping put your students at ease.
To take this to one step further, make a brief video introduction welcoming students to class, and post it to your main course page. As with your written communication try and keep the mood lighthearted and welcoming. As time permits, you can continue to add video to your course. For example, you may want to eventually have an opening video for each week or section of your course, where you give a brief introduction of the content for that week, and any special instructions or recommendations to students.
One very useful type of video for the beginning of your class is one in which you give a tour of your course’s Website, explaining the key areas where different content is located and how they can navigate the course and complete assignments. This type of video uses special software that records your screen and the mouse movement on the screen, while also recording your voice narration. Always remember, when creating any type of video for your online classes, that the videos need to include closed captions. If you need help with the captioning, come and see me for assistance.
Cull, S., D. Reed, and K. Kirk. 2010. "Student Motivation and Engagement in Online Courses." Paper presented at Teaching Geoscience Online - A Workshop for Digital Faculty, accessed August 19, 2015. http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/online/motivation.html
Dennen, Vanessa Paz and Curtis J. Bonk. "We'll Leave the Light on for You: Keeping Learners Motivated in Online Courses." In. Flexible Learning in an Information Society, ed. Badrul H. Khan, 64-76 (2007), accessed August 19, 2015 doi:10.4018/978-1-59904-325-8.ch006
Kelly, Rob. "Tips for Humanizing Your Online Course," Faculty Focus, October 17, 2013, accessed August 18, 2015. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/tips-for-humanizing-your-online-course/.
Pacansky-Brock, Michelle. How to Humanize Your Online Class. Accessed August 19, 2015. http://tiny.cc/humanize-infographic.