Step one in creating a successful online learning environment: build a learning community. How can instructors start this process? Just as a face-to-face class may spend the first class session getting to know one another, the online class must do the same, maybe even more so. Since online learners start out with a cyber-separation, course designers or instructors need to make an extra effort to create social connection in a nonthreatening manner. Think about a traditional in-person class. Students gather at the classroom door prior to the start of class. Conversations arise about the course, similar interests, and life outside the classroom. When the class ends, students gather in the halls and/or common areas on campus in order to create personal connections and friendships. This socialization is priceless in building a safe environment for learning. So, start this process by breaking the ice.
Here are six engaging icebreaker activities that all use a discussion board and are easy to implement. This coming term, update the usual introductions forum by trying out one of these instead.
1. In Line
This activity uses two discussion forums. In the first discussion forum, students score themselves on five given statements to indicate a level of knowledge or interest. The top score of 10 signifies a high interest or ability to teach. A score of 1 indicates minimal knowledge and/or interest. Once students have entered their scores on the given statements in their initial post, peers look for classmates with the score closest to their own on each statement. Next, using the learning management system (LMS) messaging tool, students introduce themselves to this classmate. Through messaging, students find other common interesting of one another. Ideally, students have found a partner. If the a student already has a partner, then he or she can reply to say so. The student returns to the forum to find another similar score. Lastly, it is now the student’s job to introduce his or her partner to the class in the introductions forum.
1st forum: Score Yourself
Example statements (provided by the instructor)
2nd forum: Introductions
Hello all, I’m introducing my new friend Sandy Smith. She loves to read mystery novels and watches more cooking shows than actual cooking…
2. Lost in Space
Instructions are not the only way we learn more about people. Sometimes we learn more about people through seeing their priorities. In this imaginative icebreaker, students pretend they are living on a space station for a year. Suddenly, the station is malfunctioning and they have fifteen minutes to gather only five items to take with them on the evacuating space shuttle. This is not a time for deep thought. Students are instructed to quickly type out the five items they are taking with them. Once all participants have enter their items on their initial posts, peers read through the entries to find similarities and/or curiosities. Students post replies to comment and ask questions about the reasoning behind choosing the items. Give students categories of technology, personal, and survival to start their explanation.
3. One Word
This activity is one of my favorites. I’ve used this icebreaker in both in-person and online learning environments, as well as with eighth graders and college students. Students think of one word that best describes them or their life. They start their initial discussion post by stating this word in bold, then describes why they chose that word. Students review peers’ posts and finds someone whose word resonates with them. Replying to that post with the connection and tries to find two other nouns that the two classmates have in common. Note: Students always do better with this activity when a strong example is provided after the instructions.
I’ve chosen this word because I feel like my life constantly has challenges that I overcome in order to achievement my goals. For example…
Change up the text by starting student introductions with an image. Students find an image of an object that represents them or why are are taking the course. (Canvas Hack: Students can select the image icon in the rich text editor toolbar and select Flickr to search for images and add them easily.) Students add the image and an explanation of why they chose that particular object. Start this activity by posting your object and explanation. Once students have completed their initial post, their job is to respond to interesting images and reply with a question. Original students reply to the question with an answer.
I simply love history. It’s the story that no fiction could rival…
5. 2 Truths + 1 False
An oldie, but a goodie. Students post two truthful statements and 1 false, without labeling. Peers review and reply with their guesses on which statement is false and explain the reasons behind their guess. After a given date, students return to their original post to reveal the actual false statement in a reply. Also, within this revealing reply, students list the names of the peers who guessed correctly as a little applaud in this friendly game.
A simple activity kicked up a notch. Students use their own first name to create a short poem. Writing their name vertically, students use each letter to start a line, or be the main word in a line, that describes something about themselves. Peers review all poems and try to remember details about each classmate. The instructor then creates a short quiz using the statements posted in different poems. Classmates take this fun quiz to show their knowledge of their peers.
Example of Acrostic Poem
N - Not a fan of pie.
I - I love cookie dough Ice cream.
C - I prefer Cooking over eating out.
O - My family has an Olive Oil ranch.
L - Learning is fun for me.
E - I’ve ridden an Elephant in Thailand.
