Implementing an Effective Online Orientation in Online Spanish Courses

Author Information
Stacy Southerland, Ph.D.
Bucky Dodd, Ph.D.
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
University of Central Oklahoma
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

This effective practice describes the process of converting an on-campus course orientation meeting for two beginning online Spanish courses to a series of required online learning modules. These modules present course requirements and procedures, describe strategies for using course resources to increase student success, and demonstrate how to set up and use course technologies and navigate the two learning management systems utilized for delivery of course content. An analysis of design and development approaches and lessons learned are discussed in the Description of the Effective Practice section that follows.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

The goal for the online orientation modules was to provide a robust alternative to an on-campus orientation experience. This meant including the same information delivered in the on-site orientation while also using past experiences of the faculty leading those campus meetings to anticipate questions commonly presented by students during such a meeting based on. In total, three modules containing multiple forms of media and closed-response questions were developed and implemented within the university’s Blackboard CE8 learning management system.

About the Orientation Modules
The three modules developed for this orientation series were created using html and javascript with Flash content being used for screen recording content. The modules can be completed in any order; however, all three modules must be successfully completed before the student can access the remaining course content

After students successfully complete each module, they are provided with a six-digit completion code that is automatically verified when entered in an assessment field.

Given that the modules were used in both the first- and second-semester online Spanish courses, the decision was made to integrate the information from both courses and clearly describe how each piece of information should be used. This was achieved through the use of signaling and fully describing the use of each piece of information. The focus and aim of the modules is to provide students with course orientation information and tips for successful second language acquisition. Table 1 outlines the three modules created for this orientation.

View Table 1.

Design Considerations
One of the primary design requirements for the orientation modules was that students could complete them in any order, but that they would be required to answer all a series of questions based on the content presented throughout all three modules correctly before the course content was released. This approach was used to ensure that students were able to answer basic information about the course and acknowledge their acceptance of the requirements. Requiring students to complete these orientation modules also established a level of interaction that could be used to identify students who had not accessed or made attempts at beginning the course tasks. In addition, the content needed to be accessible throughout the semester for students to reference.

The University of Central Oklahoma uses an enterprise-wide learning management system. Therefore, the modules developed were required to be integrated within this system. At the time of orientation implementation the current LMS was Blackboard CE 8. That system utilized quite dated technology and therefore limited the formats and methods that could be used to track students’ progress. For this reason, several features and techniques were combined to create a workable solution. First, the modules were uploaded in to the LMS and were linked within the content area of an assessment that was located on the course homepage. To complete each module, students access the related assessment and launch the module. A series of closed-ended multiple choice questions are presented to students throughout the module and if they student answer all questions correctly they receive a six-digit completion code. They are then instructed to enter the completion code in an assessment item for verification. After the completion codes for each module are entered and verified, the course content is released. The university now uses D2L 10.1 and the orientation modules have been updated to keep pace with the possibilities that system offers. Lectora was used for the most recent design, which allowed for more extensive, immediate feedback to the questions embedded throughout the modules with correct responses receiving appropriate encouraging feedback and incorrect responses receiving the correct information in popup windows.

In addition to a functional and learner-friendly solution, the course content needed to be easily updated each semester and be applicable by multiple faculty members across multiple sections of the course. Content that needed to be updated each semester was listed in a companion document that was provided to each faculty member. Examples of this content included the syllabus, which was specific to each instructor, and the digital companion site course code, which was specific to each one of an instructor’s individual sections. This meant the orientation modules needed to be developed using html which was editable through the native features within the LMS.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

