Designing a Start Here Section for Your Online Course

A photo of a start line on a running track.

In a face-to-face course, instructors often spend part of the first-class meeting going over the syllabus and class policies with students. Creating a designated Start Here area in your online course is like this. This is a place where you can include the most important information that students need to know to get off to a good start in your course. A Start Here area also allows you to emphasize things that are important for this course or expectations that you have for how students will interact with the content, each other, and you.

How much information you include in the Start Here section is up to you as an instructor. At the minimum, though, we recommend including:

  • A short welcome statement along with instructor contact information;
  • Information on where to obtain technical support and the required technologies and technical skills needed to be successful in the course;
  • An explanation of netiquette and online interaction expectations;
  • Instructions to read the syllabus and calendar;
  • Instructions for students to introduce themselves; and
  • What students should do next to get started in the course.

Let’s look a little more closely at each of these areas.

Welcome and Contact Information

A welcome statement can set the tone for a course, and there are a variety of approaches that you can take to constructing this statement. For example, you could create a welcome that also includes your self-introduction, or you could just post a short welcome here and then place your self-introduction in the discussion forum. Whatever your personal style, the main goal is to communicate:

  • a tone that will help set the climate for the class,
  • information on how you prefer to be contacted, and
  • when students can expect to hear back from you.

Keep in mind that communicating online is quite different from face-to-face. The facial expressions and tone of voice that we often depend upon in our face-to-face interactions is completely absent here. A friendly tone in your welcome can help relieve student anxieties and start the course off well.

For your contact information, consider how you prefer students get in touch with you. Do you want them to email you directly or message you via another means such as the learning management system? Do you want them to call you on your office phone, or will you give your cell phone number out? Many instructors create a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) discussion forum where certain questions are pre-answered or where students can ask general questions. If you do this in your course, then the welcome statement at the beginning of the course is a great place to tell students about the forum and guide them in how to use it.

Additionally, let students know what your typical turnaround time is for answering emails or phone calls. Here, the turnaround time you choose is not as important as letting them know what to expect. For example, many instructors need time over the weekend to recharge or complete grading, so they let their students know that they will not be answering emails or phone calls during the weekends. Use this opportunity in the course to help set clear expectations.

Technical Support and Technology Information

Part of working in the online environment involves dealing with the inconveniences and frustration that can arise when technology breaks down or does not perform as expected. Let students know where they can go for help. Here at UNT we have a Student Help Desk that students can contact for technological support.

Students will also need to know what type of hardware and/or software they will need for the course. Some departments have developed minimum technology requirements for their online courses, so you will want to check with your department on this. If your department does not have minimum requirements, then you may want to check with your instructional consultant for help with some common considerations.

You will also want to add information on the types of technical skills that students will need for your course. Do not assume students know how to use computers for research and learning. For example, students may need to know how to download Word documents, edit them, and then re-upload them to the course. Or, you may use a special software for your course that students need to be familiar with or use at a certain level. Think carefully about what you will have students do in the course and provide those expectations in this section. This allows students to identify if there is a technical area in which they need assistance before it becomes a problem later in the course.

Netiquette

As mentioned earlier, communicating in the online environment is much different than face-to-face. The beginning of the course is a good place to lay some ground rules for how students interact with each other, as well as how they interact with you. There are many general resources on netiquette available online, such as “The Core Rules of Netiquette” from Albion. However, you can always add additional criteria or craft your own guidelines for your class. The main goal is to provide students with upfront information on what behaviors are expected or prohibited and what will happen if the guidelines aren’t followed. 

Where to Go Next and What to Do

At this point, many instructors will guide students to review the syllabus and calendar for the course. You can also use this opportunity to guide students to an introduction forum in the discussion area and let them know what to do to get started in the course. To see tips on orienting students to an online course, click here

This is also a good time to provide any specialized information on what students need to do to get started. For example, if you have them complete a zip code survey, that can be placed here in the Start Here area, or if there are any specialized things for your department that they need to complete, those can be identified here, as well.

References

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.