Friday, September 27, 2013

7 Strategies for Building Community in Online Courses

Loneliness and a feeling of working in isolation is one reason why some online students eventually choose to drop a course. You can combat this attrition by building community in your course. Building a learning community and a sense of social belonging doesn’t happen by accident, you as the designer, developer and instructor of your online courses have to plan to build a learning community. Here are some ways that I have found useful to accomplish this task:

1. Set some ground rules on day one of the course (see my previous post).

2. Provide two non-graded asynchronous discussion forum in the course.
Social Forum - actively encourage learners to introduce themselves and to perform a simple ice-breaker activity in the 1st week of class. Explain that this forum can be used to socialize and to post about current events during the semester. This forum should not be used to contact an instructor or a TA.; however, the instructor and the TA can participate informally in the social discussions.

General Q&A Forum - this forum should be monitored regularly by the Instructor and the TAs. It is a place for the learners to ask questions about course materials. Other learners should be encouraged to answers questions posed by their peers. Work to foster a dialogue around each question posed in this forum and take the time to post addition resources in the context of the questions being discussed.
3. Create a balance between individual and group work activities in the course. If learners will be working in groups, explain when/how the group rosters will be formed. Provide each group with its own private discussion forum. Provide some guidelines on effective virtual team-work. Include a confidential peer assessment of group work component, for all graded group-based assessment tools.

4. Design the course with the appropriate balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities that work for the learning outcomes in your course.

5. Provide netiquette and guidelines on how best to participate in the graded discussion forum, if applicable.

6. Post a weekly summary or weekly welcome message. Highlight aspects of the course that have just occurred or are about to be developed in the coming week.

7. Ask learners for feedback early in the course (about 25% of the way through). This early feedback can help inform minor course modifications that may have a high impact on learner satisfaction. It will show the learners that you care about the quality of their experience.

So there’s my list. Do you have any good points that can be added to this? Leave a comment below.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Week 1 Teaching Online is Critical - A Recipe for Making the Connection with your Learners

Connecting with Learners is the topic of Week 2 for the Teaching Online MOOC. It's a very important topic in technology-mediated distance education. Setting the tone from the beginning is an effective way to close the transactional distance between the instructor and the students, who many never meet each other physically during the semester. How do you do it effectively? Well - it's not an exact science and there is more than one way to accomplish this task. Do you want to see how I do it?

I do it in three parts:

Part 1. I write an email message to the students the week before class. The purpose is five-fold: 1) to confirm their email address on file is correct, 2) to share my contact information, 3) to share a link to a 10-minute video intro of the course, 4) to share some ground rules of the course, 5) to give them a task of preparing a personal bio/intro for themselves, and 6) to share the Course Outline.

Part 2. As I mentioned in Point 1 above, I make a 10-minute video intro for the course. It's purposefully and simply just a talking head on YouTube. I spend time giving them my perspective on the course and the online course delivery method. The goal is to convey that together we are a learning team and I try to break down some of the anxiety issues that they might be feeling about taking a course online.

Part 3. In the email message I send out before class, I ask them to prepare a personal bio/intro (and I give them specific criteria to include). The goal of the activity is to establish Social Presence in the course and I try to inject a somewhat humourous and casual aspect to the activity. Here's the key: I model the activity on the course website BEFORE students have access to the course website so that when they first logon and look around, they see my version of the activity laid out for them. Modelling has the result of encouraging the desired community-building behaviour. Then as the first few days of class unfold, I make it a point to reply to each intro to try to build connections. Again, I do this in hopes that other students follow suit, and invariably a sub-set do!

So in the spirit of sharing, below you will find a copy of an Introductory Email message I sent out this term to students in my Basic Chemistry course. Also, find my 10-minute video below too.

What tools/techniques/strategies/approaches do you use when connecting with learners in the first week of your online class? Share your comments below.

---body of email message below---


I confirm that as of today (Sunday August 25th) that you are one of the 22 students registered in CCE106: Basic Chemistry at RMCC. The course is web-enabled and in 6 or 7 days you will be able to access the class website at I am not 100% certain when students are given access to the class website - it could be as late as the first day of class: next Tuesday September 3rd. If by Tuesday you still do not have access to the class website, then please call the RMCC IT Help Desk: 1-866-677-2857 for assistance.

ACTION REQUIRED: I would ask that each of you please confirm receipt of this message so that I can be assured the correctness of your email address that is on file.

Let me give you several ways with which you can contact me during this term: Email:

Office Hours / Face-to-face or telephone: by appointment

Instant Messaging Services:
GTalk: (no email here please)
Facebook: Eric Tremblay in Kingston, Ontario (add me on LinkedIn too!)

