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Developing a Course-Specific Orientation

Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Developing a Course-Specific Orientation

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Many institutions offer an orientation to online learning, providing students a general overview of the learning management system and resources available to help them succeed. It's a nice start, but it doesn't go far enough, argues Anna Stirling, adjunct computer information systems instructor at Mount San Jacinto College and @ONE Online Teaching Certification Program Coordinator.

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1 Comment

  1. vani Kotcherlakota February 23, 2022

    very interesting and useful suggestions about opening up the course three weeks prior to the actual start date of the course. However, what policies can be followed for late enrollments. Should we ask them to take this orientation first?

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Many institutions offer an orientation to online learning, providing students a general overview of the learning management system and resources available to help them succeed. It's a nice start, but it doesn't go far enough, argues Anna Stirling, adjunct computer information systems instructor at Mount San Jacinto College and @ONE Online Teaching Certification Program Coordinator.

Despite an institutional online learner orientation, students in Stirling's online courses were unprepared. Their struggles with the technology often led to missed deadlines, frustration, and sometimes attrition.

The general orientation gave students a good overview of the skills needed to succeed in the online learning environment, “but my students were really struggling with the technology, specifically the technology being used in my course,” Stirling says.

To address this need for technological support, Stirling embedded just-in-time information throughout her courses. “It was working OK, but I started realizing that they were still struggling with the technology. And sometimes that caused them to lag in completing the coursework,” she says.

She decided to front-load all that technical information in a course-specific orientation, and she designed the orientation to model the design of the actual course. Stirling's orientations provide learners with low-stakes practice activities that they can do repeatedly until they become comfortable with the technology being used in the course.

Like each module in her courses, the course-specific orientation takes approximately nine hours to complete. Orientation activities include reading the syllabus, reviewing course policies and procedures, and completing orientation activities (a check-in, a blog assignment, a student services Web search assignment, and a check-in test).

The orientation takes place within the LMS (Blackboard, in Stirling's case) and is available three weeks before the course begins. The official check-in period is from one week prior to the start of the course until two days after the start. In order to maintain enrollment in the course, students must complete one activity by the end of the check-in period.

Providing students access to the orientation before the course begins and requiring them to complete it by the end of the check-in period means that the orientation does not take up valuable course time, a common issue for many online instructors.

In order to proceed to the actual course, students must get a perfect score on the check-in test, which they can take as many times as they need to.

“By having this orientation piece in front and structured similarly to the way the course operates and explaining what students can expect throughout the course, it eliminates that surprise later on in the course, and I think it does it in an engaging way. It's what I consider an active learning experience for the students versus just telling them what's in the syllabus. Most instructors do a very good job of explaining textually in the syllabus what's going to be happening later on in the course, but giving students an actual opportunity to interact with the technology in ways that they're going to have to later in the course really reduces that barrier of learning the technology while you're trying to learn the course content,” Stirling says.

Also, by modeling the course structure and time commitment, students know up front what to expect in the course “so they can make a determination as to whether they want to stay in the course,” Stirling says. “Before, when students didn't have a full understanding of how they were going to use the course, a lot of students would drop three or four weeks into the course. Now, with [the orientation] in the first weeks of the course, students who are not interested in dedicating that amount of time and effort to the course can get out of the course relatively quickly and other students can be added. As a result, my retention and success rates have gone up.”

Stirling includes the following sections in her course orientations:

  • An introduction—This sets expectations about which tools the course will use, announces the deadline for completion of the course orientation, provides a link to the MSJC Online Learner Orientation (an optional general introduction provided by the institution), and lists the learning outcomes of the orientation, which are that students will:
    • be able to navigate through the Blackboard course environment for this course,
    • know how to communicate using the blog tool,
    • know how to upload assignments via the assignment link,
    • know how to take a test in Blackboard, and
    • know where to find additional help resources.
  • A “Before you begin” page—This includes links to the syllabus and schedule, faculty information, a books/resources page, and an introductory video. In the video, Stirling shows the layout of the course and provides realistic expectations.
  • Course activities—These provide students with opportunities to use LMS tools in a low-stakes setting. Rather than having content-related activities, Stirling has students use the tools to engage in activities that orient them to student support services. This section is the one most likely to vary from course to course. It's where students get a chance to practice using the tools that will be used in the course.
  • Important information—This section lays out the expectations of the course and breaks down how students should spend their time (for example, three hours per week reading/watching resource materials, three hours per week completing the textbook case problem, and three hours per week completing the activity/discussion blog).

Recommendations for creating a course-specific orientation

  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Creating a course-specific orientation such as those Stirling recommends is a labor-intensive endeavor. This is why she has posted an example of one of her orientations for others under a Creative Commons license. Here's the URL: http://bit.ly/DCSOO.
  • Structure your orientation like the course. The orientation should follow the same structure as the units in the course—introduction, activities, and assessments. This establishes a familiar course navigation experience.
  • Include activities that provide useful knowledge as well as practice with the tools. Once you know which tools the course will include, design activities that use each of those tools. Stirling has students engage in activities that introduce them to student support services such as counseling, tutoring, financial aid, and the library. “What are the services that you want your students to know about that will help them be successful? Leverage those with the tools you have and provide any other information you think is important for your students to know before they start your course,” Stirling says.
  • Insert your personality into the orientation (and your course). “I'm a huge proponent of putting yourself into your courses. When you're writing instructions or explanations, write in your own voice. Write your introductions the way you talk so that it puts you and your voice into the course,” Stirling says.