Part 3: Developing a Welcoming Course
For a student, whether in an in-person or online class, the beginning of a new semester can be both exciting and a bit intimidating. In an online class, both new and experienced online students can be confused, frustrated, and panicked going into a course site with no directions or explanations. Even if they have taken an online course before, it’s likely their previous instructor organized their course differently and you don’t know what the student’s experience of that course was. This makes it critically important to provide sufficient instructions and useful information for them to easily get started with your course.
When students log in to your course for the first time they need to see something that orients them to where they are and explicitly communicates what they are to do in a friendly and welcoming manner. Their first impression of both you and your course colors their experience of the entire semester so getting off to a good start makes a big difference.
Your Course Home Page
Even though Canvas gives you several options for the course home page, it is always recommended to set your course home page to a page that you have created, at least for the first couple of weeks. Starting new students on a syllabus page or a modules list isn’t nearly as welcoming as a page you’ve created introducing the course and letting them know what they need to do to get started. The homepage is where students begin when they enter the course each time, therefore, it’s the most visible part of your Canvas site. Take advantage of this space to ensure that your students see you as a real person who enjoys teaching the course and is happy to work with them.
To improve the odds that your students get started with the course as smoothly as possible, there are a few things that need to be on the homepage.
- Information about you. Who you are, how you prefer them to contact you, and how fast you’ll respond.
- Information about anything they need to do before the course begins such as get a book you’ll be using the first week, make sure they have a microphone, a webcam, a particular app or software package, or other supplies.
- Information about what to do to get started with the course. Always presume that at least some of your students have never taken an online course or been in a course that uses Modules. While some students may click around and find things, many won’t. Providing explicit instructions makes it easier on everyone.
- Information about the technology you are using and how to get help with it if they need to.
Brief mentions of other information that you want students to know from the beginning, such as using Turnitin for assignments, that the course includes a semester-long project, extensive group work, or a service-learning component, or that you are offering optional live video meetings, can also be on the homepage or included in a welcome video.
Keep in mind that you can (and probably should) change your home page content after the first couple of weeks of the semester. You can keep it set to the same page and add additional updates or module recap videos at the top. You can also set your homepage to be the Modules tool so entering the course puts students directly in the modules. Note that no matter what you set your home page to, your announcements will still be visible at the top.
Course Welcome Video
It is also very nice to have a welcome and course overview video on your homepage – especially with you on camera. As we’ve mentioned throughout, making sure your students see you physically and see that you’re a real human being is important. It’s particularly important at the beginning when they are still figuring things out and need a human touchpoint that can feel comfortable approaching with questions. For examples of course welcome videos, take a look at the Being Present in Your Online Course page from Module 1.
Other Welcoming Actions
Even in large classes, having a personal introduction discussion is recommended. When your enrollments top 50-60 you may want to break them down into smaller groups. It is better for students to get to know at least some others in the class rather than not have introductions at all because the course is too large to introduce themselves to everyone. Whether you choose to do video, text, or student option, letting students “like” each other’s introduction posts is a good way to let students show support of one another without scrolling through dozens “that’s great” or “I like that too” posts.
Keep in mind that students are not inherently interested in introducing themselves or reading/watching the introductions of their peers. Striking a balance between getting information that is useful to you and starting to build community is important. Think about the information that you would find useful. Would it be helpful to know who are majors in your department and who are taking the course as an elective, to know what interested them in the class (especially if it’s an elective) or to know what they hope to learn?
The standard “something interesting or unusual about yourself” question, may look frivolous, but it’s a good way for students to connect to each other. Other options for online icebreakers include
- posting a meme that they feel represents themselves or portrays something they would want other potential teammates to know about them if you’re having them form their own groups or pairs,
- sharing a picture of a favorite thing or place and a sentence about it,
- sharing two truths and a lie and then having other students guess the lie,
- asking any sort of preference question that could generate groups for later activities such as
- what type of animal would you be and why (asking them to share a picture of a baby version of the animal will increase interest in the discussion)
- what type of candy would you be and why (sort into chocolate, fruit-flavored, hard candies, etc.)
- what superhero power would you have and why (sort into motion powers (speed, flight, etc), control powers (fire, weather, telekinesis, etc.), mutation powers (grow, shrink, stretch, invisibility, etc.), etc.)
- favorite food with a link to a recipe or restaurant and why they like it
Finding something in common is easier done in casual hallway conversation before class or on break. Providing a place for that social presence to begin online is helpful. Do be careful when asking introduction questions to make sure you are not asking things that students may be uncomfortable saying in public (like age) or that are irrelevant in a course where students are geographically dispersed (like where they went to high school).