Getting Your Ducks in a Row: Setting Up an Online Learning Experience

ducks-in-a-row-threeRemember walking into your early-primary grade classroom on the first day of school? Everything looked inviting: the bulletin boards, the welcome back notice written on the board with the teacher’s name, and the topics we would soon be studying placed around the classroom. Another element that was equally exciting was seeing old friends and meeting the new “kids” who would be joining our class. I always felt initial excitement at the sense of embarking on a different journey for the year.

First Things First

Creating a welcoming online environment is just as important to the adults who will learn in the “classroom” as it is to young children beginning in education, perhaps even more so. The online classroom can be daunting to those new to online learning. Making sure the course is properly prepared, not only in a pedagogical sense, but in atmosphere and tone ensures students feel welcome and are recognized as individuals. Dr. Pratt and Dr. Palloff, note that the first two weeks in an online course are the most critical (Laureate Education, 2010). Student attrition is most likely to occur during this time period, preparing the necessary support for students will help mitigate student withdrawal.

Getting started on the right foot means preparing before the course begins. Teaching a course online is different from teaching in a classroom, recognizing this fact and making the appropriate adjustments will make all the difference. Even if the course has been previously designed, it is a good idea to analyze what might need some modification. Reviewing previous student evaluations might help shed light on areas where the design might be weak (Bart, 2010). It is important to analyze which technology tools will best deliver content, clarify concepts, and provide interactivity. These tools used effectively help create a tangibility of the course content for the students, therefore careful consideration of the appropriate tool is key. Conrad and Donaldson (2011) caution that technology should not be the primary focus, but rather the vehicle to deliver the content most effectively, and therefore more successfully. Boettcher and Conrad, (2010) recommend focusing on the essential technology tools first. They also note that teachers should be sure they know how the technology works so they can guide their students when necessary.

Stepping Off

Providing students with the information they will need to succeed not just in the course, but in the online environment will reduce the amount of anxiety for them should they run into problems. Information such as where to find technical support, library support, and other academic support should be included in pre-week announcements or activities if it is not already provided by the institution (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). A top priority is to communicate a sense of presence, so students feel there is a human being in that “classroom” which helps lay the foundation for the community that is forming. Posting a syllabus, clear expectations for activities such as weekly discussions helps dispel the mystery about the online environment. Boettcher and Conrad, (2010) further comment that while students are familiar with a classroom environment, it is not certain they know how to communicate in an online environment. In a physical classroom students know who they can approach to clarify assignment questions, or to discuss some of the content. This is not so easily established in an online environment. Setting the tone for a collaborative community can begin with a good icebreaker activity where the instructor participates as well as the students. The goal is not just for the students to learn more about the instructor, but they will also get to know each other and, it is hopeful, they will feel more comfortable posting in discussion and be able to identify each other better as well. In addition to developing a strong online community, being clear about your expectations for student interaction, and course procedures for discussion and assignments provides students the knowledge they need to succeed. If they have questions, they will know how and where to get answers.

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, the online instructor wears a number of hats. In the document “Assessing online facilitation instrument,” (2007) published by Humboldt University, the online instructor duties are divided into four roles: managerial, pedagogical, technical, and social. The document provides a checklist for instructors to review as they progress through the term. With so many different elements to keep track of, the checklist helps the teacher make sure the priorities are met. Finally, the instructor needs to review the course elements to be sure that all the pieces are there, if not, be sure they are designed and developed before the class begins (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010).

 What I Bring With Me

After reviewing all the resources for this week, I learned some essential tools for online instruction. While most are ones that are important to the successful online course: planning, communication, etc., the one that stands out for me is creating a strong online community of learners. As a student, I know how important the online community has been for me, but as a teacher, I would be even more dedicated to creating that atmosphere. I thought the suggestion in the video this week that the teacher use the student’s names in your comments as soon as possible was important to feeling recognized as an individual in a classroom (Laureate Education, 2010). I have been in physical college classes where that never happened. Being able to connect with the teacher and the other students in the class is the cornerstone of Constructivism, the theory of learning woven into much of online education (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). I believe beginning with the goal of providing students with a meaningful, community environment for learning will allow me to start on the right foot, and hopefully, the rest will fall into place. I would want my students to feel as excited about learning as I did when I walked into those early classrooms; ready to begin the journey.


