As online experiences evolve constantly and quickly; so do online educational experiences.  It is very important that instructors and instructional designers stay up-to-date with the trends and developments.

A big part of the technology used today is in the form of a Course Management System (CMS) or a Learning Management System (LMS) these are frameworks upon which courses are built.  One of the earliest CMS tools was BlackBoard, it helped instructors put their face-to-face content into online formats.  It was much maligned (like a lot of trail-blazing products) because it was not user-friendly or what we call “intuitive”; meaning that it was not designed to follow the instinctive way you would interact with the product.

The newer tools such as Moodle, ecollege, ecto and edu2.0 are very friendly to both the creator of the lesson and the learner.  They are attractive and make use of social media tools.

Of course a nice-shiny-new tool is the same as the cumbersome-old tool if instructors and instructional designers don’t know how to use the nice-shiny-new features, teach their students to use the features, and provide lots of opportunities for the entire community to practice using the features.

Here’s an example using my favorite CMS, edu2.0 (

When you set-up your class on edu2.0 one of the features available is “Groups”.  If you think that this feature is just for study groups, you might dismiss it; and you would miss using a nice-shiny-new feature.  Because in edu2.0 “Groups” is valuable for group projects!  It provides the group with an “Activity Board” where group members can see an automatically-updated list of what they and their group-mates have contributed to the project.  A group “Calendar” showing due dates and project milestones; and, “Collaboration” tools where they can do their project work.

If you are designing a learning experience through a CMS be sure to learn about and use features like “Groups” which, among other things, can help learners avoid the dreaded “I thought my part of the group project was due NEXT week”.

So now we have the framework of our course, maybe through using a CMS, and we have explored and practiced using nice-shiny-new features which are appropriate for our course.

Next, let’s talk about our first communications with the learners who are entering an unknown landscape.

Online course design experts Dr. Rena Palloff and Dr. Keith Pratt say that the first weeks of the course are critical to engaging the student so that they move through the initial discomfort that comes with “newness”.  One effective way to welcome students to the course, suggested by Drs. Palloff & Pratt, is through Ice Breakers. My favorite Ice Breaker for online courses is “View From My Window” you have the students share an image and tell the learning community what it is a view of, and why they chose it for the exercise.  Allow the students to submit actual photos of their surroundings, or an attractive image they find online.  This will let the student decide their comfort level in sharing with the learning community.

Using exercises like Ice Breakers in an online learning community can help establish “Social Presence” which, online learning experts Boettcher & Conrad define as “getting to know each other as three-dimensional people” and laying “the foundation of building trust and presence for teaching and learning experiences” (2010, p. 51).

Along with helping learners feel comfortable and safe in the online learning environment, it is the job of the instructional designer to provide a map of how learners will move through the course, what will be required of them and how their performance will be assessed.

This is very important!  Confusion causes discomfort and dis-satisfaction which is not an environment which fosters learning.  We can go back to the basic orientation rules of face-to-face courses for the building blocks of: syllabus, course calendar, grading rubrics, etc.

Now, resist the urge to take these paper items, make them electronic items and put a “Done” check mark next to: “Provide learners with a course road map”.  Remember those nice-shiny-new-tools?  Let’s use some of them to encourage the learners to view the orientation resources and refer to them throughout the course.

OK, let’s tackle the syllabus:

Can we break that lengthy document into smaller pieces?

Can we take some of the text and communicate it through video, or slide presentation, or animation?

Imagine part of your syllabus changing it’s appearance from this:

to this:

Don’t feel that you have to watch all 3 minutes 44 seconds of this video – but note that in the 2 years since it’s upload, it has been viewed 698,026 times.  Your (modest, in comparison) goal is just to get everyone in your class to watch it.

Now that you have their attention and are following media rules (keep it short, use various media formats, etc) be sure to give them all of the information they need to avoid surprises.  Such as “Late Assignments”, make your policy clear because the interactive nature of online learning fails if the learner does not keep-pace with the class.

Finally this advice from Boettcher & Conrad “be patient with yourself [as an instructor] as you develop online teachings skills.  Be patient with your students as they develop online learning skills that often [require them to] become more active learners and take more responsibilities for what they know and the skills and values they want to develop” (2010, p. 55).

List of references in this post:

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Common Craft YouTube video:

edu2.0 CMS tool:

Palloff & Pratt video: Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (20011). Launching the online learning experience [Motion picture]. Baltimore, MD.