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.

One thought on “Setting Up an Online Learning Experience

  1. Good post, Colm. Unfortunately this is my second time posting because the first time it said my comment could not be posted.

    I like what you said about technology becoming “almost transparent.” I take that to mean that the technology should feel invisible in the process. If the technology is understood by all, then it becomes a natural tool in conversation making. But if the technology is not understood, it steals time and energy away from the learning.

    I also like what you said about setting expectations. I think it is often more than just telling students what you expect in the syllabus. You have to have presence in the class and show them what to expect.

    I also responded to your Wk 3 post. Just wanted you to know.


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