Online learning has become a fact of life in the educational world, at least in part. Many people experienced it for the first time, in a hurry and on the fly, during the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a context, it was inevitable that it would leave some with a limited impression of its potential. But a properly designed elearning course is much more than a video conference.
A proper elearning course builds on the strengths of digital technology and mitigates its weaknesses. One of these weaknesses is the screen, which can hinder the learning experience and increase the feeling of loneliness. That’s why it’s essential that, from the start of an elearning course, learners don’t feel intimidated by the environment and have no doubt that it was designed for them. Here are four tips to make an online course welcoming!
1. Make essential information accessible
From the beginning of the course, it is essential to present the required assignments. Their detailed presentation must be integrated into the learning platform. This includes the outline of instructions, submission dates and evaluation grids (elements evaluated, weighting and scoring). All other essential information such as course schedules, useful resources, and teacher availability must be easily accessible.
This last point brings us to the concept of accessible learning, also known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It is a set of principles aimed at ensuring that learning is accessible to all people in all their diversity (disability and other situations) so that there is a level playing field for success. It should be noted that accessible learning can benefit all learners. For example, captioning videos can benefit people with hearing impairments, those in noisy environments, and those not fluent in the language in which the video was narrated or recorded (see Universal Design Principles and Their Application in Education).
2. Humanize the online relationship through play
Valuing the human dimension is essential in online learning. One way to do this is to use play and games (for adult learners included). A recent U.S. study on the relevance of play as a learning strategy in higher education found that play: 1) is underutilized and devalued in higher education; 2) cultivates relational safety and a warm classroom environment; 3) removes barriers to learning; 4) awakens positive affect and motivation in students; and finally, 5) triggers an open and engaged learning attitude to enhance learning.
The researcher and teacher who conducted the study, Lisa Forbes, also developed a theoretical model to better understand the hidden benefits of play for learning. Forbes begins all of her online courses with an icebreaker activity, which has the effect of stimulating interpersonal connections, among other things. While web-based tools offer many opportunities to combine play and learning, this spirit of fun must first and foremost be embodied in the teacher’s attitude and approach. The teacher must also respect their comfort level with play and incorporate it gradually into practice (see Is Having Fun in Higher Education the Way Forward?).
3. Facilitate peer support
Creating one or more discussion groups at the beginning of the course allows learners to start building relationships and to have spontaneous interactions, as would be the case in a classroom setting. It is also important to remember that assignments rarely require further clarification or prompt questions from learners. To recreate the advantage of face-to-face learning where each learner can benefit from the interventions of their peers, why not set up a discussion group for this purpose? Or a group for each subject in the program, for example.
4. Provide good support
Welcoming learners to an online course is a good start, but they still need to feel supported throughout the course, which means that the teacher must be present and keep them informed regularly. The teacher’s presence online has a definite influence on the learners’ motivation and commitment. In particular, learners need to be confident that the teacher will respond to their messages quickly and in a timely manner.
It is also a good idea for the teacher to take advantage of the Learning Management System (LMS) features to send learners regular follow-ups on their progress — results, but also congratulations — and remind them of upcoming assignments, exams, workshops, etc. or other relevant events.