What do my students need to get started in my online course?


Why is this an important topic?

Beginning an online course can be overwhelming for many students, especially if it is their first experience with online learning.  When your students login to your course they will depend on you to essentially "show them around."  Your students will need specific and clear instructions on how where to begin learning about how your course is going to work.  Each online course is unique and it is important that your students learn about your course.  Preparing your students includes providing information regarding navigation and structure of the course.  Helping your students get off to a good start increases the likelihood that your students will be successful (Sheridan & Kelly, 2010).


Provide clear instructions on how to get started & where to find course components

When your students are ready to begin your course it is important to remember there are two beginnings to a course.  First students will need to learn what the course is going to be about, how they will navigate the various web pages, what type of schedule they will be expected to keep.  In other words, what type of experience are they about to take part in while learning the material.  What are you going to expect of your students?  This information is best included in a course welcome or orientation section or page.  You can direct students' attention to this information by using a "Read Me First" or "Start Here" icon on the home page or link in the navigation bar.  Here are some icons or buttons, you might want to use.  


Some of this information will be included in the syllabus.  However, it is helpful for information to be at your students' fingertips directly from within the course.  You might consider creating a course orientation video where your students get to not only learn this information but form an initial connection with you by getting to see and hear you.  A syllabus quiz can help students determine whether they are ready to begin and fully understand the expectations they will need to meet during the course. 

Convey the purpose and structure of the course

Be sure to share the purpose of the course with your students.  Adult learners value maximizing effective use of time.  Telling your students why this course is important can increase motivation.  The course should provide information regarding how the learning process will be structured (see example course map below).  How will content be divided across the weeks and when are assignments due?  Providing your students with a schedule that is detailed will help students manage time wisely and help you enforce deadlines later in the course.  It will be helpful to provide your students with a calendar that includes readings, assignments, assessments, important activities, etc. by week or module topic, including due dates  (See example).

Example of Course Map

Share netiquette expectations for the class

"Netiquette" stands for "Internet Etiquette", and refers to the set of practices created over the years to make the Internet experience pleasant for everyone.  Online courses should clearly state etiquette expectations for all online communication, such as discussion forums, emails, or posts between teacher and students and among classmates.  An example of etiquette expectations is found in Texas A&M University Distance Education's Netiquette & Aggie Honor Code.  Since online courses might have students from all over the world, it is a good idea to also address sensitivity to cultural differences.  Instructors can include welcome and support for individuals from all groups: race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, and disability.

Provide course and institutional policies

Sharing your course policies and reminding students of institutional policies helps to support you when difficult situations arise in the online classroom.  Course policies include students conduct, confidentiality in the classroom, electronic communication policies, and late submission of assignments.  Institutional policies include Texas A&M University policies such as the Aggie Honor System Rules and Texas A&M University Students' Rights and Responsibilities.  This information will likely be included in the course syllabus.  Remember that Texas A&M University has a minimum set of requirements that must be included in all syllabi. 

State minimum technology requirements and skills needed

There are two areas related to technology to keep in mind when providing students with information related to technology.  First, students need to know to which technologies they are required to have access.  Access means students need to purchase the technology or utilize available campus technologies that are free.  Not only do we need to list the technologies to which students need access, but students need clear instructions on how to obtain, install, and use the required technologies such as hardware, software, subscriptions, and plug-ins.  This may include laptop, web camera, microphone, and Microsoft office (see example).

Second, students need to know which technologies that are required to know how to use.  This means the instructor/course will not provide instruction and students should either already have knowledge of the technology or will need to spend time outside normal class time to learn the technology.  Examples include creating spreadsheet that utilize macros or formulas, generating reports using statistical software or creating presentations that require the use of video editing software.

Note prerequisite knowledge needed for the class

State any prerequisite knowledge, competencies, or courses are clearly stated from the beginning of the course, so students know what to expect or if they meet the required qualifications.  Instructors can verify if any prerequisite is required for the course in the Undergraduate or Graduate Texas A&M Catalog.

Tools and Resources

  • The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses by Sheridan & Kelly from the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching is a study that investigated which components students value the most in terms of their perceived contribution to a successful or satisfying learning experience in online courses.
  • Getting Started Simple Checklist from the College of Education and Human Development Instructional Technology Group at Texas A&M University helps you easily identify if you have all the elements needed to get started in your online course according to research and best practices.
  • Netiquette & Aggie Honor Code from Texas A&M University's Instructional Technology Services lists the Core Rules of Netiquette (Internet Etiquette).
  • Commitment to Diversity from the Office of the Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity at Texas A&M University explains the university's commitment to diversity.
  • Aggie Honor System Rules from Aggie Honor System Office at Texas A&M University explains the Aggie Code of Honor, community responsibility, definitions of academic misconduct, group projects, and other types of conduct concerns.
  • Students' Rights and Responsibilities from the Texas A&M University Student Rules presents the statement of students’ rights and responsibilities while students at Texas A&M University.
  • Academic Rules from the Texas A&M University Student Rules presents the rules all the academic rules.