One of the barriers to developing a program to orient online learners is not having the resources to do so. Partnership across multiple departments that are invested in the retention of students is vital to any onboarding program's success. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)
One of the barriers to developing a program to orient online learners is not having the resources to do so. Partnership across multiple departments that are invested in the retention of students is vital to any onboarding program's success. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)

Re-Envisioning Student Preparation for Online Learning

UA Online's Launch Pad is designed to be a one-stop shop for success, whether it be prior to the start of classes or deep into a student’s academic career.
June 13, 2016
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Read the full article, "Ready to Launch: Re-Envisioning the Preparation of Students for Online Learning," via the EvoLLLution site.

One of the most important questions a university must ask in welcoming new students is how they will orient or onboard incoming cohorts to ensure that the tools, resources and information required for success are adequately provided.

Most traditional face-to-face campuses provide varying iterations of a student welcome, ranging from a few hours to a multiday event. The University of Arizona is no exception, conducting dozens of orientations over the summer to help residential freshmen acclimate to the university environment, as well as transfer student events catered to those coming from a community college.

Last fall, the UA launched its first fully online undergraduate degree programs. The traditional model of orientation clearly wouldn't work, and so UA Online had to think quickly about what to do for its new fully online students.

Just as various models exist for in-person orientations, many models are available for full online learners as well, ranging from open-access videos, structured time-bound courses of varying lengths, and synchronous events, whether web-based or in-person.

After careful consideration and observation of our first incoming cohort, we elected to create a low-stakes, open learning environment that allows the student to engage as much as they feel is necessary prior to the beginning of classes, with access granted three weeks prior to the start of the semester to provide substantive opportunity to learn.

To symbolize the journey that students undertake in beginning a degree program, this space was called "Launch Pad."

Three key objectives guided the decisions surrounding Launch Pad's structure:

  • Our students entered with a wide range of educational histories, some never having attempted an online course and others having attended multiple colleges in an online format. With this in mind, we sought to provide a low-stakes environment allowing students to self-select how much practice in navigating the learning management system they needed to build comfort and confidence before the first day of class.
  • As a tier-one tesearch institution, our decentralized model empowers faculty to leverage outside tools and applications that facilitate the collaboration, discovery and assessment of their respective courses. We established a goal to introduce students to the oft-used Learning Tools Interoperability technologies embedded into courses, allowing students to proactively set up accounts and practice use of these tools.
  • The online learning experience is inherently different from learning in an in-person format. For students looking to mentally prepare for online learning, we sought to create content that provides best practices through the eyes of a seasoned nontraditional student, as well as expectations surrounding important commitments (such as time needed for classes, academic integrity, etc.).

In addition to these concepts, we recognized that students receive an overwhelming amount of information in starting a degree program, whether it be regarding the admissions process, programmatic guidelines outlined by their advisers, navigating the financial aid landscape or any variety of important transactions they must undertake. Throughout Launch Pad, the message is stressed that memorization is not required, just knowledge that they have a place where the information is stored for their current and future convenience. Launch Pad is designed to be a one-stop shop for success, whether it be prior to the start of classes or deep into a student's academic career.

In addition to learning content (comprised of a mixture of videos, screencasts and step-by-step guides) and low-stakes tasks introducing users to course technology, students have the opportunity to practice taking quizzes in the learning management system (in the form of an online learning readiness assessment) and submitting assignments utilizing the Dropbox tool (by practicing taking screen shots and uploading the document). Additionally, we incorporated a live module from an active class, giving students the opportunity to take part in real coursework. This particular class utilizes digital badging as the primary assessment tool, and designed a single badge to be transferable to the for-credit experience should students enroll in the full course.

Overall, the varied collection of experiential learning opportunities ensures that differentiated learner needs are addressed, giving the students meaningful practice with the very same assessment tools found in their future courses.

Lastly, a core component of the Launch Pad experience was the intentionality of the instructional design. The modules were prepared as a means of giving the students an accurate snapshot of what their courses would look and feel like, with design interface elements cut from the same cloth as the various courses within UA Online. Using effective practices for instructional and user experience design, each lesson and assessment is carefully aligned with the articulated learning outcomes designated for Launch Pad. Furthermore, as a means of fostering a constructivist learning community, many of the instructional videos were scripted, narrated and produced by students. Beyond mitigating learner anxiety over the unknown with a sneak peek into the actual online classroom, learners were able to interact with the module content through student-voiced videos and to actively engage with each other using visual discussion boards.

Ultimately, with these mindful applications of emerging technology and design, we were able to foster within our students a sense of agency over their learning path and offer them ways to connect with their peers well before the start of classes.

Read the full article, "Ready to Launch: Re-Envisioning the Preparation of Students for Online Learning," via The EvoLLLution site.