April 9, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: "Getting Started" Email

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

When I first began teaching online, it seemed that the first week of my online courses was the most difficult for students. It seemed I was continually answering "logistics"-related questions - How do I find the syllabus? Where are assignments posted? Do I need a text for the course? Am I required to login at certain times? Etc.

In addition to replying to each student's questions as quickly as possible, I would try to post my "answers" on the course's site Learning Management System, where all students could see my responses. I failed to understand at the time, however, that "going to class" for an online student is not the same as going to class in a face-to-face environment. Because online students often fit their coursework into their busy previously-established schedules, they might not even be able to access the course until several days after the official "start" of the course. Also, it has been my experience that students (in general) tend to ask questions before seeking solutions to their problems on their own. So, many of the postings I made to the LMS Announcements page frequently went unread. So, I needed to find a way to get students "up to speed" in my course sooner, anticipating the questions they may have, so that they can jump directly into the content when the course actually begins.

I decided to develop a "Pre-Semester Getting Started" email message in which I would address many of the "first week" logistic issues students experience. After answering so many questions from students in the past, I had a good idea of the kind of information students needed to get started, but I tried to imagine what I would need to know if I was just starting an online course (perhaps for the first time):

  • What is the course going to be about? 
  • What am I going to need to work in the course - text, other materials?
  • How is the course structured?
  • How do I access the course content?
  • How do a navigate and work in the course?
  • How do I contact you if I need help?
In addition to answering the questions above, I always include links to the syllabus and course schedule AND I attach both documents (PDF) to the "Getting Started" email. 

Here is an example of a "Getting Started" email I send to my students.

I keep the formatting simple (no fancy fonts or bold/italicized formatting), since some prefer not to receive richly formatted emails, and all of this "emphasis" may go unnoticed. Also, I use links to connect students to other resources that will help them get started in your course, such as YouTube videos or text sites.

I keep a draft of the "Getting Started" email in a Google Doc that I can revise, as needed, before each use, then copy/paste the message into an email message (remember to review the pasted message to make certain all of the links are active). 

The email message is sent 7-10 days prior to the start of the course to the student email addresses listed with the school. This time frame gives those who don't check their email very often a chance to see it before the start of class (I know that email often is not the best means of communicating with students, particularly when emailing to a school account, but until an alternate method of communication is established after the start of the course, it is the best and most convenient means available). Perhaps it goes without saying, but when sending a mass email, please place all student email addresses in the "BCC:" ("blind carbon copy") address box. This helps maintain student privacy. Also, include your email address(es) in the "CC:" address box, so students can see your email address(es) directly, and so that you have a record of when each email was sent.

I keep an ongoing list of those students to whom I've sent the "Getting Started" email. Each day following this initial mailing, I check to see if any new students enroll in the course, and send the same "Getting Started" message out to all newly-enrolled students. 

Also, if I am using an LMS, I try to have the course site accessible 3-5 days prior to the start of the course to allow students an "orientation" period before the course begins. If I am opening up the LMS site early, I state in the "Getting Started" email when the course site will be available, and how to access the site.

Though I've never asked directly whether or not students find this "Getting Started" email useful, I can only surmise that it has given the reduction of email inquiries I receive from students during the first week of course.

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