Your first week in an online course is critical to
- Establishing a community (social presence in Garrison, 2016),
- Creating a meaningful connection between you and your students (teaching presence in Garrison, 2016),
- Presenting a coherent big picture over of your course (cognitive presence in Garrison, 2016),
- Developing a culture of behaviour and collaboration (character, citizenship, communication in Quinn et al., 2019), and
- Engaging in at least one meaningful, creative, team activity (creativity and critical thinking in Fullan & Langworthy, 2013).
While we want to promote independent learning, we recognize collaboration’s important role in learning. Creating a strong community helps students connect and engage with their peers (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Lehman & Conceicao, 2014) while providing emotional support when students are challenged (Veletsianos, 2020). Also, a community creates a foundation for deeper learning (Quinn et al., 2019; Savin-Baden, 2007), and sows the seeds for effective collaborative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Nilson & Goodson, 2018).
Garrison (2016), in an extensive review of the research, argued that teacher presence is essential to effective online learning; however, this does not mean that the teacher needs to be the star of the show. On the contrary, many online instructors are more effective when creating effective learning environments where students take a lead role in their learning (Boettcher & Conrad, 2021; Dabbagh et al., 2019; Savin-Baden, 2007). Furthermore, because there is a tendency to feel disconnected in an online environment, even if it is synchronous, teachers need to make an extra effort to convey their identity, credibility, and establish themselves as approachable, caring, accepting and supportive (Fisher et al., 2021; Johnson, 2013; Lemov, 2020).
Understanding the big picture structure of any course is critical to communicating learning outcomes, articulating how concepts/themes might interact, and connecting the course framework to previous student knowledge (Arnold & Mihut, 2020; Hattie, 2012; McTighe & Thomas, 2003; Thomas & Rieth, 2011). The use of concept mapping, mind maps, advanced organizers and visualization is particularly effective at communicating the overall structure of any course (Hattie, 2015).
Developing a clear set of rules for behaving, communicating, and collaborating early in an in-person or online learning environment is essential for creating a productive, thriving learning environment (Fisher et al., 2021; Lemov, 2020). Instructors new to online teaching and learning might not anticipate the distractions that can derail a class, such as inappropriate chat comments, not turning off microphones, turning the camera off and being absent from the room, and indecent background images. Therefore a set of classroom rules should be developed, ideally as a class, so that students understand the boundaries and expectations to support fruitful learning (Hattie, 2015; Lemov, 2020). In addition, a positive list of helpful behaviours can be identified, such as turning on cameras, raising a virtual hand when you wish to participate and engaging in effective listening.
During your first class/week, introducing at least one creative activity in your online class that leads to critical thinking and evaluation helps set the norm for the rest of your course (Boettcher & Conrad, 2021; Dabbagh et al., 2019; Savin-Baden, 2007). Ideally, this activity should be interactive, collaborative and productive (Hattie, 2015; Johnson & Johnson, 2009; Nilson & Goodson, 2018). Throughout your course, you should employ a variety of learning activities (Boettcher & Conrad, 2021; Dabbagh et al., 2019) to maintain student interest and engagement, but you want to establish a strong culture of learning right from the start.
Based on numerous articles and books on pedagogy and online learning, as well as over a decade teaching online virtual classes, I offer the following general guidelines or suggestions for starting your first class or week:
- Add at least 25% to your anticipated time for any activity. Online teaching and learning simply take longer, and you don’t want to create a rushed feeling in your class.
- Establishing a calm and friendly atmosphere takes time, but you want to help anxious students relax. If there are problems with technology, stay calm and relaxed. That will help everyone relax. If you feel stressed and unsure, students will quickly recognize it.
- Come clean. Tell your students if this is the first time you have taught online or are trying something new. Encourage a growth mindset and the idea of play and learning from mistakes.
- Greet students. Just as you would in a face-to-face environment, greet students in a friendly way when they first enter your virtual classroom. Welcome them by name and ask them a fun question in the chat.