Remember to grab the free 1-page guide to assist you in preparing for your next online course.
Free Guide: 6 Engaging IceBreakers
Select the link then login or register to access and download.
Let me reassure you that technology is not replacing the teacher. Nothing can replace the presence of an educator in any learning environment. Online learning just provides another avenue to meet our students, educate them, guide them, and support them. So, how can we, instructors, reach into the learning management system and let our online students know we are just as dedicated to them as our in-person students? This question has been a trending topic in distance education in recent years due to results of research on the impact of instructor presence.
The online environment initially separates the instructor and students, which starts them at a disadvantage. Overcoming this disadvantage takes some extra effort, planning, and dedication. Nothing new to “rock-star” instructors. Here are five ways to enhance instructor presence, your presence, in your online class. And… of course, I added technology tools and Canvas hacks to help you implement each strategy.
1. Regular Interactions
Regular interactions are instructor to student interactions that students can count on throughout the course. These can include scheduled announcements (where students can reply with questions or comments), due date reminder messages, and prompt replies to student messages. Each interaction is an example that you are there. You are interested in their personal success, as well as interested in each of their questions. They can count on your continuous attentiveness.
Utilize Canvas tools in order to help you implement each of these strategies as follows:
2. Discussion Engagement
Next, let’s address the age-old debate of instructor engagement within student discussion forums. Yes, these forums are meant for student conversations about new concepts and student-to-student connection is a pillar of student engagement. Still, instructor presence, or guidance rather, is essential to promote critical thinking, correct misunderstandings, and encourage connections. Beyond academic discussions, create a space for more informal interactions. A discussion forum titled, “The Cafe”, can be used to engage with students outside the parameters of academia, student performance, and learning objectives.
3. Prompt Feedback
In one study, for example, “investigators found that prompt feedback was a significant predictor of student perceived learning and satisfaction” (Ladyshewsky, 2013). With best intentions, we all know that grading can pile up quickly. Research on learning cycles suggest evaluation and adjustments, the last part of the cycle, can only occur if feedback is give promptly within 48 hours. “Nicole, I teach four courses with over one hundred students, 48 hours is just not possible most of the time.” As a fellow college instructor, I couldn’t agree more. The goal is to provide students with meaningful and prompt feedback in order for the student to not lose context for the valued learning of the work and have a chance to adjust prior to the next similar assignment. Strategy: make 48 hours a goal and 7 days a policy. Returning grading within 7 days still gives time for students to review and reflect on given feedback and adjust understanding of concepts and expectations of the assignment.
4. Real World Connections
The ultimate answer to the “why is this important” motivational barrier can be found out there… in the real world. We’re finally in an age where the classroom and the real world can be easily connected. Creating this connection provides purpose, real world application, and engaging content into the online learning environment. Theme related current events are useful when an instructor would like to adjust instructional material without changing the curriculum and learning objectives. Scouring news outlets for relevant articles can take hours of your time that is just not there. So, why not have technology do that work for you?
5. Visual and Audio Communications
Online courses have come so far from their text-heavy correspondence beginnings. Just as in-person courses give the instructor a chance to express insights and connections in the concepts, technology tools have made it possible for online students to share the same experience. I recently took an online course from Univ. of Wisconsin-Stout, on instructional design, where the instructor showed continuous presence. One tool she used was Zoom for web conferences. At the beginning of the course, the students answered what the best day and time would be for a live web-conference chat. Then once a week, on the elected day and time, the instructor would send a link for her student to join her for questions, challenges, tools, and more. The live conferences were also recorded and added to the week’s content for any student who could not make the meeting time. I was surprised just how useful this weekly conference really was. Students flocked to this meeting to ask specific questions, get immediate feedback on ideas, and listen to peers thought processes. Your students could benefit from live-time communication and connection too.
A strong instructor presence in online learning is directly related to decreasing the gradual loss of student enrollment, and an increase in student engagement through communication exchanges that can somewhat resemble that of an in-person course. Remember, technology will never replace a great instructor. Oh, and this just in from online students everywhere, “thanks for being there”.
Grab this one page guide on 5 ways to enhance instructor presence including all the strategies and tools mentioned in this post.
Free Guide: 5 Ways to Enhance Instructor Presence
Login or Register to access and download the guide.
