Trade Secret #1: Put out the welcome mat and over-communicate

By Dr. Marilyn Herie

The most important things that students want to know are: “What is expected of me?” “How do I access the course?”, “Where can I get help if I need it?”  and “How can I be successful?” I make a point of addressing these questions by mobilizing multiple communication channels. People access and attend to information selectively – this way I make sure that the important information cuts through the “static” of students’ other, competing priorities, and I also get fewer panicked emails and phone calls in the first weeks of the course.

Transcript – Trade Secret #1: Put out the welcome mat and over-communicate (click to open)

Welcome to some of my online teaching trade secrets. I’m Marilyn Herie and I’ve been teaching online for about 20 years. The trade secrets may not be rocket science but they took me years and years to learn and I’m really happy to share them with you.

So let’s start with number one. Put up the welcome mat and over communicate. The thing about online teaching is that, unlike in the classroom where you can actually just have conversations and make announcements, that in an online environment, I find that students don’t always read a specific announcement email or other communication, and so I try to mobilize every possible channel especially near the beginning of the course. And so, for example, I start with a welcome email up to a month ahead of the actual course start date. Now, I recognize that we don’t have the full class list a month ahead but for those keeners that are actively registered, those are students that often are super anxious and so the welcome message is really introducing myself. I put in a little bio link to my blog and make it really conversational. And I also attach a PDF of the course outline because students who are newer to online environments, or aren’t sure where to find it, that’s the thing that they most want to see. And then what I do is take that welcome message and I repurpose it in the announcements section of the course so that the very first thing that students see when they log into my course is the same, effectively the same welcome message. And the nice thing about that is that as students are iteratively registering they’re getting exactly the same information.

I also sort of distribute the students into small groups. I find, and I’ll talk more about that in some of the other secrets in terms of why I do that, but I find that students get a bit overwhelmed by the volume of posts in a larger class size. So if you have a section of 30 or 40 students, that’s a lot of messages. So I like to divide students into groups of 8 or 10 or 12 just to keep it a little bit more manageable. And the first thing they see when they go into their small group is a welcome message from me that’s shorter, that’s just saying hey, so glad you made it to the group, because that takes a little bit of navigation on their part, and welcome, look forward to the conversations that we’re gonna have. So just setting that tone.

I also give a welcome video, so it’s kind of like, welcome to this course video. And I include that in the first module the very first week, the video introduction, and it’s really just introducing myself and the course. And so if you think about it, what’s in that two-minute video, what would the very first two minutes of your very first class be like? Simple, conversational, and I try to keep it short.

I also, just talking about over communicating, have found that over the years, I would get those same questions about assignments year after year after year. No matter how much I put in the description of the assignment, I would get be bombarded with emails from students. And so what I started to do, and I didn’t start to do this until like year 10 of teaching my online course, was collect every single question and the answer that I posted, and build it into an FAQ about the assignment. So, in addition to the assignment description and rubric, I also ended up by my year 18 of the course, like a four-page document of FAQs which the students loved. It was in their own words, again, very conversational.

I was, towards the end of my online course, because obviously you know when students are happy about a course, they give great reviews on those course evaluations. And I would say, as I started to implement some of these secrets, my course evaluations got better and better. And this one is, and I’m not just cherry picking only the good ones and ignoring all the bad ones, there’s always a couple that are disgruntled, but these are pretty common that I would see year after year. And it really speaks to students translating the quality of a course as feeling connected and informed. And so, for them, quality is a lot about, do I know what I’m doing, do I know what to expect, do I feel welcome here and do I feel like the instructor sets a good tone.

So I hope that’s a helpful little secret for you and check out the other secrets!

Check out Dr. Marilyn Herie’s other Trade Secrets!

Dr. Marilyn Herie, PhD RSW is Vice President Academic and Chief Learning Officer at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada, with an academic cross-appointment as Assistant Professor (Status Only), University of Toronto Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. I’ve been engaged in online (and classroom-based) post-secondary teaching and research since 1999. My areas of interest include elearning and classroom teaching, interprofessional education research and evaluation, motivation and change, and social media. I blog about education and teaching-related topics at