“Onboarding” the Online Student

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SOWhen different cultures meet, there is invariably a clash of values and priorities. The slow creep of corporate culture into the “ivory tower” of higher education is the subject of much handwringing. (Disclaimer: However tempting, it is not the purpose of this post to examine the influence of new revenue models on student learning). The entry of the instructional designer (ID) into academia is a particularly good example of this societal collision.

Instructional design techniques were first developed to streamline military training. Subsequently, designers were hired to produce corporate training materials (think sexual harassment coaching) and assist in the tutelage of medical students. It has only been in last few years that IDs have been hired en mass to aid in the sea change that is online education. As a result of these recruitments, a large and primarily corporate workforce has moved into academic settings, bringing with them their workflows and idioms (ex. “workflows”).

I am an instructional designer by vocation, but an academic by training. I have a Ph.D. in music composition, and still yearly teach 7+ sections of online music. Because of this background, I often experience strange moments of dislocation when interacting with my ID colleagues. In particular, I sometimes miss the subtext inherent in contemporary “business jargon.” Jargon disconnect example: “Do you have enough bandwidth for this?” “Why yes, my internet connection seems to be working just fine…”

Frankly, business jargon has always set my teeth on edge, as it always seems a little “too clever.” It is, therefore, with no small amount of resignation, that I purpose to adopt the corporate friendly term onboarding.

Onboarding Definition: “Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, refers to the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders” (Onboarding – Wikipedia)

Tentative Student Onboarding Definition: Student onboarding reflects the process by which learners are socialized into a new class space, making important connections with the instructor and fellow learners. During this process, learners will be familiarized with course level learning goals, evaluation requirements, instructor expectations, relevant academic policies and be provided with suggested “first steps.”

Student Onboarding: The Face-2-Face Routine

Student onboarding occurs naturally during the first day of a face-2-face course. This session is typically spent in instructor/student introductions, a review of syllabus/course requirements, and a bird’s eye view of the course’s topics and activities. Despite the routine nature of these first sessions, they perform a critical function. They prepare learners to successful navigate a course’s learning goals.

This tongue-in-cheek little video covers some of my favorite student onboarding rituals.
This represents a composite of my experiences as a face-2-face student and instructor.


Student Onboarding: Online Classes & the Missing Routine

While onboarding happens naturally in a face-2-face classroom, the onboarding of virtual students does not occur without serious and focused intentionality. When this focused intentionality is not present, students are left disoriented and frustrated.

Paradoxically, online instructors provide all of the same onboarding data to their students. In fact, in the online classroom far more information is routinely supplied.

Common onboarding materials include: 

  • Syllabus
  • Welcome e-mail(s)
  • Welcome text
  • Welcome video
  • Instructor bio
  • Instructor contact/office hours info
  • Course calendar
  • “Introductions” discussion
  • Technical requirements
  • Tech/LMS support info
  • LMS orientation materials
  • General Q & A discussion
  • DSP information
  • Netiquette information
  • Academic integrity documentation

It is my contention that student onboarding in the online classroom is too often missing. Because of this, I feel that both the concept of, and the term “ONBOARDING” are uniquely useful for online educators. Getting students “off to a good start” through socialization and focused orientation will improve student retention, enhance learner self-actualization, reduce frustration and increase student satisfaction.

What’s happening in the onground classroom that is not happening online?
What can be done to improve the onboarding of online learners?

The onground ritual contains two critical elements: the proximity of participants and the “forced review” of class policies. Students depart this first session with a sense of their instructor’s personality, what topics need mastered, how they will be evaluated and how to get started.

In an online course, students are often overwhelmed with the volume of documentation provided. The welcome e-mail, the welcome video, and the syllabus, can cover an incredible amount of information. Indeed, each of these individual documents can sometimes be “encyclopedic” in length. Having read a two-page welcome email, learners may choose to skip the syllabus or other relevant policy info. “Can we blame them?”

Poor information streamlining often makes it difficult for students to know where to begin. Popular questions such as: “what do I do first” and “I’m confused about where to start,” suggest that a course’s onboarding strategy may be muddled.

What’s happening in the onground classroom that is not happening online?

  1. Poor learner socialization, stemming from a lack of faculty proximity (lack of faculty presence).
  2. Insufficient mechanisms are present to ensure the digestion of relevant policy & course information.
  3. Student confusion is heightened by:
    – Overwhelming amounts of documentation.
    – Lack of clear starting strategies (i.e. “What do I do first?”).

What can be done to improve the onboarding of online students?

Step 1: Course homepage/home screens should be drastically streamlined to include a very specific set of information.

  • A concise list of all key due dates
  • A short course expectations video covering common student concerns, faculty support, policy items, and possible pitfalls to avoid.
    Ex. video 
  • Instructor contact information
  • critical: A “getting started” list (no more than 4-7 items)
    – Ex: 1. read syllabus, 2. watch course policy video, 3. take course policy quiz, 4. introduce yourself in the forum, 5. start module 1

Step 2: Create a quiz that touches on the concepts covered in the “course policy video”  (see step 1). This quiz should be set up as a “gated” assignment. Students should not be able to move forward in the course without agreeing to these policies. (Ex. “I will contact my professor with questions before an assignment is due, not after.” Agree or Disagree?)

Step 3: Welcome emails should be as short as possible. I suggest a short amount of welcome text followed by a repeat of the homepage’s content (see step 1). This message should include a link to the course expectations video, instructor contact info, and the critical “getting started list.”

Step 4: Where possible, conduct a live video welcome event. This welcome doesn’t necessarily have to take place synchronously. In my class, I use a combination of YouTube, Google Hangout, and Piazza.com to increase faculty presence amongst the students. – Ex. video 

Step 5: Participate actively in your course’s “Introductions” discussion. Where possible, comment substantively on each student’s narrative. Include your own personal story (not your freaking publisher’s bio).

Step 6: Create an entry survey to identify “at-risk” student populations. Students with certain characteristics are statistically less likely to persist throughout an entire course. These characteristics can include: no online course experience, poor writing and study skills, poor time management skills and unfamiliarity with the course’s subject area. Using this information, it is possible to reach out to individuals who may need more faculty contact and support.

also published at http://elearningtools.org/

By | 2017-01-09T23:12:29+00:00 March 30th, 2015|

About the Author:

Composer, Music Educator and Instructional Designer, Stephen Wilcox received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University and working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley.

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  1. […] care to receive it. For example, one of the most critical events in a face2face class is the syllabus review. Though never an entertainment highlight, it is essential for outlining critical course policies, […]

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Stephen Wilcox

Stephen Wilcox

Stephen Wilcox received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University and working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley.

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