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.
It’s a week before the start of term and you’ve been assigned to teach an online course. Maybe it’s your first online course or maybe it’s your tenth, but regardless, you know there is a lot to be done. Where do you begin? I suggest you build a plan with retention in mind. Generally, the retention rate for online courses is calculated to be 10%-20% lower than in-person (traditional) courses. Online retention strategies can be implemented by including clear course design, student connections to the instructor and peers, and a welcoming learning environment. The start of the term is arguably the most important for an online course. I know, that's like a lot of pressure to get it right the first time. Not to worry, fellow online instructors! I’ve broken down the 3 major areas of course preparation with students retention at the center of design.
Welcome Your Students
Your goal for this step is to create more than one way to welcome your students. We want our students to start feel: 1) connected to a real/human instructor, 2) a clear understanding of what is expected of them to start, and 3) the course instructor is organized and already cares about the success of his/her students. To achieve this goal, create the following 3 welcome items: a welcome screencast video, a welcome e-mail, and a welcome announcement. Why so many welcome items for one class?. Each item has its very own purpose.
A welcome video allows your students to see you! The video is a chance for your students to see a face with the name; to know there is a real human instructor on the other side of the computer screen. The welcome e-mail is composed to reach your students prior to the start of term. Many Learning Management Systems (LMS) don’t allow messaging to begin until the term starts. Send out the welcome e-mail one week prior to the first day. Compose the email to introduce yourself (add link to the welcome video), list the course materials, and the LMS student login information with IT support contacts. The welcome announcement provides instructor presence in the online learning environment from day one. The announcement should be "short and sweet" with the purpose of welcoming your students and how to get started (with one next step listed). For example, “Your next step is to read our course syllabus. Select the Syllabus tab on the left side panel”.
Canvas Hack: Time Delay Announcements - You can write your welcome announcement days before the first day of term and set the "delay post" option. The option allows you to set the day and time you want the announcement to publish for student viewing. Find this option checkbox below the text box.
Now that you’ve prepared your course for your students to feel welcomed and connected to their instructor, it’s time to prepare your learning content.
Prepare Your Content
From my own experience as an online college instructor, if you’re responsible for your own course content, it’s best to have at least the first two weeks finalized and ready for student viewing. Even if you are not planning on changing content from a previous term, each week you’ll want to take time to review a future week’s content including links and assignments for adjustments and fine-tuning. Once reviewed, then you can publish for student viewing or set the module to unlock on a certain date. So let’s start with the beginning course content modules: Start Here (Welcome), Week 1, and Week 2.
Start Here Module
First up, the welcome page. The welcome page serves as the first content page students can visit in order to view the welcome video, the list of course materials, students expectations, and steps on how to get started (essentially, the content of the welcome video in short text form). Next, students can read the syllabus (course and institutional if separate) and prove their comprehension by taking a quick syllabus quiz. The quiz should be comprised of the key components you want your students to know about the course structure and policies. Lastly, think about other set-up tasks that students need to complete at the start of the course. Creating assignments for each set-up task provides students with a due date and points awarded. To show completion of the task, have students take a screenshot and submit the image file to the assignment. Now your students are ready to dive into the learning.
Canvas Hack: Setting Module Requirements - Use the settings option (triple dots button) in the module to set the syllabus quiz as a requirement to “complete” the module and unlock the following module. Here’s a video show you exactly how to do this: Modules Creation Video (start at 2:40 - 3:45)
Week 1 Module
Start each week with an agenda that outlines the key concepts for the week, the learning objectives, and the assignments. Next, organize the learning content page. This page can include videos, text, images, links, and files. Always use text headers to organize information for readability on every page. The next preparation tip is one that has helped at least one of my students every term. Due to financial aid processing, students may not have their funds available to purchase the textbooks prior to the first week of term. To remedy this, instructors can scan in the first chapter of the textbook or material into a PDF format and upload the PDF file to the week 1 module. Copyright law states that an excerpt can be copied, as long as it is 10% or less of the total material. More than likely, one chapter of the text fits this criteria and all students will have access to the first chapter needed regardless of their finances.
Next, you'll want to address learning application activities. Prior to publishing an assignment for student viewing, remember to check for the following: clear/simple instructions, type of submission (file upload, text response, etc.), and due date. My last tip for preparing the week 1 module is to set a reminder in your own calendar to complete retention alerts for students who do not participate by the end of week one.
Canvas Hack: Content Page Features - Content pages are versatile. In order to create a concise module, use the features on the content page to add and organize multiple resources (files, links, etc.) on one page. Reminder: It’s important to address a purpose for each resource listed. A content page with a list of information with no purpose or connection stated lacks purpose. The following video shows all of the features available on a Canvas Content Page.
Week 2 Module
The week 2 module should be consistent with week 1 module in structure, order, and appearance. Start the module with the weekly agenda. Next, review and organize learning content. Then, review the assignments for clear instructions, submission type, and due date. Remember, consistency in module layout reduces student frustration. Cognitive strain should be used learning concepts, not navigation.
Publish Your Course
Before you hit the BIG publish button, you’ll need to review the course contents. If you’ve only prepared the first 2 weeks of content, you’ll want to only publish that content for student view. First, publish the entire module. Each module item (pages and assignments) in that module should also display the publish icon. Next, check that there are not other modules or content items published that are not prepared for student viewing. Use the "Student View" tool to review your course with a student lens. Check that readied content is viewable. Once your content is ready, don’t forget to push the BIG course publish button.
Canvas Hack: Hidden Published Content Items - Pages and assignments can be published and not listed in the modules. So, check the “pages” and “assignments” link in the course navigation for published content items not ready for student viewing.
Canvas Hack: Open the Course Early - Want to open your course earlier than the start of term? Once all content and the course is published, use the Settings link in the course navigation to access course settings page. Next, locate the term, start, and end date section. Select the new start date and don’t forget to then select the checkbox under the end date stating that students can only participate in the course between these dates.
Start of Term Checklist (Freebie)
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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.
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