Welcoming Students in an Online Course

The following post was created as a way to introduce online instructors to some general best practices when beginning a course.  Grounded in educational research literature, the practices and descriptions below offer an overview that will help instructors reinvigorate their beginning of semester activities.

Just as in the face-to-face classroom, you will want to start off your online course with activities, experiences, and conversations that create an inviting and welcoming environment for your students.  While it is known that students regularly report feeling disconnected in their online courses (Rowntree, 2000), thoughtful and purposeful planning of the first week of class can alleviate this concern. Other findings related to creating a welcoming online environment include:

  • Humanizing increases student comfort level and reduces psychological distance between instructor and student (DuCharme-Hansen, Dupin-Bryant, 2005)
  • Greater investment by students has been shown as a result of incorporating humanizing elements into online courses (DuCharme-Hansen, Dupin-Bryant, 2005)
  • “Instructor immediacy behaviors have been found to create a positive affect toward the instructor and the subject matter and to be positive predictors of student learning and satisfaction in distance education courses.” (Jones, Kolloff & Kolloff, 2008)

While there is a clear desire to have a welcoming online environment, humanizing an online course can be challenging (Jones, Kolloff & Kolloff, 2008). The following list includes a variety of activities and experiences that can be effective at welcoming students to their online courses as well as best practices and samples for you to consult.

1) Create an introductory video or audio recording

  • Assists in establishing teacher presence (as defined by Anderson, Rourke, Farrison, Archer, 2000 & Anderson 2004)
  • Research has shown enormous positive support from students with regard to introductory videos (Jones, Kolloff & Kolloff, 2006)
  • Can be used to provide: an overview of the course, how content or units are structured, a preview of coming assignments and expectations, a model of technology use, or facilitate additional discourse (Jones, Kolloff & Kolloff, 2006)
  • Include a script. While also required by law to aid students with disabilities, research has shown that a majority of students use a script in addition to the video while viewing (Jones, Kolloff & Kolloff, 2006). Scripts (written out beforehand) can also save time during recording.
  • Use a free software such as Audacity at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ to record an audio introduction

2) Write a welcome letter or email

  • Compose a letter introducing yourself, the course, and a preview of what to expect
  • Send the letter via post or e-mail 2-3 weeks before the first day of class
  • Address any possible problems, challenges, or questions students may have
  • Provide contact information for yourself
  • Contact LearnTech for sample Welcome Letters

3) Schedule a synchronous online meeting

  • In beginning communications with your students, announce any pre-arranged meeting times, locations, and your expectations for participation and attendance
  • Consider using a tool such as Elluminate Live!, a web conferencing software,  to house your meeting or virtual office hours
  • Prior to the meeting, develop an agenda and materials to support your goals and intentions

4) Use a tool like Voicethread or Audacity to create instructor and student introduction

  • Great alternative to a video introduction
  • Allows users to link pictures, video, and audio in unique ways
  • Allows users to not only view but also leave “comments” on their classmates’ finished products
  • Contact LearnTech for help with using Voicethread

5) Pair students and have them interview and produce introductions for their partner or consider another alternative to the traditional discussion board introductory post

  • An adaptation of the classroom activity, pair students and have them interview each other using an online chat tool or via e-mail.  Afterwards, have them write and post an introduction for their partner on a discussion board.
  • Alternatively, the instructor could use break-out rooms within a tool such as Elluminate Live! and provide opportunities for this activity during a synchronous session and then students introduce the peer they interviewed.
  • Rather than the traditional introductory discussion prompts, consider these alternatives:
    • Have students complete a sentence such as, The best meal I’ve ever had in my life was…
    • Have students introduce themselves by telling a short story
    • Have students introduce themselves from the perspective of another (e.g., their pet or best friend)
    • Have students create lists of their favorites (e.g., hobby, color, music, places to travel)

6) Have students share their location using a tool like Google Maps

  • One of the hallmarks of distance education and online learning is that students are not in the same physical space while simultaneously involved in a course, but this can also be a challenge.
  • Have students map their location (at the city level) on a Google Map so that their peers can get a sense of their physical space.
  • This can reduce psychological distance (Jones, P., Kolloff, M., & Kolloff, F, 2006).

7) Set up a profile and incorporate pictures into introductions

  • When students are creating their online profiles, encourage them to use either a recent photograph or alternate image that expresses something that is unique to the student.
  • Include a picture of yourself in a variety of contexts, including outside of the classroom in your welcome documents or “About Me” page.
  • Your students can use image editing software or online tools like the one at http://www.shrinkpictures.com/ to make their images an appropriate size.

8) Assign students to groups to create a buddy system

  • Assign students or have them self-select groups in the first week of class
  • Encourage students to share resources and work together on an assignment early in the semester.
  • Assign students to groups for project work for a specific period of time.
  • Provide opportunities for peer review and self-evaluation especially if students are required to do assignments in which they will be graded or receive participation points.  A tool like Google Forms can be used to create a Peer and Self-Evaluation Form.

9) Create an online class lounge (i.e. a discussion thread, chat room) where students can meet informally to ask questions and share their experiences as well as incorporate images, web sites or individual blogs

  • Create an online space (chat room, Elluminate Live! session, discussion board) for students to gather and “meet” About non-course related topics.
  • Encourage student to post course-related questions to a general discussion board or chat where the instructor and other students can respond.


Anderson, T. (2004). T. Anderson and F. Elloumi (Eds.). Teaching in online learning Context. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. http://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book/. Retrieved December 31, 2010.

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. and Archer, W. (2000). Teaching presence. Research into online communities of inquiry. http://communitiesofinquiry.com/sub/teaching.html. Retrieved December 31, 2010.

DuCharme-Hanson, R. & Dupin-Bryant, P. (2005). Course Planning for Online Adult Learners. TechTrends March/April 49(2), p. 31-39.

Introductory Activities. (2007). http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~lsn/OnlineFacilitator/introductory/introact.html. Retrieved January 7, 2011.

Jones, P., Kolloff, M., & Kolloff, F. (2008). Students’ Perspectives on Humanizing and Establishing Teacher Presence in an Online Course. In K. McFerrin et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society fro Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2008 (pp. 460-465). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Jones, P., Kolloff, M., & Kolloff, F. (2006). Humanizing and Establishing Presence in an Online Course: The Role of Introductory Videos in Distance Learning. In proceedings of E-Learn 2006 (pp. 1247-1254). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Povlacs, J. T. 101 Things You Can Do the First Three Weeks of Class. http://honolulu.hawaii.edu/intranet/committees/FacDevCom/guidebk/teachtip/101thing.htm. Retrieved January 7, 2011.

Ragan, L. C. (2010). 10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching: Best Practices in Distance Education. Retrieved, January 1, 2010, from the Faculty Focus site: http://www.facultyfocus.com/free-reports/principles-of-effective-online-teaching-best-practices-in-distance-education/

Rowntree, D. (2000). Back to the future with distance learning: From independent learning from interdependence. http://www-iet.open.ac.uk/pp/D.G.F.Rowntree/future_dl.htm.

Using Online Icebreakers to Promote Student/Teacher Interaction. Retrieved January 7, 2011, from http://www.southalabama.edu/oll/jobaidsfall03/Icebreakers%20Online/icebreakerjobaid.htm.

Varvel, V. E., Jr. (2002). Ice-breakers. Pointer and Clickers: ION’s Technology Tip of the Month, 4(1). Retrieved January 7, 2011, from http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/pointersclickers/2002_01/index.asp.

One response on “Welcoming Students in an Online Course

  1. Donna Petherbridge says:

    Really nice posting, Matthew. Great references! Donna 🙂