Sunday, May 10, 2015

Orienting Online Students

Every hiker knows not to leave home without water, an emergency supply of food, a map, and a compass.  A cell phone or an emergency locator beacon can also be useful.  Before setting foot on the trail, hikers will orient themselves to their surroundings and make note of the weather (and, hopefully, they checked the forecast before leaving home).   They will find North and make sure they are headed in the correct direction.

Educators know that orientations are also important for our students.  At UT Austin, we require students to attend an entire week of orientation activities on campus during June and July.  The first week of classes is full of orientation activities.  We orient new graduate students to campus, the department, and the program.  Yet, for the most part, most of us devote very little time to orienting our students to our face to face classes.  Sure, we spend the first class meeting reviewing the syllabus and discussing our expectations for the course.  In a seminar course, students might introduce themselves to one another.  But, really, we don't orient students to the course itself, including what to expect as the semester progresses.  For the most part, this lack of orientation isn't a problem.  The basic experience of taking on class is not that different from another class; and these students have been practicing classroom-based education since before they could use the potty on their own.  What they don't know, they quickly figure out; and if they are truly disoriented, they will seek help from a classmate or us.

The problems come up in spades when we shift learning to online.  Suddenly, the students feel lost, uncertain, unsure--even if, in actuality, their part in the learning process hasn't significantly changed and there is not reason for them to feel disoriented.  The majority of these so-called digital natives behave as if they were plopped down on a different planet that operates by a wholly different set of natural laws when they participate in the online classroom.  They are disoriented and looking for familiar landmarks--which are often not immediately evident to them.  Sometimes they forget good behavior.  The same student who would never shout obscenities to a classmate suddenly posts an invective-laced, ad hominem attack on the discussion board.  When the impropriety is pointed out, they often are ashamed and deeply apologetic.  They just didn't think about it, they say.

When I implemented the blended course design in my campus-based large lecture class, the first semester was an exercise in frustration for me and the students.  Most of it, I realized, came down to issues of disorientation: the students felt disoriented and were unable to recognize the familiar when it was right in front of them.  It really was as if they were wearing a pair of glasses that distorted everything and made even completely normal things seem unfamiliar.  From this, I learned the value of crafting a thoughtful orientation for students in "innovative" courses.  These days, students are much more accustomed to the expectations and workings of the blended classroom, so orientation goes pretty quickly.  The new frontier is the online class, especially the online class at scale (the larger the class, the more potential for disorientation).

In the first live run of Online Rome, we were pressed for time to get the course ready for students (the decision to go live was made by UT days before the start of the semester).  We put together a short orientation module, but hastily.  It worked ok, but throughout the term it was apparent that some portion of the students--maybe 10%--were still confused and disoriented.  It wasn't that we were asking them to do strange things; it was that they were disoriented in the online environment and so were unable to recognize and feel comfortable with standard learning activities.  They felt the need to double-check everything, seek confirmation that they were "doing things right."  All of this disorientation required significant time and effort on the part of the instructor throughout the semester.

Over the winter break, I spent considerable time revising the orientation module so that it did a better job of equipping students with the skills they would need to confidently and successfully navigate the course.  I also worked with the course instructor on the issue of orientation.  This spring, he made regular announcements to the class, reminders of where they should be, upcoming deadlines and other course activities, and general feedback on things like their essays.   The results have been what I expected: the students felt comfortable, knew what was expected, and have wasted little time fretting about logistics.

Eventually, we will be teaching a generation of students who are as comfortable learning online as they are in a classroom; and who require less regular orientations and re-orientations by the instructor.  For now, though, the default learning environment for our students is the face to face classroom.  Anything else requires us to be aware of the constant potential for disorientation.  A lot of time can be saved with a well-crafted orientation module, that lays out for the students the architecture of the course and their role in it.  To give just one example, we focused on the role of self-regulated learning in Online Rome.  We had the students read a little bit about the concept and answer some questions; and then had them apply the concept to a learning activity (answer a short answer question, look at feedback, reflect on how they would modify their response).

Finally, having students perform the sorts of activities that they will be doing throughout the semester is an excellent way for them to evaluate whether the online course is a good fit for them.  If they find it difficult to complete the orientation module on time; or feel alienated in the online environment, they have plenty of time to drop the course and find something that is a better fit for their style of learning.


  1. SO TRUE about the Orientation. Although it's morphed over the years, I always spent the first week on Orientation, for all the reasons you mentioned! And I am still foolishly optimistic enough to hope that online courses will offer a diversity of learning activities that vary tremendously from class to class, far beyond the diversity that was ever possible in the classroom (just think of all the different online tools available once you break free of the LMS for example!)... all those tools AND all those things you can do with those tools. For that reason, I hope online/blended classes are not going to be as predictable as classroom-based classes (mostly) were, which means they will always need some kind of orientation. For my classes, building up online presence and connecting with other students is incredibly important in that first week... right now, students still arrive with very little online presence related to school: they haven't blogged for a class before, they haven't created a website for a class before. If/when my students all start showing up with basic blogging and web publishing skills, so much the better: I will then be able to up the ante in the Orientation week to work with more/different tools that we can use to explore/build the online space together.

  2. As you note, the other major goal of the orientation piece in an online class is creating a connection with the students, establishing that ever-important virtual presence. I'll be writing about that in a later post. But one part of the orientation module is a video introduction from the course instructor as well as (at a minimum) a page with the bios of the rest of the teaching team. It is very important that, from the beginning, the students have a clear image of the instructor in their minds. Otherwise, it's just a disembodied voice on the page that they never really connect to. I'm still not entirely happy with the social learning element of the class but hope that, as it evolves under my direction, I might be able to work on that.