Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ten Reasons for Orientation Week

I've just put the finishing touches on my Orientation Week, so I think it is all ready to go, and I'll be sending a note around to the students tomorrow, Monday, to let them know they can get a head start if they want. I've always opened up my classes a week early to encourage people to get ahead in this class before they have anything going on in their other classes, and there are always quite a few students who take advantage of this option. It's great for me, too, because it helps me find any snags to fix and gaps to fill before the rest of the students show up when classes start officially on Monday, January 12. There were actually a couple of students who started today (Sunday), which was really excellent: it gave me a chance to test out some things about the blog feeds with real student blogs... and so far, so good! Whoo-hoo!

In this post, I want to explain some of the advantages to having an Orientation Week... and there are SO MANY advantages that I'll just limit myself to ten. So, this will be a list: Ten Reasons for Orientation Week! I'm pretty sure that every online class can benefit from an Orientation Week (see reason #1 below), but my guess is that all classes could really benefit from an Orientation Week approach. Do you use an Orientation Week or something like it in your class, online or blended or f2f...? Let me know in the comments here or over at Twitter! Here are my Orientation Week activities.

This is such a fundamental part of my classes that it is kind of hard to tease out the reasons WHY I do this; it's just something that seems natural to me at this point — I can't imagine doing otherwise! (In fact, I've been doing it since the very first semester I taught online back in 2002.) But anyway, here's a best guess at my Ten Reasons for Orientation Week:

1. I make class procedures explicit. In an online class, this is essential. If you are teaching a classroom-based class, the fundamental class procedure — go to class at the scheduled time — is something you can count on. For an online class, though, there is really no class procedure that you can take for granted. For many of my students, this is the first-ever online class they have taken. In addition, online classes are so different from one another (much more so than classroom-based classes) that you cannot count on the procedures in one online class being applicable to another class. So, a key feature of Orientation Week is to make sure students are aware of class procedures: class schedule and deadlines, class "location" (i.e. what they will find at the LMS, what they will find at the class website, etc.), class announcements, etc. etc. etc.

2. I help the students start building their online presence. Another key element of the Orientation Week is building presence so that the students can get to know me and I can get to know them and they can get to know each other. Again, presence in a classroom is easy: you show up, you are "present," and that's your presence — although students don't really get to say/do much just by being "present" in a classroom; there's simply not enough time. Online, though, there is more time for everyone to build their own presence and interact with one another that way, getting to know each other already in the first week. In my classes, the students' blogs are the essential space for creating presence, so for their first assignments, students set up their blogs and start posting. By putting the blog assignments first and foremost, I hope to convey to the students how important that will be! During the Orientation Week, they complete several blog posts: Favorite Places, a Storytelling post, an Introduction, a Storybook Favorites post, and a Course Overview post. That's a lot of posts... which results in a lot of online presence. By the end of the first week, everybody has shared a lot about themselves, their interests, and their plans/hopes for the class. It's so exciting for me to watch that happen, and those blog posts also provide a really strong foundation for connection and sharing during the rest of the semester.

3. I want everybody to have fun! It is really important to me that the students should have fun in this first week of class. Of course, everybody has a different idea of what fun is... I try to make sure that all these assignments are ones that seem like fun to me, and then each semester I watch to see how things go. If I've guessed wrong and some assignment is not fun and engaging, then I tinker with it, or I remove it and replace it with something else. I am really lucky that for many of the students this is the first time they have used a blog or played with Pinterest, etc., so the sheer novelty of things can add to that sense of fun. The one assignment that is least likely to be fun is the Proofreading Practice that comes at the end of the week, but even that assignment is one I have tinkered with over the years so that it has an element of fun: originally I did a kind of quiz (ugh, totally not fun), then I switched to having the students work on a folktale instead (I picked a really fun one: the Mouse-Bride story from the Panchatantra), and then I went to the current assignment: instead of one long folktale, there are now six short tales, and each student chooses two of them. The stories themselves are fun ones, and the process of choosing adds an element of fun, too. Proofreading is still proofreading, yes... but even this is an assignment is one I want to make fun!

4. I need everybody to work hard! I also make sure that the workload for the Orientation Week is comparable to the workload for the rest of the semester: about six to eight hours of work. It's important for students to know that this is a writing-intensive (but no midterm, no final, lots of options to work ahead, finish early, etc.). Students have complete add-drop freedom during the first week of classes, so that means any student who is unhappy about the workload can drop this class and find a more compatible class. For students who "have" to take the class (i.e. they need a Gen. Ed. class, they can't find another one that fits their schedule), at least they will have a clear picture of what awaits them, even if they are not able to switch to another class.

