Students may be excited, nervous or frustrated about working online. The tone you set in your first message is crucial. You want to allay their fears and set up an informal, supportive place to be. Your first message should include:
- confirmation that they are in the right place
- something about the course and what to expect
- something personal
- what to do next
Have a look at these examples of openers. What do you like/dislike about them?
What can you see from your window?
The most difficult bit of communicating online is the first words. In face-to-face groups we know that if you can get everyone talking in the first 5 minutes then they will continue to talk, but if someone hasn't spoken for the first half of the session it becomes harder to do so. It's the same online. So start with an easy task and make sure everyone has to do this in the first week, like 'What can you see from your window?' or multiple choice 'Have you got a bicycle/cat/CD collection?'
Favourite web address
Ask students to post a web address which says something about them, and explain why. This integrates the technologies and students like it because it takes the focus off them personally and onto something they've found on the web.
Expectations, hopes and fears
We need to be sure that students know what is required and expected of them. This one's adapted from a technique that's often used face to face to help the tutor find out about the expectations of the group. One of the problems with contributing online is knowing how much is enough. You can use this to see how often students expect to be logged on and confirm or correct their expectations early on e.g. you'll need to login every other day when a discussion is in full flow. You can also set expectations about tutors as tutor workloads are often high on online courses.
Resumés or homepages
One of the great advantages of online working is that contributions from students and tutors can become more equal. Students can take the floor as easily as the lecturer can. This democratisation can be very useful as students gain confidence in learning and explaining and in a successful discussion it can be difficult to tell who is the student and who is the tutor. However, it can be useful to know who's who and personal resumés or homepages are a good icebreaker and reference.
A face to face meeting
An online course doesn't have to be a distance course and a hands-on session can be useful for students to try out the online environment, and to:
- encourage socialisation
- provide an intense focused introduction to the topic or new learning method
- provide technical training