Orientation and Support for learners

Invest in orientation: How, What, Why to use the digital space you've created and support: Who, When can I get real help from somebody. If I can share any advice from my experience running online courses, it is to prepare your learner for the online environment while you are face-to-face, if not a series of phone calls and orientation activities. The learning curve for most students is on many levels. For many it will be the first time they have logged into an online space apart from Facebook, first time they have posted to a discussion forum or uploaded a file. Don't assume that because your learners are young and so called 'digital natives' that they understand what is expected of them in a course delivered by distance assisted by digital technologies.

The Learners Seat

You cannot put yourself in the learners seat for a while and NOT come away with new insights into how to improve the UX (user experience) of your E-learning. You may have never actually logged in as a learner to your LMS or done an online Quiz AS A LEARNER. It's only when we do this that we notice what is missing, the little things that could make this learning experience easier. It could be broken links or poor navigation, it could be that a diagram or other visual could be really helpful here or there. Maybe you have too much content and that embedded Youtube Video is breaking the flow of content and would work better as an external hyperlink instead.

When we design E-learning we develop blind spots to faults in our design. There is no way around this but to also give the 'Learners Seat' to someone else to test drive for you. I like to get someone who has had nothing to do with my project to become the test learner and find the things that I can't see (broken links, bad navigation, typos, poor instruction, confusing pathways or slow loading content).

young girl driving red toy car


The better you orientate your learners the less you will need to support them when they are at a distance. You may only have an hour or a full week face-to-face with your cohort but whatever you can give them in terms of preparation for navigating their way through an online course.

I would include the following in any orientation session;

  • Demonstrate a live login and action in the space
  • Examples of previous students engagement
  • An opportunity to demonstrate to you that they can begin! eg login and post a comment about themselves in a forum.
  • Something on the community ground rules, see Nettiquette
  • Time for learners to engage with the digital space themselves and then ask questions they may have face-to-face.


It means what you thought it does, Etiquette for the Internet. In any student orientation I've done I realise I am preparing them for online communities and for this you need to set some ground rules.

This can save you from some awkward moments later when you may need to moderate an offensive comment.

An example Nettiquette Statement for online forums;

Rule 1: You're allowed to make mistakes, be helpful

Rule 2: Don't forget to be a Human

Rule 3: Behave online how you Behave offline

Rule 4: Don't hog the microphone

Rule 5: Share expert knowledge

Rule 6: Start Debates but End them Well

Rule 7: Respect other people's privacy

Being in the room

What do I mean by being in the room? I mean being involved in the course community. When we are face-to-face with learners we can take for granted how many opportunities learners have to ask us small questions, clarify aspects of the assessment task, or get to know more about what others think and sound out their own thinking in the learning process.

It is your responsibility to set the culture of the online space, the tone of discussion forums and to model a generous engagement in learning.


Imagine sitting at a desk stacked with books with no titles, chapters or diagrams. You are all alone in this room, but you get a sense there may be other people in this building sitting at desks just like you. You know the books in front of you are important but you don't know where to start, there doesn't seem to be anybody around to ask. You find there is one door out of the room to another room that has eleven different doors. Some of the doors lead you back to where you started, which is confusing for a while but eventually one door takes you outside the building, you walk around the building but you find you can't find the entrance back in again. You give up and walk home. Welcome to the life of the online learner.

There are E-learning strategies that are simply 'set and forget', 'a scrolling wall of PDFs', 'a library with no librarian'. Learning support in terms of E-learning involves all of the things that make face-to-face learning, for example a conference, a better experience.

If an online course was a professional conference it would have the following;

  1. Directions to and from the venue
  2. A place to register
  3. Reminders about your registration details
  4. A friendly face to welcome you as you arrive
  5. A place to mingle and meet like minded people
  6. Program for the day
  7. A help desk
  8. Floor Plan of the building
  9. Name tags for all participants
  10. An emergency exit!, but a way back in again.

Foster a culture of support and create mechanisms by which learners can support each other.


I've had learners call me at 8pm during a late dinner at home with my family to ask me what their login details are for their online course. I get friend requests from course participants on facebook. If you've ever managed an online community of any kind you will be well aware about the scenarios I'm talking about and the quick realisation you have that you need to establish clear boundaries between yourself and your learners.

Privacy in this sense also extends to the cohorts internal relationships and that is why I always clearly state that sharing private contact details (email, phone, social) with other learners is optional and we don't create contexts online where learners might feel pressured to share private information.

At the end of the day we can acknowledge that social connections and relationships are inevitable and even useful in generating an exciting learning space but there are privacy issues for everyone involved that need to be addressed before the course begins.

Finally you are well advised to provide a way that learners can give you feedback. This could take the form of a usability survey, a feedback online forum or even by selecting a few learners to speak with about what is working and what could be improved.

Go and...

  • Put yourself in the learner seat and go through your program from start to finish.

  • Write a Nettiquette statement for your online community.

  • Create a way to get feedback from learners about your digital spaces.

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