- Post an agenda for students to understand your intentions and expectations. You may even wish to provide a more detailed lesson plan link to engage students who arrive early.
- Take time to establish community. Make it your main priority, even if it takes more time than you had planned. Establishing solid connections will save you time in the long run.
- Introduce yourself in a personable way. Students want to know that you are credible, but they also need to know that you are an actual human.
- Organization and planning are critical. It is risky to wing it in an online class. Disorganization online is not pretty and not how you want to start a course. When something goes wrong, and it will, it can take quite a bit of time to get everyone back on track. Presenting the big picture, then communicating a clear idea of your lesson with estimated times will help you proceed more smoothly. Have a plan for the
- Consolidate your lesson. Setting aside time after your first lesson/week to consolidate your class, communicate expectations for home activities and prepare students for the next class is essential for an online course. Online learning can feel disconnected for students, so you need to summarize and set clear expectations. Students like to know what to expect – what is coming next.
- Get feedback early. After my first online course, I asked students for anonymous feedback to determine whether the class was effective. This simple act was instrumental and helpful in addressing any problems early on.
- Backup Plan. Sometimes well-thought-out plans do not work because the technology fails, so it is crucial to have a backup plan. For example, you may want to articulate a contingency plan to your students if the internet connection drops: assign a co-host ahead of time lead the class while you are trying to re-connect, set up your phone so you can send an email to the students with directions, and have a careful lesson plan (see number 8 above) so that students could continue on their own without you. Your backup plans will vary depending on the course content and the age of your students.
Activity 1: Ideal Teacher Introductions
I must admit that I struggle with personal introductions. I oscillate between communicating the credible, knowledgeable side and the more personable fun side. Based on numerous lukewarm introductions, I decided that credibility and fun are both important. I also realized that students could get to know me over time, so I did not have to oversell myself. Ultimately, online teaching is about my students and their learning, not about me.
Ultimately, my goal is to communicate that I am credible, approachable, caring, accepting and supportive (Fisher et al., 2021; Johnson, 2013; Lemov, 2020). That is a big ask in an introduction. There are many creative ways to introduce yourself – I have chosen probably the least creative way, slides, simply to reduce the amount of class time focussed on me.
Credible Slide. I first present a slide on my teaching and academic background. Here is an example slide. In the slide, I include a professional-looking picture and some key background information that could change depending on the nature of the course. I also share my social media and website link if they want to learn more about me.
Fun Slide. I then present a fun slide on my interests and hobbies. Here is an example slide. This slide consists of engaging pictures that introduce a side of me that students are unlikely to know or expect. My experience is that students quite like this slide and are more engaged than they are on my credible slide. To be honest, I am more engaged too. Again, I take no longer than 1-3 minutes – my course is not about me!
You would think a simple introduction would be relatively easy to execute, but I managed to find a few challenges. Here are a few suggestions to address these challenges:
- Keep your introduction tight, no longer than a minute. Otherwise, you risk losing your students right from the start.
- Visuals are better than words. Keep text to a minimum. Visuals are much more engaging. No one wants to see a slide filled with words.
- Professional look. Try to make your slide look professional – this is your credibility side.
- Add information links if you feel it is beneficial. Link your appropriate online presence and allow students to check you out on their own time.
- Social Media links. Be careful about sharing social media links, especially with secondary school students. Please, do not share personal social media accounts.
- Have fun with your fun slide [Doc.]. I quite enjoy sharing the non-academic side of myself. Try not to get too carried away, as going off-script can erode student attention.
There are many creative ways to introduce yourself, but you need to consider your context and audience, their desire to get to know you, and the time you want to focus on yourself.
These teacher introduction resources are intended to stir up your curiosity.
- Fun Video Introduction Template [1:26]
- Getting to Know You: 7 Creative Ways to Introduce Yourself to Your New Class
- 27 Unique Ways Teachers Can Introduce Themselves to Their Students
- Why and How to Create a Self Introduction Video
Activity 2: Engaging Student Introductions
Creating community and social presence is extremely important in forming the foundation of an online class (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Lehman & Conceicao, 2014). Organizing student introductions is an essential starting point to forming a solid community. There are several approaches you might take, depending on your student population.
If your students are in secondary school, they may not be receptive to formal introductions, so you may want to use ice breakers (see activity six below). Higher education students are typically older and want to know their peers, so the type of formal introduction I describe below could be more appropriate. Keep in mind that older students and adults like fun icebreakers as well.
Students of any age can easily create short, introductory videos using their phones, favourite screencasting software (e.g., Screencast-O-Matic), or FlipGrid. The multimedia introduction can be used in an asynchronous course or larger class where there is not enough time to introduce 60-150 students,
Once students start working together on collaborative activities or assignments, they will get to know each other better over time, naturally, provided you have set up a safe learning environment.
The activity that I have used most often with 25 to 30 students is conducted in two formats. First, I post 3-4 questions for each student to answer. I provide a model answer to the question first, and then each student takes no more than a minute to introduce themselves. Sample questions might be:
- Where are you connecting from today?
- What do you do for a living (or outside of school)?
- What are you passionate about?
- What is a key strength that you bring to the classroom?
- What is something you want to work on in this class?
- What is the main reason for taking this course?
This activity takes 25 to 30 minutes, so I sometimes have students break out in smaller, more intimate groups of no more than four to discuss these same questions. I then give students 15 minutes in a breakout room to chat, and I rotate around the rooms to listen. The advantage of this activity is that we spend less time on passive introductions and students are more likely to turn their cameras on. The disadvantage is that we do not hear all student introductions.
Here are some of the challenges that I have experienced with student introductions:
- Cameras off. Students may not turn on their cameras, limiting their social presence while fostering student distance and disconnection. Encourage students to tune on cameras, especially when they come into class. If a few students do it, then others often follow.
- Time. Some students talk for a long time, extending the student introduction time to 45 minutes. None of us are very good at passive listening. That is one reason I shifted to breakout rooms. The other option is to introduce a show and tell feature like a pet, so the audience is more engaged.
- Self-conscious students. Some students, especially at the secondary school level, may feel self-conscious and do not want to participate or be put on the spot, which is why small group introductions or ice breakers may be more effective. Alternatively, you could ask students to introduce themselves with a few lines of text in a shared Google Doc or the virtual classroom chat.
- Technology problems. Sometimes the technology works well, and student audio or video is unstable. Students can put their information on the chat, but that feels far less personal. Anticipate technology problems ahead of time by sending a set of instructions and tips to students before they come to their first class (see Technology chapter).
Here are a few resources that might offer ideas for your student introductions:
- 7 Tips for Successful Student Introductions in an Online Class
- Course Introductions from the Center for teaching and Learning (Charlotte)
- How to introduce yourself in an online class
- Three Different Options for Online Student Course Introductions
Activity 3: Big Picture Graphic
Offering a big picture perspective for a student at the befitting of a course helps them cognitively prepare for their learning. It also provided a framework that they can refer to throughout your course (Arnold & Mihut, 2020; Hattie, 2012; McTighe & Thomas, 2003; Thomas & Rieth, 2011). My approach is relatively straightforward – I present a fairly colourful yet straightforward overview of my course through a short video.
After introductions, I introduce and discuss the key themes for my course using a graphic I create in Google Drawings. You can use any tool you wish – I like that students can add comments or questions to my graphic. Here are three examples: Example 1 [Doc.], Example 2 [Doc.], and Example 3 [Doc.]. I’m not particularly talented at creating these graphics (as you may have noticed), but they do the trick and serve my students well. I present them each week to show what we have covered so far and what we need to cover in the future. It provides a sense that we are progressing through the course and making progress. I also get a chance to re-articulate connections among topics.
Another area where I have used a big picture graphic is to talk about assessment throughout the course, affording students to visualize expectations and how assignments are connected. Here is an example of a big picture assessment graphic. Notice that I was far more creative in this graphical representation.
Finally, I often add a brief video describing the big picture for my course. Here is an example [0:51]. The video is helpful for students trying to decide whether they wish to enroll in my course or students who have missed the first class.
Besides being challenged to create visually appealing graphics, I have not experienced any serious difficulties providing the big picture for a course. Sometimes the direction of the course changes, so I have to make revisions. Some instructors work with students to create a big picture profile for a course, which can work quite well as the first activity.
Here are a few resources for creating a more engaging big picture graphic for your course
- Free templates from Canva to create big picture graphics
- Mindomo or Mindmeister for creating Mind Maps
- Visme Infographic Templates
Activity 4: Posting a Regular Agenda
Providing an agenda before class starts seems like a relatively simple activity, perhaps not worth mentioning. However, my experience is that students need and appreciate this simple act before class to help them focus (Arnold & Mihut, 2020; Hattie, 2012; McTighe & Thomas, 2003; Thomas & Rieth, 2011). Essentially the agenda offers key information to ensure they are prepared to start the class, helping students remember to hand in an assignment. Further, it can help student and educator communication, especially if they have missed a task and are behind schedule. Advance access can also help students prepare for a class activity or connect with a team member before class begins.
I offer a one or two slide agenda (using Google Slides so that students can add comments or questions) that includes critical resources students will need for the class, what students should have done before class, key learning goals or topics that will be covered in class. Here are some examples of agendas I have used: Agenda 1 [Doc.] and Agenda 2 [Doc.].
- Forgetting to post. One challenge with posting an agenda is remembering to do it. Starting an online virtual class can be a bit hectic with negotiating the technology and making sure that everything you planned is working and ready to go. Sometimes, posting the agenda can be overlooked unless it is a routine. Recently, I have combined this strategy with posting a link to my lesson plan (see Activity 5 below).
- Format. Another challenge is choosing the format to display your agenda. I use a link to a Google Doc to make last-minute changes, and students can add questions and comments.
Activity 5: Sharing an Online Lesson Plan
One of the best decisions I have made regarding online teaching is to create a detailed lesson plan for each class that includes learning goals, activity descriptions and estimated times, and asynchronous or home activities. This strategy allows students to see what they will be doing ahead of time, to anticipate workload and guide me during an online lesson. The lesson plan also helps me keep on track with time, a persistent challenge for me in an online learning environment.
A regular lesson plan helps create a shared culture of learning and class structure for students (Fisher et al., 2021; Lemov, 2020) and a consistent connection with the big picture and course learning goals (Arnold & Mihut, 2020; Hattie, 2012; McTighe & Thomas, 2003; Thomas & Rieth, 2011).
My lesson plans include the key learning goals addressed in the class, a detailed list of activities with time estimates and resources as required, a break time marker, and a very detailed list of asynchronous or home activities. I create them as Google Docs to edit them on the fly so that students can comment or ask questions. Here are several examples of lesson plans that I used: Lesson Plan 1 [Doc.], Lesson Plan 2 [Doc.], and Lesson Plan 3 [Doc.].
I post my lesson plans on a website (e.g., Technology and the Curriculum); however, they could easily be posted on the learning management system (e.g., Desire to Learn, Google Classroom, Canvas) of your choice.
- It takes time. Creating these lesson plans takes time and a fair bit of planning. I would argue that online learning needs to be thoroughly organized because it is more challenging to repair distractions and technological issues that can quickly derail a class. I create a template and then fill it in as I am planning.
- The workload for secondary school teachers. The other challenge would be the workload for secondary school teachers who need to create daily instead of weekly lesson plans. In this case, you might try making shorter lesson plans or a weekly lesson plan summary. When I was a secondary school instructor, I created daily lesson plans to keep me organized and on track.
- Getting off track. Finally, lessons do not always proceed as expected, so you have to make decisions during the class about skipping activities and still achieving the intended learning goals. Sometimes activities need to be postponed to the following class, which can have a rippled effect on future lesson plans that you may have created ahead of time.
Lesson plan design is personal and partially dependent on your experience, subject area, confidence level and teaching approach. Some teachers, like me, need more structure, while others prefer a more open-ended, free-flowing format. Here are a few resources that might be helpful to create lesson plans:
- 7 Lesson Plan Templates to Use In Your Online Lessons
- Canva lesson plan templates
- Daily and weekly lesson plan templates for Word and Google Docs
- Google Doc lesson plan templates
Activity 6: Icebreakers Can Be Fun
Full disclosure. I think icebreaker activities are helpful for student relaxation and engagement while building a social presence and community. However, I do not use them regularly because I like to communicate the content and learning goals as soon as possible. Consequently, I do not spend enough time building connections. I rely on collaborative classroom activities to develop a social presence. I believe this is a mistake.
Many students come to an online class, possibly feeling anxious, isolated, and intimidated. Starting things off with a friendly, fun, and safe icebreaker activity helps students relax. In a more relaxed state, they may focus and learn more effectively.
Most of the icebreakers I have used are pretty traditional and probably a bit dull (e.g., Two Truths and a Lie, If you were an animal, what you be). However, I have found a few that I think are engaging and helpful (please see the resources section for an extended list of icebreakers to choose from). Some simple and effective icebreakers include:
- Collaborative resumé. This icebreaker helps give the group a quick idea of education, work backgrounds, skills sets, hobbies and interests. These could be posted on a Google Slide template to share with the class as a whole.
- Share a photo. Students take a picture of their current environment or select an image and describe its significance. These pictures can be posted on a Google Slide for the entire class to peruse.
- Accomplished goals. Ask students to share a goal they have achieved in the last year (it does not matter how small) and how that made them feel. The shared achievements can be posted on a Google Slide to share with the class.
- What do you want to learn? Students work in teams to articulate what they want to learn in the course on a Google slide. I understand this may not be the most exciting icebreaker, but it can bring small groups of students together by focussing on a specific topic. When Google Slides are used, the desired learning outcomes can be shared with the entire class at the end of the icebreaker or breakout session.
You can also ask ice breaker questions (see The Only List of Icebreaker Questions You’ll Ever Need). Some favourites of mine are:
- Do you love working/studying from home, or would you rather be in the office? Is there a balance of both that you like best?
- If you could learn one new skill, what would it be?
- If a movie was made of your life, what genre would it be? Who would play you?
- What’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever been given?
- What would your superpower be and why?
- If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?
Here are a few of the challenges/decisions you might have to deal with:
- Small or large group. You need to decide whether you want a larger or small group icebreaker. Both can work well. A large group involves using chat and can be fun depending on your questions. Small group icebreaker activities are more elaborate and should consist of groups no larger than four students. With larger groups, students feel rushed and perhaps a bit self-conscious.
- Too much time. Icebreakers can lead to more extensive small group discussions that could throw the timing of your class off. If that happens, the chances are that your icebreaker activity is working well at increasing social presence and community. Allow extra time for your first icebreakers, but do not let them take over the entire lesson.
- Self-conscious students. Some students feel uncomfortable with icebreaker activities – the questions might make them feel vulnerable or exposed. Therefore, select innocuous and safe activities and always offer the option of passing. Make sure that everyone is clear that they do not have to participate and that passing is a perfectly acceptable option.
Numerous online resources can provide novel ideas for icebreaker activities. Some sites that I have found helpful are:
- 10 Essential Icebreaker Activities for Any Online
- 21 Free Fun IceBreakers for Online Teaching
- 35 Best Icebreakers for Your Virtual and Hybrid Meetings – Chat Questions
- 36 Ridiculously Fun Icebreaker Ideas
- The Only List of Icebreaker Questions You’ll Ever Need
Activity 7: Establishing Online Culture/Rules
Developing a vibrant, safe classroom culture that supports learning is essential to any classroom face-to-face or online (Fisher et al., 2021; Lemov, 2020). The tricky part about online teaching and learning is that educators have less experience and a somewhat limited understanding of the challenges that might arise. We simply have difficulty anticipating online classroom behaviours that we have never experienced before. Some examples include:
- Students who post inappropriate comments in the chat.
- Distracting or offensive backgrounds.
- Microphones left on providing unexpected noise.
- Students exiting class well before it is over.
- Students logging on but not participating in class.
- Weak internet connection preventing participation.
- Students not having the right software to participate in an online class.
- Students vaping during class.
- Students laying in bed while participating in class.
Instead of ignoring these potential distractions, you would be wise to develop and agree upon a clear set of online classroom rules.
The simplest way to establish a safe structure for your course is to present a clear set of guidelines, easily accessed on your web page and LMS. You would go over these rules in your first class. The type of rules you establish should match the needs of the age group you are teaching. Rules for secondary school students will likely be different from those designed for higher education students.
Here are a few guidelines that I have used in my virtual classroom:
- Try to come to class 5 minutes early, so you can review the agenda and lesson plan and make sure you are ready to start the class.
- If you cannot attend class, please send a notification as soon as possible because I may need to re-arrange teams for breakout room activities.
- Turn cameras on when you are working in small breakout rooms to facilitate conversation.
- Keep your comments respectful in the chat – if you wish to express a strong opinion, please raise your hand and use your microphone.
- Try not to add comments in the chat that distract other students from learning.
- Raise your virtual hand if you wish to ask a question.
The other good option is to make online classroom rules an activity for students. They can create and hopefully abide by the rules they develop. Reviewing the suggested rules listed in the resource section below can be a good starting point for the activity, and having students create their own rules helps them take control of their learning environment.
Here are some potential challenges that you might encounter:
Too many rules. You want to be careful not to present too many guidelines as it might convey a controlling tone to your students. Ideally, student discussions can guide the development, review, and revision of the guidelines so that they feel control over the process. Students are more likely to adhere to a set of rules they create.
- Not turning on cameras. Students might resist using cameras, even in breakout rooms, so you may want to explain why cameras help build connections and support the learning process. Students who do not use their cameras are generally less involved. Note that cameras can be off in large lectures, so students are afforded the option.
- Follow through. You will need to follow up immediately if a guideline/rule is broken. If you do not support your guidelines, there is no point in setting them up in the first place. I’m not saying the process is easy, but follow-through is critical.
- 7 Rules for Online Etiquette
- 10 Online Classroom Rules For Your Virtual Classroom – for secondary school students
- 10 Netiquette guidelines every online student needs to know
- The ABCs of Online School Etiquette
- The Online Learning idea Book (Vol. 2): There is a seemingly endless list of strategies to use in your online classroom, including those for your first week. These strategies are collected from actual instructors who have used them.
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Lemov, D. (2020). Teaching in the online classroom: Surviving and thriving in the new normal. John Wiley & Sons.
McTighe, J., & Thomas, R.S. (2003). Backward design for forward action. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 52–55. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/backward-design-for-forward-action
Nilson, L.B., & Goodson, L.A. (2018). Online teaching at its best – Merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. Jossey-Bass.
Quinn, J., McEachen, J., Fullan, M., Gardner, M., & Drummy, M. (2019). Dive into deep learning: Tools for engagement. Corwin Press.
Savin-Baden, M. (2007). A practical guide to problem-based learning online. Routledge.
Thomas, C. N., & Rieth, H. J. (2011). A research synthesis of the literature on multimedia anchored instruction in preservice teacher education. Journal of Special Education Technology, 26(2), 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1177/016264341102600201
Veletsianos, G. (2020). Learning online. John Hopkins University Press.