Community College Research Center (CCRC) and Teachers College, Columbia University. (2013). Creating an Effective Online Instructor Presence. Retrieved November 4, 2015, from http://www.achievingthedream.org/sites/default/files/resources/Online-Learning-Practitioner-Packet.pdf
Ladyshewsky, R. K. (2013, 01). Instructor Presence in Online Courses and Student Satisfaction. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1). doi:10.20429/ijsotl.2013.070113
The ways in which we serve our students has changed over recent years. Distance education has become a pillar in most public higher education institutions and a staple in most college students’ academic path. According to the 2015 Survey of Online Learning, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), there has been a year-to-year increase of 3.9% in the number of distance education students. Now, more than one in four students take at least one distance education course in the pathway to graduation. Public institutions have the largest portion of distance education students. Online education is now a critical part of most colleges and universities’ long term strategy. If more students are choosing to take online courses than ever before, why are we losing 10% - 20% more per term than traditional classes?
Student retention is a long standing and complex issue. My research on college retention brought me to core theories regarding student departure, from experts such as Braxton, Sullivan, and Tinto. Most of the research explained student retention at the institutional level as it all starts with student entry. There are a total of 6 main factors that influence student retention. Those we’ll save for another post. However, from those 6 factors there have been retention program evaluations created based on 3 principles:
The measurement of these 3 principles indicate effective retention programs and policies. My ending research question was if retention is an institution-wide initiative with multiple factors, what can an individual instructor do to combat the low retention rate in her own online class?
I’ve created 4 practical components instructions can routinely add to their own online courses that directly aligned with the stated effective retention evaluation principles. Then included practical strategies for each component.
1. Clear Communication
As most retention research states, it all starts with student entry characteristics. First impressions count. Every college course begins with the course syllabus. Your clear course communication starts here. This document holds course information, policies, expectations, and student outcomes. In order to reach all of your students at their learning style, create a visual and/or auditory representation of the syllabus content, especially your course policies. For example consider creating an infographic that can be used in more than one course to express clear policies.
Just as every student’s raised hand in a traditional class is valued, every student message should be valued the same in an online class. Through social and connective learning theories, we know that students can’t just learn in vacuum. Consider every student message/e-mail a connection opportunity. Connection to the course content, learning concepts, or just to you, the instructor. Make a commitment to your students that you’ll reply to their messages with a 24 hour period. This creates a sense of real support and builds trust between the student and his instructor.
2. Instructor Presence
The difference between a correspondence course and an online learning course - instructor presence. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a welcome video allows your students to see their instructor and connect a name to a real face. Start your course by adding this human factor to your online learning environment.
Basic online learning course design starts the first week with an introduction forum. Often times, students report a lack of connection to their reason of departure. So, this staple assignment is the perfect opportunity to connect with each one of your students. Your response does not have to be long, just personal. Not only can you connect with each of your students, but you can also take this opportunity to create connections between classmates… creating the start of a learning community. Student-to-instructor and student-to-student engagement are 2 of the 3 pillars of online learning domains of engagement. Students are people who need connection and to feel that there is someone caring about them and their success.
Weekly announcements are not anything new to online instructors. However, after many conversations with my fellow colleagues, I understand the frustration they face of students not reading announcements. Some suggestions: consider what content you are adding in these announcements. Use these weekly announcements to spark interest, make connections between previous and new concepts, address new assignments and student expectations. End the announcement with an open-ended question. Most learning management systems (LMS) have a function for students to reply to an announcement. Use the open-ended question to have students connect a new concept to real-life and/or their own experience. Their response is also an indication of their comprehension of the announcement.
Think about the end of each traditional class session when the instructor reminds students of upcoming due dates. This next task has the same feel, but in an online environment. Using the amazing tools available in most LMSs, message a reminder to students who have yet to submit an upcoming assignment. This personal communication is indication that the instructor cares about each student and his/her progress in the class. “A personal message for every student, for every assignment… you’ve got to be kidding me, Nicole.” I know that sounds crazy, and I wouldn’t suggest something so time consuming without a shortcut! Find the tool in your LMS gradebook that sorts students by who has not submitted yet, then compose a single message for all in this list and make sure to BCC students for a personal message.