In addition, I am required to remind you of the RMCC Academic Honesty Policy which reads:

"Academic misconduct, including plagiarism, cheating, and other violations of academic ethics, is a serious academic infraction for which penalties may range from a recorded caution to expulsion from the College. The RMCC Academic Regulations Section 23 defines plagiarism as: “Using the work of others and attempting to present it as original thought, prose or work. This includes failure to appropriately acknowledge a source, misrepresentation of cited work, and misuse of quotation marks or attribution.” It also includes “the failure to acknowledge that work has been submitted for credit elsewhere.” All students should consult the published statements on Academic Misconduct contained in the Royal Military College of Canada Undergraduate Calendar, Section 23."

When preparing assignments, if any questions arise about how to interpret this policy please ask me BEFORE you submit your assignment. In this case, asking for advice before submitting an assignment is far better than asking for forgiveness after the fact.

Please find attached the CCE106 Course Manual that will serve as the syllabus for the course. If you have not already done so, you should order the required textbook for the course. Details are found in the Course Manual. Also, I made a quick video Intro to the course. Check it out: (if that link doesn't work, try this one: ) Let me know what you think. I have also posted an Welcome Message on the class website. Because you don’t yet have access to the class website yet, I copied it below for you.

I'm looking forward to learning with you really soon.

Take care


---copy from course website---

Welcome Everyone to CCE106. I am Eric Tremblay and I will be your instructor this term. Feel free to read my bio or view the Intro Video post to the main page of this course.

I am really looking forward to a fun semester of learning. In order to kick it off on the right foot, I have a few ground rules to explain and requests to make.

Ground Rules

Rule #1. Learning is fun. If you don’t want to have fun, then drop this course right away. (*smile*) I’m a jovial person. I try to be positive-minded and I crack the odd joke here and there. Also, I’m the kind of person that loves learning – I have been doing it my entire life. I love it because I find it very enjoyable and challenging. And who doesn’t enjoy a good challenge anyway? So I hope you are prepared to mix a little fun in your learning this semester – even in an online course! I sure am.

Rule #2. Please leave your rank at the door. If your rank is General, then with all due respect, I will not call you ‘Sir’ during the offering of this course. I understand that rank has its place; however, in my classroom everyone is equal – including the instructor. So I would like everyone to simply call me ‘Eric’. Please, no emails calling me ‘Professor Tremblay’ or ‘Sir’ or anything like that. Just plain old ‘Eric’ works for me. In return, I will address you by your first name also.

Rule #3. What happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. This particular ground rule is better suited for a humanities course than a science course, but I am still going to state it here. I taught a Bioethics class in the past and some pretty personal and heart-felt comments were uttered by some members during class time. It’s important to always be aware that if someone shares with you a sensitive/personal anecdote during the course of this class, that that occurrence is not a license for you to broadcast this personal information across the CF or at your work. Let’s keep the classroom a safe place for us to share whatever we wish with each other in the context of the subject matter being studied.

Rule #4. Respect other people’s contribution to the class and do not fear mistakes. We are all responsible for collectively learning the material for CCE106 this semester. We are all here to help each other and invariably some of us are going to know more about the subject matter than others. Be mindful that everyone is a valuable member of this class and that we all have learning to do. In addition, remind yourself that we all make mistakes – and that’s ok, in fact, I encourage it! Myself included. Just because I am the instructor does not mean I am the ‘God of Chemistry’ (*grin*). I am far from that and I will make mistakes during the term. Remember that old John Powell quote: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” So when it comes to learning, mistakes are a necessary part of the equation. In the context of the lab experiments this term, you may end up making some mistakes while conducting the procedures – that’s ok. Take a deep breath, count to 10, check to make sure you have enough supplies to start again, re-read the instructions and then start again. It’s normal.

Rule #5: Extensions. From time to time our personal and professional lives infringe too greatly on our studies. In those cases you may need an extension on an assignment or a lab. I do grant them in some warranted cases. So if you request an extension please supply an excellent reason and propose a new due date for your assignment/lab. I carefully consider each request and I will get back to you quickly with my decision. If I decide not to grant your request, be advised that I do accept assignments and labs late. In the course material, a daily late penalty is defined for each assignment/lab which will allow you to submit things late if you wish. There are some types of extension requests which I never honour: 1) extension requests that come in on the actual due date of assignment/lab, and 2) extensions on extensions. In these cases, late penalties will begin to accrue. I hope you see the fairness in this system.

Rule #6. Know your netiquette. This course is not heavily rooted in weekly discussions but there may be times when we want to talk about a current event or something so be sure to understand the etiquette for online discussion. Sarcasm does not translate well in writing. So if you want to make a joke, then please give us a visual cue. Use things like emoticons, smilie faces, bracket comments like (*grin*) or (*smile*), or the abbreviations ‘j/k’ for ‘just kidding’ or ‘lol’ for ‘laugh out loud’.

Ok, those are my 6 ground rules, now it’s time for two requests.

