Unit 1 Orientation

Overview and Objectives | Required Activities | Optional Activities | Commentary | Study Questions | References

Overview and Objectives

The online learning environment presents unique opportunities for learners and for educators, and every educational institution must shape its own approach to meet the needs of its learners. After 2 years of hands-on experience with Moodle and researching known successful online practices, we have come up with a basic course navigation and orientation setup the meets current needs and provides a point of departure for future evolution. Built into most undergraduate courses are various student orientation and logistics features:

  • Using Your Online Course Site with brief instructions on what to do with the various course affordances.This is for users not accustomed to online environments. It will need to be edited to make sure it matches the actual content of specific courses.
  • Moodle Orientation for Students for help using the online course.
  • an online Student Manual with information students need to successfully complete any AU course.
  • Course Information which complements the Student Manual by providing information specific to the course such as the course outline, a suggested study schedule, and assessment (usually under the heading Student Evaluation). It is a good idea to follow a standard format for this part of the course for the sake of both tutors with multiple courses and students taking more than one AU course. (A Word prototype is given in the Course Information section of this course.)

In addition, advance organizers and instructions within units and assignments need to be there to let students know what their options are at any given point in the course. Guiding questions can help them to become better learners. As course author, you can delegate to or seek advice from the learning designer/IMA and editor on your course team regarding this aspect of course design.

Unit 1 will prepare you to:

  • Plan for adequate orientation in your online course.
  • Explain the importance of orientation in keeping student and tutor frustration levels as low as possible.
  • Explain the importance of orientation in preparing students to be successful learners.

Required Activities

  • Read all of Unit 1 Orientation (you are here).
  • Try the links listed above to the various orientation features built into most AU online undergraduate courses.

As you complete the Unit 1 activities, consider the following questions:

  1. How can my course design shape the learner’s experience?
  2. What experience and expertise do I bring to the course design process?
  3. Where will I need advice from course team members with special expertise?
  4. Where will I need advice from course team members with knowledge of the AU system?

Optional Activities

  • Write a blog entry about your first thoughts on how you will start on the course you are designing. (Help on using the blog is at http://www.athabascau.ca/moodletrain/blog.htm)
  • Make a comment in the Course Discussion Forum (on the course homepage under Course Communication) about experiences you have had with online logistics and/or suggest how this course could improve its orientation functions.
  • Read Henry, J., & Meadows, J. (2008). An absolutely riveting online course: Nine principles for excellence in web-based teaching. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 34(1). Retrieved January 6, 2009, from http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/179/177.
This article provides a good orientation for anyone planning to design an online course.



Guiding Learners

One reason we have tried to create a fairly standard layout for AU online courses is to keep the orientation functions as invisible as possible. Tutors and students will not have to learn the course navigation, communication, and presentation features more than once. They can conserve their mental energies for what is unique in every course—the concepts, activities, and information. We have tried to anticipate what students and tutors might need to know and place it where they can easily find it.

This design for ease of movement should carry through the activities and assignments that you will be writing. Be aware of this design concept as you write; for example, you can write a short overview of each unit as an advance organizer to help students form a general idea, or mental map, of what is to come. We hope you will rely on the examples given here and on your course team to help you ensure that the details of orientation, such as the outline, study schedule, and assignment instructions, are clear and easy to follow.

Preparing Learners

In addition to making sure that the course logistics are clear, you can design to help learners make the most of the time and energy they spend on your course. As you probably know, the term metacognition refers to thinking about how you think and how you learn. If you encourage distance learners to observe their own habits, weaknesses, and strengths as learners, they have a basis for becoming more competent learners. One way to encourage metacognition is to use “thought” or application questions that invite learners to apply what they are learning to their own experience and vice versa.

Helping Learners to Be Good Readers

Literacy in the full sense of the word—to include all the strategies and media we need to use today—is always an overarching goal of AU courses. A simple way to foster literacy skills as learners read, view , or listen is to give them a few questions to focus their attention on the key points. A good reader is able to zero in on the most significant content of a medium and take that away. A good reader is able to extrapolate from her or his readings and make connections between texts. You help your learners become good readers by asking questions that show them how to do this. As you prepare the questions, ask yourself, “What do I want the reader to get from this? How do I want him or her to relate what is in this text to my commentary and to the other readings?”

One of the most important learning skills students need is the ability to ask good questions, and providing examples in the form of guiding questions is one way to encourage this. These guiding questions (examples are given above under Required Activities) are not the same as the study questions, which come after all the activities are completed and should be much more focused on preparing students to successfully complete assignments and exams.

Helping Learners to Create a Mental Map of the Course

We can also prepare learners through the use of schematics, such as the course or unit overview. This should shape expectations and give learners a broad conceptual space in which to place the details to come. The study schedule helps learners plan their time and feel in control of their learning progress. The glossary of important terms and concepts helps learners create a mental model of the course materials.

Good Instructions

You can also help learners by preparing them for assignments and examinations. Clear and complete instructions support success. This is where your editor can be of great value—it is often hard to imagine what someone else does not know and hard to put yourself completely in the learner’s seat. The editor will spot missing, vague, or even misleading information much as would a learner who is experiencing your material for the first time.

Learning Objectives

Learning objectives should be a fair reflection of what you want the learner to do and of what the learner will be assessed on in assignments and examinations. Here again, both your editor and learning designer or IMA will give you useful feedback, but only you know what you are trying to accomplish with the course design, and the more of that you can communicate through your learning objectives, the more your course team can support your goals and the more the learner is likely to arrive at the intended conceptual destination.

Note that learning objectives are discussed in both Unit 1 on orientation and Unit 3 on instruction. Some, if not most, elements of a course perform more than one function.

Study Questions

When you have completed the learning activities for Unit 1, answer the following questions. These will help to prepare you for writing your course.

  1. What is the basic layout of an AU online course?
  2. How will I make sure that students don’t waste any mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what they are supposed to do next?
  3. How can I design my course to increase students’ academic literacy skills and to help them become more independent learners?


Ssemugabi. S., & De Villiers, M.R. (2007). Usability and learning: A framework for evaluation of web-based e-learning applications. In C. Montgomerie & J. Seal (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2007 (pp. 906-913). Retrieved from EdITLib. Reproduced with permission.


Last modified: Wednesday, 10 October 2012, 1:18 PM MDT