This task is something I can not stress enough… the power of timely feedback. My M.Ed. in EdTech and teaching online included an entire course on assessment and feedback. Although I gained high understanding in theories, methods, and strategies, my number one takeaway from this course was that academic feedback is literally pointless if not provided within a timely manner. Students move-on, and the feedback loses relevance with each day. What a missed learning opportunity. Providing guiding feedback is one of our main responsibilities as online instructors. My suggestion is to commit to providing feedback for every assignment within a 7- day window. Making this commitment to your students at the beginning of the term keeps your accountable and let’s students know that you are serious about their learning and value their time and work. This will also help you gauge their workload if yours is reflected in your grading time.
The effectiveness of online class discussions has been debated for years. Most dread the “then reply to two peers” assignment. Can an online discussion really mirror the gold found in traditional class discussions? This is a topic that I could spend an entire series on describing strategies, do’s and don’ts, and best practices. So, here, I’ll just suggest that instructors can further instill their commitment to student learning by engaging in these discussion forums. Be the facilitator of deeper discussion by replying to a couple of student’s post each week. Show that you care about their thought process in the development of their own understandings.
3. Student Voice
Here’s a two for one task, a student cafe. This “cafe” is in the form of a discussion board that is open to student to student conversations, questions, and chats. The first benefit is the peer-to-peer connection and engagement. Another piece of the retention pie. The second benefit is the instructor insight gathered from this student discussion. What concepts are they struggling with? What assignment types most challenging? What topics are the most engaging? Through this strategy students are connecting with one another, as well as giving you high value information for reflection and instructional adjustments.
Canvas Hack: You don’t need to create a different cafe/discussion forum for each week. Just click, drag, and drop the existing forum into the new week.
Midterms are synonymous with a large test or assignment to gauge learning outcomes at the middle of the term. Nothing new, right? Use this halfway point for students to give you feedback too. An anonymous online survey can provide you critical information on how your course is going thus far. Students can tell you what assignments are helping them understand the concepts, what supports are most useful, self-assess their own ability to complete a course learning outcome, as well as give helpful suggestions for their success. This is my 5th term using a midterm student survey, and I’m so happy to read the results each term because I actually have time to adjust for student success before the end of the term. I’ve also experienced student appreciation of my interest in their voice and experience.
4. Student Supports
It takes a village. You, as the instructor, are not the only support your students have. Many colleges have both academic and personal support departments available. Your job is to connect the students and departments when you see the need. The college I currently teach for has a retention system is called Early Alerts. This system ultimately allows the instructor to flag a student who is in need of extra support. Lucky for me, the retention specialist then contacts the student to offer multiple academic and personal supports depending on the information I’ve stated and their own conversation. Submitting these Early Alerts pays a two part role, as it also provides a system for me to track my tried interventions and communications with each struggling student throughout the term. My most important suggestion is for instructions to do this (retention system or tracking interventions) multiple times throughout the term, not just at the end of the first week for financial aid information.
Nicole, how am I suppose to remember all of these retential tasks, let alone complete all of them?! Not to worry friends. I’ve created a detailed one-pager that includes the 4 retention components with each of the strategies described here for efficient reference. Select two strategies to start with and add one each term. Take note of your DFW, or retention rate, as well as your end of course evaluations. Please share your success or challenges below. Remember, this is a community where we learn, support, and grow together.
Routine Retention Tasks Freebie
To access, select the link above. Register, or login to download.
Akanegbu, Anuli, et al. “50 Striking Statistics About Distance Learning in Higher Education.” Technology Solutions That Drive Education, 12 July 2012, edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2012/07/50-striking-statistics-about-distance-learning-higher-education.
Babson College. “2015 Survey of Online Learning | News & Events.” Babson College, www.babson.edu/news-events/babson-news/Pages/2016-babson-releases-2015-survey-of-online-learning.aspx .
Braxton, John M. Understanding and Reducing College Student Departure: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report. 2004.
“Student Engagement Strategies for the Online Learning Environment.” Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning, 16 May 2017, www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/student-engagement-how-to-help-students-succeed-in-the-online-environment/.
Nicole Mace believes that distance education is a true game changer. She has spent close to a decade in education and spends her free time reading anything she can get her hands on about online learning.
Nicole's Guest Posts