Seven Traits of a Highly Effective Online Course Orientation Module

According to a body of student development research, a prime benefit of on-ground Orientation is that it positively influences students’ sense of belonging. In the case of online learners, transferring that same experience to online programs stands to offset the isolation often experienced by distance learners. Isolation is known to be a contributing factor in distance learner attrition. Wolzniak et al. (2012) found that students in an online orientation program exhibited a strong “need for timely, interaction-based orientation activities and ongoing access to orientation style resources throughout the semester.” Their research also suggests that more program-specific orientations are warranted.

Whether students participate in a program orientation or not, it is an effective practice for instructors to use the orientation framework to introduce students to their courses. Course-specific Orientation Modules can help prepare students for success in the course by providing them with clear guidelines for getting started in the course and with expectations for successfully completing the course. Students can also benefit by having ongoing access to pre-course support throughout the semester. Faculty can further benefit by creating a customized course entry point that establishes presence and order before the course begins.

But where do you start? Creating an Orientation Module can be done well in advance so that it is available during the first week of class. It may be helpful for to think of the elements for an effective course orientation as comprised of following six basic parts.
1. Course Welcome-The Course Welcome is critical as it establishes instructor presence and sets the tone for the course. Options for a Course Welcome can include a letter or a welcome video. If you are doing a welcome video, be sure to follow best practices and close-caption (or attach a script) the video so that is accessible to students needing special accommodations. Watch this exciting Course Welcome video sample from Instructor Matt at University of Washington. In a more toned-down version, watch how Amy handles talking about course expectations in the welcome video.

2. Course Introduction-Use this portion of the module to orient students to the course by providing relevant information concerning course structure, policies, and procedures. For example, briefly explain what students can expect on a weekly basis in terms of activities and assignments. As well, let students know the objectives for the course. Answer questions such as “How are the modules organized?” or “What’s your policy on late assignments?” In addition let them know how much time will be involved. For example, if it is a fully online 3-hour credit course, inform students of the time they are expected to commit 10-15 hours weekly to working in the class. The important thing here is not to overload your students with information, so use concise language and bullets to get your point across.

3.Technology Requirements & Support-Students can find browser requirements on the Canvas site, as well as in the template. Nonetheless, it is helpful to repeat the required browser information. Instructors should also use this area to let students know about course-specific software packages and technology requirements. For instance, if you require students to participate in live Conferences, let them know they will need access to a mic or headset to participate. Another example is if you will be using the Respondus Lockdown software to deliver exams, this will be a great place to provide the download link and student guide. Finally, make sure students know to contact OIT for technical assistance.

4. Course Communications-Whether it’s a student’s first online course, or their 100th, the reality is that no two instructors are alike. So it is always considered a best practice to provide students with the appropriate communication protocol for your particular course. This includes informing students how you expect to receive course email as well as letting them know your response times (for emails, papers, discussions, etc…). You can also include a section on Netiquette here and have students take a Netiquette Quiz like this one at Carnegie Cyber Academy which is great for Digital Natives.

5. Academic Honor Pledge-Every school has a code of honor and an expectation for students to approach their coursework with integrity. Instructors can use this section to have students re-visit the University’s statement on academic honor as well as the definitions and consequences for plagiarism and academic dishonesty. Instructors can have students acknowledge reading the integrity statement by submitting their signature as an assignment. In addition, it also good to inform students what constitutes plagiarism and then to assess their understanding. At a former institution, we required students to complete a plagiarism tutorial before they began their courses. The University of Southern Mississippi’s University Libraries has created a similar Plagiarism Tutorial which is optional for its students.

6. Icebreaker Activity-The icebreaker activity in the course is designed to facilitate interactivity and build community among the class members. This may be an Introduce Yourself to the Class discussion board or even a virtual meeting for “Cyber Coffee and Chat” using the Conferences tool. Instructors benefit by having students use the tools, as well as by learning more about their students. Students benefit from engaging with peers and by experiencing a sense of community. In any case, instructors should not only guide discussion posts and dialogue exchange, but participate. This can be motivational for students as well as establish strong faculty presence. For icebreaker ideas, visit the Teaching with Technology Ice Breaker Wiki.

7. Assessment-The assessment portion of the Orientation module can provide students and instructors valuable insight as to what was gained from participation in the module. Examples of assessments include Student Readiness Surveys, Syllabus Quizzes, and mini Quizzes inserted throughout the module. TOOLS (Test of Online Learning Success) as seen at University of Houston is a free, open source self-assessment test created by Dr. Marcel S. Kerr and Dr. Marcus C. Kerr of Texas Wesleyan University, and Dr. Kimberly Rynearson of Tarleton State University. (For more information on using TOOLS visit Texas Wesleyan). Another way to assess students and for them to demonstrate competency in skills required for the class is to provide practice assignments so they can gain experience in attaching documents, taking an exam, or posting to a discussion.


  • Send a Welcome email to the class and let them know Orientation is available and when to start
  • Require the Orientation Module before students begin accessing content using the Module Settings in Canvas.
  • “Reward” students for their time with an Orientation Certificate of Completion
  • Use interactive content (multimedia and graphics) throughout the module to engage students and encourage active learning

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