Setting Up an Online Learning Experience

Last week I looked at the importance of establishing a positive learning community in an online classroom. We looked at how a community can be encouraged and why having such a learning community spirit is so crucial to the effectiveness of online studies. This week I will be taking a look at what is required from the instructor at the beginning of a study course outside of activities that promote a learning community. I have selected three different elements it is important to focus on in the early stages of teaching an online course.

  1. Understand the Technology

By definition, students and instructors studying online will need to use technology to take part in their online classroom. Students will often look to their instructors for help with the technology they will need to utilise to be successful. Conrad and Donaldson (2011) mention that ‘making sure that all participants have the necessary skill level with the communication tools that will be necessary during the course’ is one of the biggest challenges instructors face in an online classroom (p38). It is important for students to learn how to use the tools in the online classroom, but it is perhaps even more critical that the instructor be able to use these tools expertly.

Dr. George Piskurich affirms that a key necessary quality a facilitator must have for online learning is to have a thorough understanding of the software they will use in the course; they need to know ‘what they can do with it, what the learners can do with it and how they need to work it’ so that the technology becomes ‘almost transparent’ (Laureate, n.d). If tools like discussions boards, wikis, video content etc. are to be successful in adding to the learning experience then the instructor will need to have a very good understanding of how each of the tools work so that they can do the main job that being an online instructor requires: facilitating learning.

I believe a second important consideration in mastering the tools available in the classroom is to add to the self-efficacy of online students. Learners who are self-confidence as they study generally hold high expectations of their performance in class. This, according to Wang (2008) ‘often means that learners participate more actively in learning and use certain learning strategies to achieve their objectives’ (p19). If students understand that, regardless of how challenging the technology tools might be, the instructor has an expert knowledge on their use an is always there to guide them this will be a great aid to their self-efficacy.

  1. Communicate Clear Expectations

Boettcher and Conrad (2011) suggest that it is a highly recommendable practice that instructors are clear with students on how communication will work in the classroom and how much time they are expected to spend on their studies each week (p40). Students studying online might not know what to expect from such a course for the first time, and ‘being clear as to how much effort and time will be required on a weekly basis keeps surprises to a minimum’ (ibid, 41).

It is also important that instructors are very clear on what is expected from students in each and every assignement set. Unlike in an online classroom instructors cannot take non-verbal clues from a class about how well an assignment questions is understood, so to ensure no misunderstandings occur it is crucial that assignment instructions and expectations are very explicit. Wang (2008) explains that being clear on expectations and explicitly referring back to these expectations in feedback is an important contributor to student motivation. To sustain student motivation an instructor is well served to ‘provide recognition of success’ where possible (Wang, 2008, 26), and being clear with students on where their work has met expectations is a great way of doing this.

  1. Be Aware that Different Students Have Different Needs

It goes without saying that not every student is the same. Some students will take to online learning very quickly, others will have a tougher time adjusting. It is important for instructors to realise that some students may need some extra help early in their online learning experience to acclimatise. Using ice-breakers and introduction posts to get an indication of student’s backgrounds in terms of culture, exposure to technology, age profile, whether they have studied online before etc. can be a good way of surmising which individuals may require that little bit of extra attention. To give an example of this, student introductions in the first week of class might suggest that some students are studying in language that is not their first language. In a study of online studies in Australia, D’Netto and Hannon (2007) found that, while non-native and native speaker of English were both equally happy with study outcomes overall, the non-native speakers responded ‘significantly’ less positively about their experiences with technology in the classroom (p426). A little bit of extra attention early in the studies when learning how to use the technology tools might make the learning experience easier for such students.


  • Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (Updated ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Facilitating online learning [Video file]. Retrieved from
  • Wang, Y., Peng, H., Huang, R., Hou, Y., & Wang, J. (2008). Characteristics of distance learners: Research on relationships of learning motivation, learning strategy, self-efficacy, attribution and learning results. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 17-28.
  • Hannon, J., & D’Netto, B. (2007). Cultural Diversity Online: Student Engagement With Learning Technologies. International Journal of Educational Management, 21(5), 418-432.

Online Learning Communities: Their Importance and their Development

Online learning can be a daunting challenge for many students. The traditional face-to-face mode of teaching is very effective for creating a connection between both instructors and students, and students and other students, due to their proximity and consequential immediacy. The very fact that in face-to-face learning environments instructors are in such close contact with their students ‘lessen[s] the psychological distance between themselves and their students, leading, directly or indirectly depending on the study, to greater learning’ (Swan, 2002, p.12).  It is a challenge for both developers of online studies and instructors in online classrooms to strive towards the creation of a similar sense of community. This sense of community between members of classrooms is important for the effectiveness of instruction.  Palloff and Pratt explain that if a student feels part of a learning community it increases their satisfaction with studying, it increases their perception of learning and they feel part of ‘something larger’ with more social pressure to succeed, making them more likely to persevere with their studies if any difficulties arise (Laureate, 2010).

Palloff and Pratt explain that to create an online community you need to have three elements: People, Purpose and Process. The people element is self-explanatory; of course, you can’t have a community without people to be a part of it. The people need to be gathered (digitally) for a specific purpose; it’s not just a chance coming together of online entities, it is people working together towards one goal. Finally, there needs to be a shared process for working towards the reason the people have gathered together for.  There needs to be a process by which learners can engage with one another. Classroom discussions within a Course Management System are an example of processes through which learning community creation can occur.

Once a sense of community has been formed, attention needs to be turned to how to maintain the learning community. Paloff and Pratt make it clear that everyone in the learning community has a responsibility for sustaining the community, both students and instructors. The instructor’s role cannot, however, be minimised. Anderson (2012) writes that one of the main functions of an instructor in an online classroom is the ‘critical task of facilitating discourse’ (p350); the instructor need to nurture and environment in which the learning community can grow. Continued interaction between students and instructors can help sustain a learning community where individuals can build a ‘sense of shared understanding, knowledge of one another and mutual support’ (Boettcher and Conrad, 2010, p104). The instructor is instrumental in these interactions because of their task in providing a ‘shelter and safe place’ for community interactions (ibid).

A key piece of learning to take away from a study of learning communities is the importance that a well-developed orientation course can play in facilitating new communities. Paloff and Pratt (Laureate, 2010) are both enthusiastic about the benefits a dedicated time for orientation can have. Students can get to know each other, can learn how to use the Course Management System correctly and get orientated to ‘online learning philosophy’. I believe that explaining to students how important being an active and contributing member of the learning community will be to their success in their studies could play a big role in hastening the rooting of a new community. Orientation can serve as a vehicle for educating students on the purpose behind interactions with their classmates online and the benefits they can take away from ‘becoming a part of something large’.


  • Anderson, T. (2008). Theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed.). Edmonton: AU Press.
  • Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Online learning communities [Video file]. Retrieved from
  • Swan, K. (2002). Building Communities in Online Courses: The Importance of Interaction (1st ed., Vol. 2, pp. 23-49). Education,Communication and Information.