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Getting Your Online Course Started Off Right

Classroom teachers demonstrate Instructional Intelligence (Bennett, Rolheiser, 2001; Eldridge & Bennett, 2004) in a number of ways, such as through the use of instructional skills like, ‘wait time’, clearly stating learning objectives, and being responsive to students’ questions. Similarly, instructional intelligence can be applied to online learning, however, the ways that it gets enacted may look a bit different in a digital context. 

One of the ways that online teachers demonstrate their instructional e-intelligence is by being mindful of (and intentionally designing for) some of the attributes of online learning contexts that can be very different from an in-class learning context. In particular, the ways that an online course is set up (structurally) can play an important role the learning experience for students.

When getting a new course started, there are a few things that instructors can do to help things run more smoothly:

1. Literally…Start Here. Having a note or folder called “Start Here” can be a good, simple strategy for helping to point your students to key information and resources that they will need for your course.

2. The Virtual Classroom is the ‘Third Teacher’. Similar to the notion that the physical space of a classroom can either enhance or detract from the learning, so too can the virtual space of an online classroom. Making use of organizational functionality built into the online forum that you are using can really help create a functional space for your learners. For example, in Google Classroom, making use of Categories to help organize your posts in your class “Stream”. In a forum like Pepper, you can make use of folders and subfolders. Pepper also has different folder types, such as “Announcements”, which automatically sets posts as “read-only” (i.e., for one-way communication rather than discussion) and sends the contents out to the students’ emails.

3. Remember to be Social. Just because your course is online doesn’t mean you can’t give your students a sense of who you are, and that you are in fact a real person and not just text on a screen!  Making use of instructor videos, or video-conference sessions can be a good way to enhance your teaching presence. And give your students an opportunity to be social too. I highly recommend Lesley Wilton’s blog post about how to structure online ice-breakers in an online course:

4. Check Please! Build some time into your course to allow students (and you) to re-focus and re-charge, so they can thrive and not just survive in your course. Sometimes we all need those moments to just stop and ask ourselves whether we’re paying attention to our needs and keeping on track with our goals. Intentionally structuring time for students to be offline can help. Other strategies can include: holding virtual office hours where students can get one-on-one support, devoting a space in your course forum to asking questions, and setting a regular drop-in time (e.g., a weekly, optional, 30-minute video-conference) where you can set a mini agenda to review important things coming up (like assignments) at critical times throughout the course, and allow students to ask specific questions (shout-out to my OISE colleague Brenda Stein-Dzaldov for the idea of “drop-ins with an agenda”).

5. Digital Natives…Really? It can be tempting to believe in the sweeping claim that most of our students are “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001) today. There are a number of reasons to be critical of this seemingly intuitive concept, but one has to do with how we come to understand another concept…school. It is far more likely that our students have spent more of their academic lives developing an understanding of what it means to be a learner in a classroom context than they have on developing their understanding of what it means to be a learner in an online context. In the physical classroom environment, most of our students already have a sense of how to do things like: enter the class, ask a question, take their turn talking, and where to hand in their work. But in an online learning environment, our students will likely need some explicit guidance on what those things look like.

6. Redundancy is Key. Just like commercial airplanes are built with extra engines in case one breaks mid-flight, your students are far less likely to ‘head into a tailspin’ in virtual space trying to find the information they need if you make it available in more than one place. Making sure that you have links to the same key content in multiple places can be helpful. For example, I list my readings in the course syllabus, but I also have them organized by week in a folder called…yup…Course Readings, and I put a link back to the note containing the weekly readings from the relevant weekly discussion folder. Many classroom teachers suggest that you have to say something at least three times (and maybe in three ways) to make sure all your students heard it. It might just be the case that posting in three places could have the same effect!


Bennett, B. & Rolheiser, C. (2001). Beyond Monet: At Artful Science of Instructional Integration. Toronto, Canada: Bookstation, Inc.

Eldridge, J. & Bennett, B. (2004). Instructional intelligence. In C. Rolheiser (Ed.), Research into Practice (pp. 9–10). Toronto, ON: OISE/UT.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On The Horizon, 9(5), Retrieved from:  

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