Life by Design

Archive for March 2011

If you are one of the growing numbers of instructors who are curious about facilitating online learning or are actually being mandated by your institution to do so, this blog post can give you a few pointers to get you on your way.

The first thing to know about online learning is how very important building a learning community is for the success of the course itself and for what every learner will take into the future.  Because of the isolation factor for both student and facilitator, it is essential in Week Zero to make these connections happen and build on them throughout the entire learning course.

How to do this?

The first step is for you, as the facilitator to write a bio about yourself.  Your students will be much interested in you as the person rather than you as the academic, so concentrate on a photo, image or avatar that represents you, your hobbies, places you’ve traveled, your favorite professional organizations and journals, and other photos that can tell a story of you to your students.   Here are some personal photos I use:

Next, create an Icebreaker for your students.  There are a variety of options here, but the most common are to ask your students to create a bio of him or her with a photo, image or avatar to represent themselves and information about their hobbies, family life and the ‘view from their window’.    You might pose an interesting question like:  “Besides your real birthday, what is one other date on the calendar that you think would have been a great day to be born and why?” (ChatPack). This request will create social presence for your students.  You must also ask them to comment on their learning goals for the course, what they know about the current topic now and what they intend to do with the knowledge they hope to acquire.  This creates cognitive presence and will give you an idea of their zone of proximal development.

Become a Social Negotiator and a Structural Engineer

Within the first two weeks, your role as the facilitator is to be the ‘social negotiator’, connecting with each student via email, online postings on the discussion board or the Q & A chat room and mentoring these connections happening between the students themselves.

With online learning, you have a wealth of technological tools to assist you in this process…everything from discussion boards, to blogs, wikis, instant messaging and live chat rooms.  In the beginning, keep it simple, working with the technology you know and can learn easily. By the second or third iteration of your course, you’ll find yourself adding more interesting ways of using technology.  The use of these technological tools fosters good textual communication between you and your students.   This is essential for online success.

Along with the initial introductions in your virtual classroom, you will need to be sure to establish clear expectations for the learners.  Again, because of the isolation factor and the fact than many students have never done this type of learning before, having your expectations clear and unambiguous, reduces the stress of participating for the student.

In addition to these points, here are some additional considerations when establishing your course:

  • Make sure you have clear contact information not only for yourself, but also for technical support, the library, and other student services.
  • Be sure to include policies, procedures and the mechanics for communicating in a virtual classroom.  This would also include the topics of netiquette and plagiarism.
  • The student needs to be advised before the course starts on all the technical requirements for the course including computer, browser and bandwidth considerations.
  • Provide a brief orientation for students who have never been online learners before.  An orientation like this would cover such topics as:  time management, becoming an independent learner, navigating the Internet, accessing the online library resources, getting online to the university portal to the online course, and posting to a discussion site.
  • Provide a textbook that a set of enriched materials online and one that offers several formats.  Currently, many textbooks have online links provided by the publisher that can add a rich array of media to enhance your course.
  • Focus on creating engaging, challenging and thought-provoking discussion formats.  The threaded discussion is the centerpiece of your weekly lessons allowing the students to build knowledge together, connect with each other and further establish cognitive presence.  Your role is to facilitate this discussion and encourage the students to reach further themselves by bringing in additional resources, related viewpoints and personal experiences.

These abovementioned items represent some of the basics to help you begin your online teaching journey.  As you go along, of course you can experiment with adding in more media materials, links to compatible websites, video interviews you create yourself and so on.  It is really limitless.  Above all, though, make if fun for you and your students!

As I continue to read and learn about techniques of online course design, I get more and more enthusiastic about what the future of education holds for all learners.  Once you learn the basic steps, online course design is a very satisfying experience that can make learning accessible for students that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn!  This field will continue to evolve as technology evolves and perspectives and attitudes change to accommodate the 21st Century student.


Boettcher, J. & Conrad, R. (2010) The Online Teaching Survival Guide.  Jossey-Bass.

Chat Pack.  (n.d.) Fun Questions to Spark Conversations.  Questmarc Publishing.


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Welcome to all my cohorts in this exciting course in our M.S. program in Instructional Design through Walden University!  The field of online learning is exploding and I am sure through the next eight weeks that we are exploring this topic, we will learn a great deal about not only what is current in the field, but also what may be possible in the future. It is an exciting time to learn about this fascinating discipline!