As instructors, we learn a lot about our students by their physical presence in a face-to-face course, from their dress to their demeanor. Students also learn a lot about us this way. But that information is lost in an online class. Thus, it is important to invite students in to online classes right at the beginning to foster a learning environment. Here are some strategies that I have found to work.
Give good directions. Students must be able to access the course, the curriculum, the assessments, you, and—most important—each other. Think community and self-reliance when you make decisions about the course design and course content. Consider content chunking with a pacing schedule so that students move through the course alongside one another. This practice encourages the formation of a learning community because students can share what they are learning with one another. Consequently, it affords students the ability to troubleshoot alongside one another better, and this encourages them to rely on peers for problem solving and to become more self-reliant and independent in the course.
Use your words—and your manners—and encourage students to do the same. Personalize the classroom space with a distinct instructor's voice. Write to your students as you would speak to them in class, not as though you are composing a technical document composed solely of instructions. As you would in personal interactions, be sure to start News items with a greeting and context. Be sure also to sign off with an offer to assist with questions and other information about how students can receive support if needed.
Account for missed nuance and body language in text-based communication. Keep your messages positive, and assume the best about your students and their efforts. Avoid sarcasm, and avoid underlined, bold, or all-caps words, because this formatting strategy is interpreted as yelling and is especially negative in online communication. Finally, give students the opportunity to meet your expectations by being sure that those expectations are clearly spelled out and not assumed.
Model the communication practices you wish to see from students in the classroom. We want clear subject lines in emails, so label your News items and announcements accordingly. We want students to treat us as people, so we should address them as such with greetings and pleasantries, even in routine News items and announcements in our online classroom. We want students to edit carefully and be invested in the details, which we believe reflects their level of engagement and their motivation in the course. We should be equally invested in presenting our course materials as professionally as those we wish to see returned to us in our students' assessments.
Anticipate students' needs before they enter the classroom. Cover the basics: textbook requirements, how frequently they should log on, where they can obtain assistance for various difficulties throughout the term. But go beyond the basics. Rely on troubleshooting from previous terms to include a FAQ for students. Now anticipate all students' needs.
Create a clear path to success for your students. Use a “Start Here” link in News or provide a clear path to the course orientation. The orientation should introduce six things well: (1) where to go, (2) what to do, (3) how to do it, (4) when to do it by, (5) how to connect with others for support, and (6) how to find you just in case.
Organize with parallelism and predictability to take the guesswork out of the structure of the course. Ensure that content and tasks are organized in a hierarchy that emphasizes weight and significance and that minor or optional items are de-emphasized through the structure of the course, being clearly labeled as ancillary or supplemental. Make course organization intuitive, moving through content weekly or by units or modules. Be consistent about this organization, and be sure that students are informed on the syllabus and through News or announcements about where we are—and when we are—in the course. Keep these aspects of organization and scheduling unremarkable so that students can focus on content. If your course always runs Friday to Friday, for example, don't include any Wednesday or Sunday deadlines. This anomaly is easy to overlook, and students, once they're gotten into the “flow” of your course, will begin to rely on that full week to complete course assignments.
Help them find you. Create a profile with a picture and a range of information about you; include those things that face-to-face students may know through informal conversations before and after class but that online students may never end up learning about you unless you include it in the classroom.
Include a “Meet the Professor” section that offers more insights about your teaching philosophy, research or writing interests, and what you seek to accomplish through teaching the course. Additionally, include information that students would likely glean from meeting you in person (where you are from, what your personal interests are, and why you began teaching in the first place). If students buy into you, they will have an easier time buying into your course as well.
Close each news item, assignment, and piece of feedback with a reminder of how students can best reach you, as well as your next availability. This is almost like ending a traditional class with, “Any questions? Let me know if you need any help.”
A common question I get from the faculty I work with is whether it's possible to be too friendly or accommodating to a fault. I don't think so. I don't water down my content, nor does this approach undermine my policies. Think nice but firm. I promise you that an emoticon or much-needed casual phrase will not diminish your professional reputation, and I would wager that these elements often aid in crafting an approachable, enthusiastic persona in online environments that makes students feel welcomed and seen.
An additional concern is the extra effort and time it takes on the front end to do what some instructors may even consider borderline spoon-feeding, especially at the college level. In my experience, designing an online classroom that is sensitive to the needs of first-time online students removes a barrier I would have to climb in other, more labor-intensive ways at other points in the semester. By creating an online class that is front-loaded with content that establishes expectations, sets the tone, and lets students know I'm here for them, I have ended up with more satisfied, successful students who are engaged and successful in my courses and happy to come back next time.
Deidre Price is the interim director of learning technologies at Northwest Florida State College.