Creating a welcoming online environment

Church planters, church growth people, and leaders of all kinds long ago realized the importance of creating a welcoming environment.  When people who are unfamiliar with your church building show up, the last thing you want to do is confuse them or throw barriers up that make them want to leave.

For example, it’s generally a bad idea to plaster your parking lot and building with signs telling people everything they can’t do.  No parking, no talking, no drinks, no mobile phones, no dogs, no smoking, no walking on grass, etc…   Not very welcoming is it?

Yet, so many churches and businesses continue to present this message to their constituents as their first impression: “If you’re coming in here, watch your step and play by our rules!  We care about our stuff first and foremost.”

At a very real level this is an issue of hospitality.  Welcoming the stranger in our midst without hesitation or condition.  The same principles are true in the design, development, and teaching of an online course.  To create a warm, inviting, and engaging online course environment, the professor must actively establish a welcoming culture to his/her class.  But what does this mean?

If you were a student in an online course and these are the first sentences you see when you login, how would you feel?  What would you think?

There will be NO flexibility on these deadlines!
DO NOT miss any of the assigned discussions.
No exceptions allowed!

The first thing I think to myself is “Dang! This professor’s out to get me!” (remember, I am from Kansas!)  🙂  Truly, though, this isn’t the most welcoming entrance we could give anyone in any kind of class setting.  Yet, I’ve seen this kind of welcome given to hundreds of students taking online classes.  And, since I’ve known most of the professor’s personally, I know their intent is not to create fear and barriers in students.  But that’s exactly what happens.

So what’s the solution?  Communication.  Scratch that!  Effective and positive communication – that’s the solution!  So many faculty members who accept the difficult task of teaching online need to learn how to communicate effectively online.  This isn’t easy!  And in many/most cases, it’s not natural.  Professors need to be able to let their guard down a little.  Communicate as a person, not an academic machine. The students automatically view you as the expert, you don’t need to establish yourself as such.  You need to become a person to them.  This is what leads to an online environment that is open and transparent.  This is what establishes a culture where students engage and learn.

This doesn’t mean that you need to create a different persona and act like someone else online.  It does mean, however, that you learn how to share the uniqueness of who you are through text and multimedia.  Show your emotion, reveal your humor, share who you are and your passion with your students.  Model the kind of interaction you want exhibited in your online class.  This is, afterall, how students learn online – through engaging, primarily, with the professor.  If you hide from your students and avoid interacting with them, they will reciprocate.  But if you approach them with honesty, integrity in your interaction with them, and frequent engagement, your online course will be transformational.  For your students and for you!

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