4 Tips to Make an Online Course More Welcoming [video]

min read

Taking a course online can be an impersonal experience. Here are a few ways to get students more personally connected to the class.

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Andrew Saltarelli
Senior Director, Evaluation & Research
Stanford University

What we're looking at is psychological barriers that students may face, certain groups of students may face when they come into the learning environment. Now we have 25 years of really good research on how these psychological threats or barriers function in face to face environments. Most famously, social identity threat which most of the research which is essentially a fear of being able to perform as well as others based just on your group identity. So the most research has been done, females in STEM courses and African American students feeling some sense of threat based on just their people group.

1. Welcoming Cues

Be mindful of the different cues that might communicate whether someone belonged an environment. So everything from the image used on the course registration page, or some of the first images that they see. Did they see people like them in that image? Or is it reinforced maybe the sense that oh, I don't belong here because I'm not a you know, for instance you know, in a CS course, I'm not a techy coder like those people. So think about the image, think about the text that you know, that first experience, is this course for me? Is there a statement for instance about diversity and inclusions? So, that would be the first thing. And there's lots of other cues in the environment that you could look at to say you know, if I came into this environment as a female in a STEM course, would I feel like I belong?

2. Affirming Core Values

So, the second thing that we talk about is just different brief interventions, we call them interventions, they're just activities, right? That could be done to help forestall those feelings of non-belonging or forestall those feelings of psychological threat. So we call a value relevance affirmation activity. Really simple to do, you can implement it with you know, we use a Qualtrics survey where each individual student just goes through it, less than five minutes. They pick a number of values that are most important to them, then they write about how taking this course will reinforce those values, and that has been shown to really persist over an entire course to help someone feel like they can engage.

3. Providing Representation

So the third thing is just thinking about once someone gets into a course, all of the other cues that might be involved. So representation in the videos, are they seeing just for instance a White male the entire time? We know putting in a female co-instructor can be again, a helpful way to help people feel like they can belong. Using past peers in a course to appear in certain videos or to sort of articulate why it was important to them, or even to normalize the experience especially if you have a minority student that can talk about this to say, "At the beginning I felt like I didn't belong, "but after engaging and things, I was successful." And we know that those sort of peer stories can be really powerful.

4. Boosting a Connection

How can we boost a level of connection to the course right away? A connection to the course, and connection to other students. So we know there's social psychological research again called mere belonging that really really basic senses of connection to others can boost motivation. So an example is just knowing that you have a birthday with someone else in the course, the same birthday, lo and behold boosts your motivation, your persistence, and actually your performance. Now we wouldn't do that, maybe that's one way, but other ways, those intro-activities of finding someone else in the course that maybe has common interests or common goals in responding to them. Again, very brief activities, but those patterns of thought and perception create a virtual cycle over the course.