Beginning any new endeavor, particularly educational based, is an excited time. Depending on your previous experiences as a student, this period can be something to be anticipated since new experiences and knowledge will be presented, or something to be dreaded as new techniques and methods are forced upon you. Add to this the trepidation of the first time online student and you can quickly come to realize many of the individuals within the class are just one or two steps away from full blown panic. For these reasons, the online educator must take careful, planned steps that welcome students into the learning environment.
Technology today is everywhere. For most of us, using smartphones and participating in online interactions has become somewhat second nature. Yet there is a large percentage of the population that has little to no exposure to these things. For this reason, instructors should not assume the comfort level of online learners to the technology being employed. This can also be an issue for instructors who are experiencing a packaged online course for the first time. Both students and instructors may benefit from surveys that measure their ability and willingness to learn in the online environment. Conrad and Donaldson present one of these surveys in their text (“Are You Ready For Learning Online?” 2011). Incorporating this into the first few days of an online course will help to identify those students who may struggle in this environment. This survey will also inform the new online instructor what the realities are for online students. Understanding the personal requirements and cognitive needs of the course within the first few days will help students understand just what is expected of them.
While significant effort can be invested in created a social community within the course, there is a similar need to establish a cognitive presence. This allows students to “…[shift] form the social presence interaction to thinking and discussing the course content and personal learning goals” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). Clearly articulating what is expected from the course is crucial to both instructor and student success. By asking students what they expect to learn from the course, “…an instructor gains insights into the state of the learner’s knowledge, confidence, and experience with the content” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). Also, by conducting exercises and discussions focused on the course syllabus and objectives, the student gain understanding what is expected of them and how to succeed.
Finally, embrace technology, but don’t go crazy. There are a number of wonderful software and technological packages that can bring some excitement to the course, but the content has to be there to support it. Frustration can quickly build among instructors and students when an intricate, lengthy interactive exercise ends and everyone looks around wondering what they just learned. Even more frustration can occur when students have issues accessing the technology in the first place. On a personal level, I am currently teaching a course that uses Adobe Acrobat forms that are downloaded to the student, they fill them out and submit the documents back to me through the learning management system. The intention was to provide quick feedback on their homework. Unfortunately a number of students have had issues with this since they do not have the correct software or simply do not understand how to utilize the technology. To combat this frustration in future courses, I will adopt a technique set forth by Conrad and Donaldson; “Offering a nongraded assignment…will eliminate the panic that is experienced by many students when faced with a graded assignment that requires the use of a new tool or process” (2011). Prior planning, combined with a robust review process which students and faculty participate in, will help future generations of the course.
Boettcher, J., Conrad, R. M. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Conrad, R. M., Donaldson, J. A., (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass