Module 1: Structuring Your Online Course

Orienting Students to the Learning Environment

Once we have our well-structured and organized course shell, we next move onto the question of introducing students to this learning environment. Our first communications with them and our initial introductions can help set the stage for subsequent interactions. We want to come off as human and supportive, and generate as much excitement as we can.


The Goal: Making a First Impression

Similar to the previous section, we should start by asking, “What is the goal of this initial introduction?” Though each instructor may have slightly different goals, it is probably safe to broadly identify a few ways that we’d like to be thought of.

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How can we humanize our communication and start off positively?

As instructors, we want our students to engage with each other and us during our lessons. Whether they are synchronous or not, we always want to see students motivated by their own interest, sharing opinions, and exploring ideas. We are also the ones that set the tone for our course. The way we introduce the course and the way we initially communicate with students provide students with their first impression of us as instructors.

Activity: Evaluating First Words

What is your first communication to students? Is it a welcome message email? Try showing it to someone who you think could give you some honest feedback about the impression of you your message gives.

Woman expressing various feelings and emotions
Source: Adaptation of “Woman expressing strong various feelings and emotions” by pch.vector from freepik

Do you seem…

  • laidback?
  • formal?
  • demanding?
  • casual?
  • excited?
  • bored?
  • stuffy?
  • strict?
  • passionate?
  • funny?

Do you think your message accurately introduces you in the way that you want to be seen? Is there a disconnect anywhere?

Leading by Example

If we want to create a positive learning environment, we have to lead by example. Though there are many ways to encourage a sense of community, one particularly effective method is by self-disclosure. If you volunteer personal information, such as feelings, attitudes, opinions, interests, and experiences, then it is more likely that others (students) will reciprocate.[1]

Fostering a Community in the Classroom

The point of our initial message to students is to get them interested and excited for the course. To help them see, as we do, the reasons our subjects are so interesting and why they are worth learning. But, this is only the first step. We don’t just send one email and end it there. We are trying to build a learning community. We want to avoid the sound of crickets when we ask a question. We want students to engage with the material and share their ideas with their classmates.

Activity: What goes into a Community?

Engagement and open discourse in a classroom require a sense of community in the online space. Students who don’t feel comfortable are unlikely to share their ideas. Fostering a sense of community is a great goal for faculty to have, but it takes time. Researchers who advocate for building a community of inquiry put forward a conceptual framework with three distinct aspects: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence.[2]

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Learn more about the Community of Inquiry Model.

This sense of community is not created overnight, but is facilitated throughout the entire semester. Designing activities that allow for cognitive presence, while creating a place for students to develop social relationships takes intention and effort. We want to show them that we are actively going to build a community throughout the semester, and that they are all encouraged to participate.

We want to lead by example, showing them that we are going to be members of this community, that we will support them, and finally, that we are excited about the course. The first week of the course is an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the semester.

Building Pathways and Creating Spaces

In the last chapter, we discussed the importance of creating intuitive pathways through the course, and the structural areas of the course. In the same way, we can apply these concepts to our own communication with students.

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Instructor Information
A Place to Ask Questions

Going Beyond Text

Richard Mayer is credited with an oft-cited set of 12 principles for effective multimedia instruction.[3] Among the principles is the “personalization” principle, which states that students learn better when the language used is more casual and directed to the learner. The idea is that such language creates a stronger social bond than impersonal and formal language.

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Create a Welcome Video
Take Aim at the Syllabus

Keep it Going

Creating a community requires intentionality and work. A community is not simply built because you had a really nice video introduction. A group of students doesn’t magically become a community overnight and remain so. It takes sustained effort. Once we’ve set the tone with our own great introductions, we should set out what we expect from students throughout the semester.

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Manage Expectations
Check in Often

Activity: Humanize your Communication

For this activity, you are encouraged to make one improvement to the way you introduce yourself to your students. Consider any of the three following options:

Option 1 – Revise Your Welcome Message

Take a look at your response to the first activity and initial reflection. Brainstorm ways to improve your welcome message to students. Consider the language and the information that you are communicating. Try to rewrite it to better capture the teaching personality that you want to share with students.

Try using an AI sentiment analysis tool to help gather outside perspectives of your own communication.

Option 2 – Create a Welcome Video

  • Use your phone or webcam to record yourself introducing yourself and the course.
  • Talk to your students about what they can expect.
  • Keep it short (1-3 minutes).
  • Feel free to add images as well if you’d like.

Option 3 – Create a Liquid Syllabus

Google Sites is a suggested platform, but you can explore other options as well. Reach out to an educational technology specialist at your institution for suggestions and tips. Refer to the examples in this chapter and create a liquid syllabus that fits your course and your teaching style. Be sure to include all the information that you want students to know, including any resources and supports that they might need.

  1. Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Mayer, R. E. Applying the science of learning: Evidence-based principles for the design of multimedia instruction. American Psychologist 63.8, 760-9.


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Designing and Developing High-Quality Student-Centred Online/Hybrid Learning Experiences Copyright © 2022 by Seneca College; Humber College; Kenjgewin Teg; Trent University; and Nipissing University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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