Where Students Can Begin In Online Learning

Teaching and learning in an online learning environment may be new to many. Providing a clear starting point will be helpful to students who are learning to navigate your online learning environment. Even if students are familiar with Pepper, each course may be set up differently. A Start Here note can set the tone and provide straightforward direction for the first steps.  

When students first log into a course in Pepper, it can be helpful to have clearly labelled folders, such as AnnouncementsVirtual Office Hours and Course Administration and Assignments. Since there may be technical issues, I include a Technical Questions and Course Help folder for anyone to ask for help. I  encourage anyone in the course to answer these questions because some students may know the answers, too. I also include a Group Repository for Useful Resources where students can find relevant articles or videos. 

The Start Here! Folder contains only one note, which warmly Welcomes students to the course, and outlines 9 simple steps to get started. Below is an example of the instructions specific to one of my courses–with instructions specific to this course in italics.

  1. Read the entries in the Course Administration and Assignment Info Folder to become familiar with the assignments, guidelines and timelines. 
  2. Familiarize with our course and Pepper:
    1. Write an Intro (responding to my guiding questions
    2. Read other Intros and Reply to say hello
    3. Make a link to another note in Pepper (see instructions above in the Help Tab– Help Videos)
    4. Upload a file, —try a graphic file that you can use for your Profile–.jpg is a good format—if you don’t already have one. Go to My Settings (top of screen) and select Profile Pictures — follow the directions there. Or share a visual in your Intro
    5. Set Notifications, – My Settings is also where you select Notifications – You may want to set these differently for the week you are Leading a Discussion or for replies to your notes, etc. Please turn on notifications for the Announcements Folder.
  3. Sign up for a week to Lead a Discussion (tell them where to find this note and set it to Whole Class Can Edit).
  4. Find the Readings in each Weekly Folder.

The Start Here! note should be warmly welcoming. This is the first step for students who may be engaging with an instructor they don’t know. This Start Here! note can set the tone for the instructor’s “teacher presence” or “social presence” and should build a sense of trust.  A closing paragraph can remind students that this learning context is a collaborative, interactive space where we have mutual respect and trust for each other so that we can really push the boundaries of our understanding. I also encourage students to be comfortable asking for direction because if they are unsure, others may be too. 

Finally, I like to include a video of me (I record it using Screencast-o-matic), explaining these instructions and guiding the students through these Pepper folders. 

Here is a link to the paper that explains social presence that is available in the Pepper project 

Oztok, M. & Brett, C. (2011). Social presence and online learning: A review of the researchThe Journal of Distance Education, 25(3), 1-10.

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