Like any good play, an online course has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Okay, admittedly some good plays – like Waiting for Godot – have none of the above, but bear with me on this. Some courses are short one-act plays,  and some are full-length Shakespearean dramas – especially when real-life tragedy does unfortunately intervene, and participants are forced to withdraw because of bereavement or illness.

Photo by Flnz

Photo by Flnz

Whatever sort of play (or novel, or piece of music, or opera… comments invited) you compare an online course to, a good online course should have a beginning, middle and end. Waiting for Godot may be great on stage, but it’s not the effect you’re looking for in your online course.

What you are looking for is a clearly structured sequence of learning activities and tasks that lead somewhere. You want a beginning, middle and end that relate to learning content:

  • a beginning that introduces and orientates the learners to the content,
  • a middle consisting of well, the actual content, and hopefully,
  • an end that results in the application of the content to meaningful practice, be it learning a language or brain surgery.

But at the same time, your online course needs a beginning, middle and end that relate to the group:

  • a beginning that introduces and orientates the learners to each other and the tutor (and the VLE if new to them),
  • a middle consisting of learners working collaboratively and individually on tasks relating to the course content, and
  • an end in which learners celebrate achievements, share final products or projects, and say goodbye to the group.

So far, so clear, and as many teachers would point out, not so different to what we do in face-to-face classes. However, as Gilly Salmon was one of the first to point out, a purely online course needs an overt socialising phase if the group is to gel, and participants are to work effectively together online during the rest of the course. The socialising, or ‘climate setting’ phase, is of paramount importance online, and it’s not always obvious how to do this online. (Of course online, just as in face-to-face classes, there will always be participants who hate working with peers, and prefer to work alone. To what extent these participants should be forced into pair work is debatable.)

Let me describe just two beginning activities for an online course. The challenge with purely online courses is to make these kinds of activities fun and challenging, and hopefully the two activities below are just that (please feel free to disagree in the comments, and/or to provide other beginning activities!):

Activity 1: Profiles 3-2-1

As one of your beginning activities on an online course, it is always a good idea to get participants to fill in their profile if you are using a VLE. You can spice up the potentially rather humdrum info participants will inevitably post by also asking them to include three, two and one things about x, y and z, e.g.:

  • 3 of your favourite songs
  • 2 unusual things you have eaten
  • 1 thing you would change about yourself if you could

For online language students, the 3 – 2 – 1 items above can be made more or less linguistically challenging, depending on the level. Topics can also be chosen depending on who your online students are – for online teacher training courses, for example, participants could add 1 thing they particularly love about teaching…. best  to ensure a mix of unusual topics in your 3-2-1 activity though.

Task stages:

1 Ask your online students to complete their individual profiles in the VLE, including general information about themselves, and the 3-2-1 points you think will work well for the group.

2 Make sure that your own profile is already completed, and follows the same guidelines. This will be a helpful model for your students in terms of length, style and content.

3 Ask participants to read the profiles of their course colleagues, and to send an e-mail to one or two of them, asking for further information about any point(s) in the profile that interest them. You could set this up as a chain, so that each participant is sure to receive one e-mail from a course colleague, about their profile.

4 A week or so later, prepare a quiz based on the unusual information in the profiles, and get participants to complete it to see how much they remember about their course colleagues — they can of course also look at the profiles again to jog their memories! Make absolutely sure that there is one quiz question per participant profile, including yourself, and that no one is left out!

Activity 2: Glog yourself!

This is an activity that uses a great free online tool called Glogster. Glogster allows you to produce a single webpage in the form of a poster, to which you can add text, images, audio and video. It’s a sort of all singing and dancing online poster.

Here is a Glog that I use to introduce myself on online courses:


and here is another Glog made by one of our recent online course participants (reproduced with permission).

Glogs look great, and they combine the best of Web 2.0 tools: ease-of-use and a range of media. Your Glog is stored on a web page, so that you can reuse it (simply by pointing people to the url), and you can also update and edit it at any time by removing or changing elements.

Task stages:

1 Create your own Glog. Be warned — it can be quite addictive, and you can find yourself spending between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on how snazzy you want to get!

2 Make your Glog available to your participants, for example via a dedicated forum in your VLE.

3 Ask your participants to go along to Glogster and create their own Glogs.

4 Ask participants to share their Glog url in a forum in your VLE (or embed it into any other social media they may already have, or that you are using in your course, such as a class blog, wiki or Ning)

5 Encourage participants to visit each other’s Glogs, and to then post comments or queries about the individual Glogs, on the Glog itself or in the same VLE forum.

6 Provide a visual summary of the all Glogs produced, for example by taking a series of screenshots, and creating a visually attractive PDF (for more tips on how to create visually attractive summaries of online tasks, see my previous posting about this)

If you try out any of these beginning online activities, do let me know how it goes. Please also feel free to share any beginning activities that you use on your online courses, and that you feel work particularly well. And finally, please also feel free to explore issues such as what to do with participants who simply do not want to be involved in socialising type activities online… Over to you!

[My next two blog postings will deal with middle activities, and end activities respectively – stay tuned]

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
January 2010