Request #1: During the first week of class, I would like you to post a message in the main discussion forum introducing yourself. The message must cover the following topics: a) Your name
b) Your current occupation
c) Your geographic location
d) [Optional but highly encouraged] Basic information about your family status. For example, “I am single”, or “I have a wife and two boys, ages 3 and 7”, etc.
e) Why you are taking this course
f) One (or more) interesting ‘fun facts’ about yourself. Examples might include, “I have eleven iguanas”, “I once had beers with Tom Cruise”, "My hobby is playing World of Warcraft", or “I was the first Canadian to play drums on a tour with the band KISS”, etc. You get the idea. (*smile*)
g) Your favourite music band or singer.
h) Post a picture (or a link to a video!) of yourself as an attachment to your message.

Request #2: During the 15 weeks that we will be learning together, if you travel anywhere on vacation (or on Temporary Duty), you must then post a picture of yourself while on this trip in the discussion forum and you must tell us a little about it. I love to hear about people’s vacations/travel when I take an online course. It reaffirms to me that online learning is a great way to study because it still allows time for ‘real life’ and doesn't force you to be in one place all the time. (*smile*)

Ok, so, enough typing from me for the moment.

Again - Welcome Everyone to CCE106!



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Try Experiential Learning in Your Courses

Scott McLean, History professor at the Queen’s Bader International Study Center at Herstmonceux Castle in England recently gave a talk entitled “Sites, Sources and Assessment in an Experiential Learning Environment.” I was there. It was a fantastic talk.
He walked the audience through a few case studies that describe courses where he uses physical artifacts in an experiential learning context to help students make deep connections in their learning. Scott places a high degree of importance on using primary sources in field studies and students report elevated levels of motivation and engagement when working with these authentic artifacts in real life locations. For some students this is the first time they touch and work with primary sources! Luckily, the good folks at the Center for Teaching and Learning at Queen’s University arranged to have the keynote recorded and they have placed it online. If you teach history or are interested in experiential learning then you will find this talk fascinating. Be sure to check it out.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Sneak Peek: Best Practices in Online Course Design for Higher Education

I am assembling a set of best practices for online course design in a higher education setting. It’s hard to do. I started about two weeks ago and almost every day I add something to it. It now measures about four pages in length. Now I find myself wondering if the document is getting too large? Will people read it if it is that long? Hmmm. I will have to think about this.

So far I have categorized the document into six major sections:
Section 1. Overall Elements of the Online Course and Learner Support
Section 2. Course Outline
Section 3. Course Material
Section 4. Communication, Engagement and Activities
Section 5. Graded Assessment
Section 6. Accessibility
Do you want a sneak peek into Section 1? Sure you do. Here are my top 5 items that fit into the first section - Overall Elements of the Online Course and Learner Support:
  1. Brand the course website to be consistent with your Institution and/or Faculty. Have a unique image (with Course Code and Course Title) on the main page of the course website that provides differentiation from other courses in the same Faculty.
  2. Ensure simple and intuitive navigation in the online space.
  3. Provide learners with an effective orientation to the course including an instructor introduction. The introduction should convey the instructor’s enthusiasm for the subject and be encouraging to learners that this course will be rewarding.
  4. Provide the learner with links to: technical support, library, writing center, academic policies, etc.
  5. Provide as much of the course material as possible for the 1st day of class.
What do you think of those five items in Section 1? Do you disagree with any of them? Do any of them resonate with you? Leave a comment below.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

How To Teach Online - MOOC - Week 1

The MOOC for How To Teach Online (#tomooc) has begun. Naturally, the 1st week’s activities are pretty general. They have questions for learners to answer on their blog, so I’ll do it below:
  1. What is your intention for this course (why are you here)?
  2. What issues do you think are important?
  3. How will you contribute?
  4. How would you like to see community develop among participants?
  5. These types of courses are new for most people. In fact about 90% don’t even participate. How will you overcome the fear of learning in the open and the frustration of using new technology? How do you plan to courageously work through any setbacks, and not give up?
1&2: I just started a new job as an Educational Developer for the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Anytime you start a new job, it’s a very unique time where you can re-evaluate yourself and start fresh. My mandate will be to help move more courses online. So when I saw this MOOC advertised it was a perfect fit. I really hope to find some gold nuggets of wisdom in this course than can compliment my current knowledge and skills.

3: I will contribute largely by authoring posts on this blog and tagging them with the required #tomooc tag. I will do my best to try to keep up with the weekly asynchronous activities, as well as synchronous activities. I am curious how the synchronous activity will go given the (I assume) large number of students in this MOOC. Note: if you are curious about some of the blog posts, you can visit this page and scroll down to see them:

4: I hope that the community can develop not only by interlinking blogs but also on Twitter. I am trying to grow my Personal Learning Network using my Twitter account (@elearn4u) so scanning the #tomooc tag on twitter will be a way for me to connect with like-minded individuals. I also really hope to find people working in the higher education field who specialize in Engineering – that would be a bonus.

5: I’m not afraid. Learning is fun. Bring it on ;-)