Preparing for Beginning a Term Online

By Dr. Diane Chapman, Executive Director, OFD

Beginning a term teaching remotely is different than moving your course online mid-semester. Students may have different expectations and they may have never met you face-to-face or met each other face-to-face. They do not have the luxury of starting the term in person which means that you don’t have the luxury of being face-to-face in order to explain aspects of your course, build trust, establish a welcoming environment or establish your presence as an instructor.

However, there are best practices that are used by online instructors that can help you to avoid problems. This post will outline a few of those best practices.

  1. Send out a welcome letter to all students in your course about a week before classes start. In the letter, make sure you welcome the students to your course and introduce yourself and any co-instructors or TAs. You will want to let them know the start date of the course and any expectations about when they need to log in for the first time in technologies such as Moodle and Zoom, and purchases required, such as books or software. Other options include: your teaching philosophy, information and help links for technologies you are using, learning/course objectives, a checklist for getting started, and file naming instructions. I usually include a link to my syllabus and course calendar.
  2. Schedule a synchronous session to review the syllabus, your expectations and answer student questions within the first week of classes. This should not be a mandatory session, but there for students who are feeling a bit anxious about what is to come. Record the session for those who cannot attend synchronously. It has been my experience that high touch in the beginning of the term leads to less student anxiety later in the term.
  3. Make introductions a requirement of the class. Remote learners can feel isolated and detached because of the lack of social interaction. By requiring introductions at the beginning of your course, you help students build community and trust. There are a variety of ways to do this with one of the simplest being a discussion board. You would instruct students on what information to post and how they should interact with classmates’ posts. Make sure you also introduce yourself in order to model what you want. Other options include technologies such as Flipgrid in which students can upload video introductions.
  4. Set students’ expectations early about your level of involvement in the course. With teaching remotely you will soon realize that the class continues whether you are online or not. In asynchronous courses, students may work online at all hours of the day and night. Let your students know what they can expect from you in terms of your involvement, such as how often you will be checking into the course, and the turnaround time for answering email and grading assignments. Some instructors create a HELP discussion forum exclusively for students, and your process and availability for scheduling any one-on-one meetings.
  5. Set expectations early about student levels of involvement in the course. Students also need to know what is expected of them, especially those who have never taken a course at a distance. Some issues to address include: How often must students check into their Moodle course? What are your expectations for participation? What are your expectations for synchronous meetings? How should students contact you? Who students should contact for certain issues, and any other expectations that you want to highlight (even if they are in the syllabus).

The goals of adopting these best practices include increasing student success, reducing student anxiety, reducing misinterpretation and misunderstandings between instructors and students, and enabling a fairer and more equitable learning environment. Let us know how these and other practices are working for you!