It is best practice to open online courses with a welcome to students. The online format will be new for many students—in particular, adult students who are returning to school after a long absence—and they may be uncertain of their ability to perform in the course. Plus, because online courses normally have more discussion and other student-to-student activities than the average face-to-face course, an icebreaker can help get students comfortable collaborating with each other.
The best welcome is a simple video of you speaking to your students. While formats such as digital storytelling, animation, and tablet-capture drawing are good for delivering course content, showing your face humanizes you—crucial in a modality where instructors can too easily come across as remote authorities. And what you say is just as important. The purpose of a welcome video is to establish an environment for learning by making students feel comfortable and motivated. Everything you say should serve this end. Here are some tips.
Open by getting students’ attention. Whether live or online, all communication begins with grabbing your audience’s attention. If you don’t get it within the first 90 seconds, you have lost them. They have mentally checked out, are on their cell phones, or have just moved on. Thus, the opening should draw student interest for what is to come. For instance, my welcome to faculty taking a course on online teaching opening with the line “I have a confession to make: I was wrong.” I then talk about the errors I made in developing my first online class because I didn’t understand online teaching at the time. This humanizes me, demonstrates that I understand what it is like to be new to online courses, and tells students that the course will provide practical advice on how to avoid the errors common to online learning.
Motivate students. After getting students’ attention, the welcome should motivate them by showing them why the course is important or interesting. For instance, I once advised a microbiology instructor to open her online course with “It’s been said that humans are the only species without any natural predators, but this is wrong. Germs kill millions of people per year, and as microbiologists it is our job to stop them.” Of course, when you are in the weeds of developing the content, it is easy to forget why a course is relevant. Asking yourself why a course matters to students will help you keep your eye on how students can apply the learning in the future. This will keep your lessons tethered to learning objectives rather than just “covering content.”
Provide advice for success. Welcomes are a good occasion to provide students with advice for success, especially in terms of avoiding common errors. For example, it is easy to fall behind in an online course, and so you might recommend establishing a set schedule for checking in daily. You might also prepare students for a course activity by giving them something to start thinking about. Welcomes should also highlight any unusual processes or expectations for the course that students might misunderstand.
Be personable. The goal of a welcome video is to bridge the distance between you and your students, and so it should come as close as possible to giving students the feeling that you are speaking directly to them. Unfortunately, instructors commonly undermine this purpose with mannerisms or topics that suggest a perfunctory going through the motions to fulfill a requirement. Connecting with students means the following:
Most online classes also begin with an icebreaker. But faculty often default to having students introduce themselves with a discussion posting that states their name, where they are from, why they are taking the course, and so on. Just as participants groan when a workshop opens with the speaker having everyone introduce themselves and say what they expect to get out of the session, students don’t see the point of sharing their background and may even find it intrusive.
A better icebreaker allows students to contribute something they find of interest. A popular one I have used is to have students post a photo of their favorite place to visit on Padlet and state why they like it. This is not so personal that it seems intrusive, and people are happy to share. A course on cinema might break the ice by having students state what their favorite movie is and why.
The most important takeaway is that welcomes are about connecting with students. They provide an opportunity to exercise creativity, and the effort put into making a memorable welcome video and an engaging icebreaker will go a long way toward improving student involvement in the course.