Elementary Spanish I is a beginning language course designed for students with little or no prior study of the language and Elementary Spanish II offers a continuation of the first semester’s course of study. Students’ proficiency with technology in general and with online learning and the university’s learning management system in particular varies from the novice user with little technology savvy beyond familiarity with email to those who have completed one or more online courses. Second language acquisition proves quite challenging for adult learners in traditional f2f settings and becomes more so when pursued in a more independent learning environment in which students must take more responsibility for keeping up with information, managing their time, and seeking out and taking advantage of study resources. Students report that language courses prove quite challenging, requiring more time than they anticipated and as compared to many other subjects due to the practical nature of the subject and the resulting quantity of graded assignments. Add to this the need for knowledge of technology and even students with experience with online learning can experience some difficulty, often underestimating the time commitment and amount of time on task needed to successfully acquire proficiency in the four skill areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening comprehension.
During the first year that Elementary I was offered online at the university, instructors found that the majority of the students were new to online learning and many were, in fact, technology novices. In addition, and more problematic, was that students were not completing the tasks outlined in the course welcome letter that provided critical, basic information such as how to access the course. That letter instructed students to review the information provided in three course orientation modules on course policies and procedures, the companion text site, and course tools for configuring their computers for the course and preparing assignments before proceeding to course work. Student tracking showed that many students never logged in to the course or logged in but never started the review of any of the materials before beginning to email the instructors for the information contained in the orientation. In addition, the instructions for setting up the digital companion site, which housed required coursework, content tutorials, and more--proved challenging for students as did navigating that site as well as the course Blackboard site. As a result, course facilitators were overwhelmed with individual student emails at the beginning of the semester on basic startup information and student success and satisfaction, as well as the instructors’ satisfaction, were impacted by the students’ own failure to review critical materials.
Therefore, the decision was made to offer an optional, but strongly recommended, course-specific on-campus orientation at the beginning of the semester to show students how best to navigate the LMS and course-specific components, assist them in setting up the companion course site, show them where to access key resources to promoting language acquisition, and also discuss study and success strategies for online learning in general and second language learning in particular in an effort to improve success rates for the courses.
Differences in success rates between students that attended the optional orientation and those who did not were reported by instructors as well as by students who completed end-of-the-semester surveys in which they indicated an overwhelming positive response regarding the efficacy of and need for the orientations. Even so, university policy prevented even one required on-campus meeting for online courses and scheduling logistics resulted in inconsistent attendance. Participation also began to decline after a few semesters as student awareness that there were no consequences for not attending orientation grew and attendance began to decline.
In an effort to maintain the convenience and flexibility of the online learning environment and also create a required orientation component with consequences for non-completion, an online course-specific orientation was piloted in the summer of 2011. Among the many advantages to the new format are that students can access the orientation at their convenience and return to review any component, including the demonstration of interactive features that instructors had been presenting in past f2f orientations, at any point in the semester, and completion of the orientation in its entirety is mandatory before any course material is released to individuals. As part of the revision process, the university policy for administrative withdrawal was revised to allow online instructors to remove students from the course if they do not complete the orientation by the start of the Administrative Withdrawal (AW) period, which has resulted in a decreased number of course grades of F due to students that never start the course or start so late that they cannot pass the course even though they never drop and an increase in the grade point distribution for the courses. In addition, instructors have noted that they have been able to maximize time on tasks related to course content due to the marked reduction of student emails especially at the start of the semester.
As a result of the positive response of students and instructors alike to the new online orientation format, a similar version was implemented in self-paced online Elementary Spanish I and II courses during AY 2012-13. The design was also upgraded for AY2012-13 to keep pace the university’s migration to Desire2Learn and to take advantage of features offered by using Lectora for the most recent design.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

This practice relates primarily to the Learning Effectiveness pillar. It prepares students for a successful start to their online second language learning experience by providing the tools and information necessary for success in the course and allows them to assess their own readiness for and awareness of the requirements of the online learning environment and demonstrate that understanding to the faculty facilitating the course. These modules also provide a resource for students as they work through the course. The pillar of Faculty Satisfaction is also addressed. Facultys’ practical experience regarding the needs of online language learners informed the structure and content of the modules and faculty satisfaction with the efficiency of the course is increased as a result of this practice. This practice is quite cost effective in that it makes use of systems already in place in the university, and costs incurred through facilities and faculty time are reduced as a result of the online delivery of the orientation material, thereby addressing the pillar of Scale. Access is also reflected not only in the anytime, anywhere and timely availability of the modules’ content, but also in the fact that student feedback about the foundational campus orientation meetings was taken into consideration in the development of this practice and students’ feedback is also considered in any semester updates that are made to keep the orientation current.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

The effective practice uses a learning management system and the Lectora Inspire eLearning development suite; however, many other elearning development software packages will function successfully.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

The estimated costs with implementing this are the costs of a robust elearning development software.

Other Comments: 

Note: Descriptions presented in this effective practice summary are extracted from Southerland, S. & Dodd, B. J. (2012). Developing effective online course orientations: Using mastery learning strategies to prepare students in online Spanish courses. Poster presentation presented at the 2012 ED-MEDIA conference in Denver, CO.

Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Stacy Southerland, Ph.D.
Email this contact:
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Bucky Dodd, Ph.D.
Email contact 2: