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:
Recommendations for creating a course-specific orientation