11 Tips for Setting the Tone in Your Online Course

The cliché that you only get one chance to make a first impression is especially true when you teach online. Each item you post—email, discussion message, announcement, etc.—must be created with much thought, and none is more important than the first post to your class.

It is a delicate creation, this first post, but once you know how, it can be pivotal in getting your class off in the right direction. A few tips:

1. Consider your audience. While you are writing the post, you need an idea of the audience make-up so that the first post’s tone, approach, and information meet, in general, their overall experience. Is it a freshman group that probably has many members who are new to an online course, or an upper-level body that no doubt has “veteran onliners”? Is this a required course or an elective? Is this their first course in the subject area or have they probably taken others? The more you know about your class, the more specific can you make this first post.

2. Your first few lines should be inviting, warm, caring. Here’s where you can erase the divide of only a computer between you and the class by letting the students immediately feel you are glad they are taking your course, and you are sincerely interested in their learning and improvement.

3. Be sure to include the “uglies.” These include both the “musts” and your expectations of the course, and are crucial to post at the beginning of the course so the students cannot say they weren’t informed of this or that. Additionally, the students need to know they must take the course seriously, there are major repercussions if they don’t, and just because the course does not meet in a brick-and-mortar classroom doesn’t mean they can simply come and go when they choose, as they choose. This is your “I’m the boss” section of the post.

4. Welcome and encourage your students’ suggestions and involvement. The more ownership students have in your course, the easier it is to teach because the students will want to be involved. One way to help this along is by letting students know—in your first post—that their suggestions (for course material, to improve the course, etc.) are always welcome and that as much as they look forward to learning from you, you also look forward to learning from them.

5. Address why the course is important beyond a grade or degree requirement. It makes no difference what your subject is: by explaining to students the subject’s importance to them beyond the “I must take this course” mindset, you are, yet again, offering a reason for their ownership of the course and thus bringing about more involvement on the students’ part.

6. Offer tips on how to do well in the course. These tips can come from your past experience in teaching the course; items you look for in assignment submissions; insight on what their overall contributions in discussions, teamwork, chat, and other such areas should be; what they shouldn’t do.

7. Choose your words carefully. Don’t be haphazard in your first post’s word choice, for your words can humanize or demonize you, make you appear inviting or intimidating, lessen or heighten student apprehension toward an online course, engage or push students away.

8. Let students know you are available and that you want them to succeed in the course. While this should be mentioned at the beginning of your post, it should also be restated at least two more times, including at the end. Again, this shows your sincere involvement in the course and concern for your students.

9. Make use of color, bolding, italics, etc. When available, the use of color, bolding, italics, etc. can highlight what you deem especially important, give a sense of personality and warmth to your words, and break up the print so it’s easier to digest. Also, don’t hesitate to use subheads, a word or two in caps to introduce a section, and sentence fragments to emphasize.

10. Always end on a positive, upbeat note. This is the very last part of your first post that students will read, so restate the positives in your opening few lines; use an exclamation point here and there to show excitement; and let them know you are really looking forward to the course, their involvement, and—very important—the students’ overall improvement.

11. Before you post, read it one more time. Remember, while computers and automobiles can be recalled to correct mistakes, a first post can’t—so be sure it says what you want it to say and create it to last the lifetime of a course.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 12 years and has a national reputation in the subject, both writing and conducting workshops on it.

Excerpted from Teaching Online With Errol: Your First Posting to Students: So Important! Online Classroom, March 2007.