Assessing online facilitation instrument. (2007). Humboldt University. Retrieved from

Bart, M. (2010). A checklist for facilitating online courses. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Boettcher, J., & Conrad, R.-M. (2010). The Online Teaching Survival Guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Laureate Education (Producer). (2010). Launching the online learning experience [Video file]. Retrieved from


5 thoughts on “Getting Your Ducks in a Row: Setting Up an Online Learning Experience

  1. Hi Mary, loved your blog entry. It is fantastic that you have fond memories of being at school, mine was an Elm Street Nightmare – I was bullied a lot. So to me one big advantage of online learning is the absence of bullying as such.


    This is the only type of bullying I can imagine in an online space. I remember being very upset the first week of my first course at Walden. Nobody would reply to me, so I wrote to the instructor and he said I need not worry and that everyone will change their behaviour once the first grading comes through. And it did 🙂 He was the best online instructor I have ever encountered. Ronald Paige was his name, I learnt so much from him. He had not only established his own online presence (he even shared his Facebook details with me) but also created that online community very quickly. True magician of online learning! To think about it, I was so inspired by him that I would spend up to 40 hours a week on that first course I did. I think it is explained beautifully by Boettcher & Conrad (2010, p. 33), ‘If we design great experiences, students will spend more time interacting with and developing more complex, better structured knowledge bases and efficient automatic behaviours.’

    Boettcher, J., & Conrad, R.-M. (2010). The Online Teaching Survival Guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  2. Hi Yulia,
    I am so sorry you were bullied! As I spent the last 20 years at a high school, I am all too familiar with the in-crowd/out-crowd experience. I always tried to make my lab a friendly place for any student to be in. As a result, I acquired, “lab rats” (that’s what the kids called themselves). Generally speaking, it was a place where the artistic kids who marched to different drummers and who liked computers, new kids at school who hadn’t found their place yet, and the international students who liked the camaraderie. Our school took a very strong stance against bullying, but it happened just the same. I hate that too. When I was in high school I was just beige, nobody really knew I was there. I tried to create a different world in my lab.

    I had Dr. Paige as well and he was also my favorite teacher. I also worked long hours, but I felt that he recognized my hard work. His course discussions were amazing! I told him I felt just as challenged in those discussions as I had in my lit classes discussing Crime and Punishment. He modeled presence and “getting students to engage at an intense level” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010, p. 25).

    Did you have him for Distance Learning?


    Boettcher, J., & Conrad, R.-M. (2010). Theoretical foundations: Ten core learning principles. In The Online Teaching Survival Guide (pp. 18–35). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    • Indeed I did 🙂 He is the nicest person you can meet too, but suppose it is part of him being a brilliant instructor.

      As for bullying – I have no regrets about it now, It made me a better person and taught me compassion, also made me a non-conformist. And judging by your ‘rat lab’ it taught you many good things too. I wish I had a teacher like you, but, hey, I actually do, we all teach each other.

  3. Mary,
    what a detailed blog you have. It is very inviting. You pointed out some key information for setting up an online course. I think that it is very important that the course is set up correctly in the beginning and that the course would engage students. If students do not find the course engaging or very difficult to navigate, there is a higher chance that the student will either drop the course within a few days or perform poorly. It is important for the instructional designer or instructor to designing courses to have a set of principles in place that they would define the purpose of the learning/course. The instructor should set out goals for the course: At the end of the course, I want my students to be able to…
    Set skills goals such as working in groups, developing quantitative skills, or improve writing skills, choose content to achieve overarching goals and develop a course plan.


  4. Hi Stephanie,
    Thanks for the kind words. A good design for a course is, indeed, the heart of the matter. As I have mentioned before, there are so many cliché’s about online learning being substandard and inferior. We know that is not always the case. Even when the plan is in place, how well it works also has to do with its implementation. For example, I just finished reading an article about the Florida Virtual School, (Catalanello & Sokol, 2012) and how well it measures up to classroom education. The result were inconclusive because the data wasn’t there. The debate still rages, but I think in the long run, online learning is here to stay.


    Catalanello, R., & Sokol, M. (2012, January 7). Success of Florida Virtual School is difficult to measure. Tampa Bay Times. Tampa Bay. Retrieved from

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