Students in an online course can feel detached from the instructor and one another, so one of the most important things an online faculty member can do is send each student a welcome message. Welcoming students will kick off the learning relationship, and pay dividends in better participation and performance down the line. There are a variety of ways to do it.
A simple letter is the easiest way to welcome students. But remember that this should not just repeat what is in the syllabus. The point is to reach each student on a personal level.
Start by talking about why the course is relevant. Students are not interested in what is not relevant to them, so talk about how the course contributes to students' growth. If it's a “soft skills” course, like English, explain how these skills will benefit students in their future work and other endeavors. This demonstrates that you are sincerely interested in students' growth, which will help motivate them to succeed.
Next, talk about your own teaching philosophy. Do you believe that much of learning comes from discussion with others? Then that explains why discussion is an important part of the course. What are the points of the assignments and other material? Explain why you are doing things and students are more likely to look at the course as a learning experience, not just a way to satisfy a requirement.
The welcome letter is also an opportunity to head off any common problems that students encounter in the course. If students often have trouble getting organized for a group assignment, highlight this as a common problem and explain how to avoid it. These warnings based on experience will resonate far more than simply listing requirements and deadlines.
Make sure to talk about yourself. Unfortunately, faculty tend to turn to their CVs when talking about themselves. But students do not care about what their teachers publish. Talk about other things that are interesting about you and your experiences. For instance, what got you interested in your subject? Students remember the stories that humanize us to others. Also make sure to mention some personal information. I was married on a 100-mile bicycle ride, which always gets people's attention. This willingness to share a bit about yourself demonstrates your interest in connecting with students, which can only help make them feel more at ease to come to you with problems.
Finally, be sure to invite students to contact you. Faculty are obligated to list their office hours on the syllabus, but it is well known that some faculty really do not want to be bothered by students showing up during those office hours. Make it clear that you are there to help students and invite them to reach out to you when they have a problem.
Many online courses require faculty to make a welcome call to each student before the course. Whereas the welcome letter is an opportunity to talk, the welcome call is more of an opportunity to listen. Video Skype is an ideal way to make these calls, as seeing the other people will create instant bonds.
Start by asking students about their backgrounds: Where are they from, what degree programs are they studying, do they have previous experience with online education, what are their educational goals, etc.? Then move on to more probing questions. For instance, many students come ill-prepared to be successful online learners, so asking about their preparation can head off problems later on. Do students have schedules with times blocked off during the week to do coursework? It is easy to fall behind in an online course where you do not have the schedule of a MWF 9–10 a.m. lecture imposing a structure on your day. Without this exterior structure, some students have difficulty budgeting time for class work—which is one of the most common reasons for failure in an online course.
Also ask students about their study habits. Another common cause of student failure is not knowing how to study. You can ask students how they read academic work, making suggestions for improvement. You can talk about how you read academic work. Modeling good practice is a powerful teaching tool, and something we don't do enough of in education.
Another good topic is students' strengths and weaknesses. We all have academic strengths and weaknesses, yet this topic is rarely discussed, which can lead students to feeling that only they are having trouble with certain types of material. Hearing students' strengths and weaknesses will better prepare you to help them when they hand in work. Plus, merely showing interest in students will help them feel comfortable reaching out for help.
Also make sure that students understand that they are part of an academic community as participants in the course. Online learning is a fundamentally social process, and the interactions with others are an important part of the learning environment. While most students seem to come out of their shells in an online discussion, it is still helpful to emphasize the importance of discussion in the course to draw them into the conversations.
Finally, make notes on the call. These notes will be valuable during the course, helping you understand how you should guide students and what might be the sources of any performance problems. You might bring up a topic that you discuss later on in the course to show how it connects to an issue that a student is having. This will help put performance in context, and provide the self-reflection that is a key to growth.
Perhaps the best demonstration of your willingness to reach students on a personal level is a video welcome. A short video about the course or yourself will humanize you to the students. These videos are easy to make with a webcam, and can be uploaded to YouTube, Vimeo, or the like for students to watch on their own. Here is an example of a video welcome for a faculty development course that I teach, as well as some rules for making engaging video welcomes: http://bit.ly/1DBQjOV.
Make sure to start your online course with a welcome. The time devoted to it will more than pay for itself in smoother sailing during the course.
John Orlando is an associate director for the Northcentral University Faculty Resource Center.