5. I try to provoke curiosity about the class. I am convinced that curiosity is the single most important factor in learning, so I try to excite the students' curiosity during this first week. One good way to do that is by having them look at past student projects (Storybook Favorites); seeing the great work that students had completed by the end of the class in past semesters is a great way to get people to start thinking about what they want to achieve. I also have a "Course Overview" assignment (MythFolklore - Indian Epics) which is meant to provoke the students' curiosity about what the coming weeks will bring and also to get them to start thinking about the choices they will be making; both of my classes involve lots of student choice in terms of the reading, the class project, etc.

6. I explain the "why" of the class. The first week is a great opportunity for me to not only set out class procedures, but also to explain just why these procedures are important for the overall learning experience: why it's important to have a blog, for example, and why the focus of the class is on creative storytelling, etc. I want students to realize that this class is not just an arbitrary set of hoops for them to jump through, but instead a chance for them to grow and learn in all kinds of ways.

7. I give the students things to DO, not just reading/listening. One of the biggest problems in school as I see it is the way that it is often very passive: in some classes, the main thing the students do is either read (often without taking notes) or sit and listen (maybe taking notes, maybe not). In my classes, I really want the students to DO things, both so that they will be actively engaged and also so that they will have something to show for it when they are done. By the end of the week, they have a lively blog (with comments too), along with a Pinterest Board of their own that is starting to fill with pins. By making learning visible in this way, I hope to get the students to focus on the evidence of their own learning, rather than focusing on the grade.

8. I do explain in detail how the grading works. I really dislike grading, but I have to give grades. So, I give the students information about how the grading works, and I also explain why I grade the way that I do.  As the week progresses, they see their points accumulate in the Gradebook, and thus they see that the grade is totally up to them: I actually do not do any "grading" per se in this class at all. By the time the week is over, I hope to have completely removed any anxiety that the students feel about grading. At first, they are anxious because my grading system is different from most other classes, but by the end of the week I hope they can see it for what it is: a totally no-stress system designed to encourage them to work hard, get ahead, and do well.

9. I provide tool tutorials. I ask my students to use several different online tools, and these are tools that they will be using every week for class, so it's important that they know how to use them well: Blogger, GoogleDocs, Google Image Search, and Pinterest. I make sure to provide a good introduction to each tool with opportunities to practice those tools during the Orientation Week. Then, as the semester progresses, I introduce one more important tool (Google Sites; it's too confusing to introduce that the same week as Blogger), while also providing tips on making good use of the other class tools. Some of the students get really excited about the extra credit Tech Tips and do a bunch of them in the first week, which I think is just great. The Tech Tips are a way for me to give the students who are interested in the digital world some fun things to explore, without putting any pressure on the students who are tech averse.

10. I emphasize writing. Overall, I'm in despair about college writing; writing takes TIME, which is something that is in short supply for both students and instructors. In most college classes, written papers (if there are any written papers) are often just exam-proxies where students demonstrate their mastery of content and/or of research skills; they do not get detailed feedback on the writing itself, and they rarely (or never) revise their writing in order to practice their writing skills and work on their writing deficits. Although I do not ask students to do any revising in the Orientation Week, I ask them to write A LOT (including some creative writing), and I also ask them to proofread carefully (and I am not shy to include in my comments on their blogs a suggestion that they spend more time on the proofreading). Then, I can build on that Orientation Week foundation in future weeks as I ask the students to learn how to revise their work, how to provided detailed feedback on other's writing, etc.

So, it's a lot of work for me to make sure this all goes well, but I have such a good time during the first week of the semester as I meet all the students and start to learn about them. Just reading the first "favorite places" posts from the students who started today was so exciting for me. In addition to making sure the students have fun during the Orientation Week, I make sure that I have fun too... so: let the fun begin!!! Happy New year and Happy New Semester, everybody!

So, I'm tagging this for #ccourses (because it's #notover...), and also for #OUCTE in the hopes that something will come of Adam's blog hub, and also with #OpenTeachingOU in the hopes that more people will share about their teaching in the open in 2015. I'll have more to say about that in my next post here. :-)

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