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Roles and methods of induction in online education

Page history last edited by Gary Motteram 9 years, 5 months ago

The roles and methods of induction in online education from a teacher and learner perspective


Students’ initial encounters with any learning environment are clearly important - the first day at a new school or university or the first hours of a training course.  This applies equally in the field of online learning. In this literature review, we will look at the research that is available and discuss the importance of an induction programme, make some suggestions as to what a successful induction programme might include and the valuable role that a teacher can play in induction.


 “Induction is a way of easing the transition and helping students to become effective distance learners so that they can progress successfully through their studies” (Forrester et al, 2006) and it plays an important role in attempting to alleviate students’ “concerns, anxieties, and learning needs at the outset of their studies” (Motteram and Forrester, 2005), with distance students having the additional worry of “feeling isolated” and “balancing priorities”. 


A good induction programme should aim to help with “attrition rates, persistence, and progression” (White, 2005).  It should also aim to lay a solid foundation of co-operative and collaborative learning, as well as outlining technical requirements and familiarising students with their new learning environment (Krauth and Carbajal, 1999, in Juwah, 2006).  


A poor induction to a course can cause real harm, as “initial enthusiasm for learning can be quickly thwarted by unfortunate early encounters with technology” (Motteram and Forrester, 2005). Forrester et al (2006) suggest that induction is “a process of providing support at a times of need” giving the idea that rather it being a one off activity, support is continuously given during the life of the course. 


Methods of induction

 Salmon (2011) divides induction, or “online socialisation” needs into three components, “establishing a successful group”, knowledge domain” and “online environment”.  One important point that she makes is the emphasis that might be placed on different components, depending on the experience of your group. For example, if a group have worked together before and are familiar with the knowledge domain then you might focus your efforts on “online environment” as they will need to focus their induction activities on the online environment.  Motteram and Forrester (2005) suggested using the technology to develop a less directed approach giving students “the opportunity to select induction activities, retrieve resources, utilise software tools, and combine these as required in a “pick-and-mix” fashion, which can be tailored according to personal need”.


Considering the online environment first, when looking at “What is missing from online learning?” Stodel et al (2006) stated that courses need to “coach learners how to learn online” and that it is important to “articulate and manage to expectations of the online community”; these elements must both be considered as part of the induction to the online environment. 


One element students need to learn to use is the tools required for the online environment, as it is “imperative that an induction equips the distance learner with the requisite access and retrieval skills” (Yakimovicz and Murphy, 1995 cited in Shrum and Hong, 2002).  They suggest that students have to take time to move through the initial efforts of learning the tools before they begin constructing new knowledge.  This means that students will need to be supported in their familiarisation with these tools. Cited within Gunawardena et al (2009),Joinson (2003, pp. 2–3) observes ‘tools are more than just something to make a task easier. They change your way of thinking, of approaching a task (and indeed the nature of the task itself), and can reap unimagined wider social changes.’ Vygotsky (1978, p. 29)”.  Thurston (2005) cites lack of confidence at using equipment as being the main reason for non-participation”, so courses that include this important element are likely to have better retention rates and assist students with their overall learning.  In order to save money and time for the institution, the learning tools required can often be “generic in nature and so there is the potential for online student induction across a number of programmes to be provided at a single point” (Motteram and Forrester, 2005); citing the induction to the library as an example of a tool that is generic to most courses.  It is interesting to note that on many MOOCs it is only the generic induction that exists.  Perhaps is it this that leads many people not to complete these programmes.


Greaves (2008) suggests that students’ readiness to study online can be assessed using online quizzes, one focused on the “technological skills” and one looking at the “personal and study skills”. This then leads to a personalised support package to help move students through the initial stages of the course.  Surveys could also help establish students’ prior learning and preconceptions to better scaffold learning, as part of the knowledge domain component.  This is backed up by Motteram and Forrester (2005) “making available an online precourse assessment of skills might have been beneficial to some students, enabling them to gauge their readiness for online learning”.  The usefulness of these surveys is countered in part by Anderson (2008) noting that induction can be done “formally through electronically administered surveys and questionnaires, but is often more effectively accomplished by virtual icebreakers”, suggesting that the social aspect is the most important element.


Indeed, research shows that it is important to engage students socially, and Ubon and Kimble (2004), cited in Beldarrain (2006) are very definite about this, saying that “social presence is a prerequisite to establishing an online learning community”. Anderson (2008) agrees - “experienced online learning teachers must make time at the commencement of their learning interactions to provide incentive and opportunity for students to share their culture and unique aspects of themselves”. Garrison (2011) asserts that “cognitive presence is also enhanced and sustained when social presence is established”.


Salmon (2006) offers up some ideas for social asynchronous “e-tivities”, for example, revealing personal information which is then put into a quiz, posting information which reveals something about the user and then using these to prompt discussion, evaluating websites, giving students some fictional money and asking them to spend it, and sharing favourites. One issue is that on a face to face course, there is more room to assess whether activities such as “most embarrassing moment” might work. These activities will not only take a lot longer online, but might also not work with the group involved and could lead to people becoming disengaged. Motteram (2001) mentions the importance of ‘ice breaker’ activities, saying that “being comfortable with others and with themselves helps people to become more receptive to new ideas…helping to establish a feeling of community on the module”. These social induction activities will pay dividends for student learning, as “work on collaborative learning illustrates potential gains in cognitive learning tasks, as well as increasing completion rates and acquisition of critical social skills” (Kirby and Boak, 1987 cited in Anderson, 2008).  If social activities are included, then “appropriate induction activities should also be designed to familiarize students with online protocol and expected social norms” (Forrester et al, 2006).


One of the issues with text based activities is the time that students take to create them, as “visual cues get lost so learners take extra care regarding how they structure their postings to ensure they are not misconstrued” (Stodel et al, 2006). Additionally, as with any asynchronous activity, “written communication lacks a sense of immediacy……important to a supportive and secure learning environment” (Garrison, 2011).    Stodel et al (2006) do offer a suggestion of using systems which type the spoken word, and this could be further improved by uploading voice recordings.  This not only could save time, but also includes tone which might help to convey the user’s meaning, although it  might also discourage students who do not have English as their first language or are not confident communicators.  A combination of the two might be preferable to allow students to work to their own learning style.


Synchronous discussions can also be used, with video conferencing software being very popular, particularly with distance learners.   Within the UK’s Open University programme, regional group sessions are also arranged to allow people to attend. This is also used in Thurston (2005) to introduce teachers to using the Blackboard system to M.Ed students.  It could be argued that this initial meeting and socialisation of the participants may have in part led to the success of the online learners in the project.  Conrad (2005) mentions that “opportunities to meet face to face” result in “an enormous surge in connectedness and satisfaction”. Although this applies to meetings that might be at other times than at the beginning of the course, it highlights how important these face to face encounters can be. Forrester et al (2006) also have a one weekend induction as part of the Profound Learning Disability and Multi-Sensory Impairment (ESI) course and although content is also delivered at this study school, it also serves “a social function” and “will help to combat the sense of loneliness and isolation common to distance students”. 


Social networking tools can be used to promote socialisation within the induction phase, for example “Facebook enables social networking by connecting learners via personal profiles complete with photographs, and built- in methods of communicating. Interaction via profiles enhances social presence by adding a real context to the identity of each member” (Gunawardena et al, 2009); however “Moore (2008) has noted that participants may feel discomfort in achieving a balance between one’s work identity and a more personal identity within social spaces such as Facebook” (Gunawardena, 2009).  Additionally many people do not have social networking accounts and so this might serve to alienate some students. 


In this part of the report, some different components of inductions have been identified and some suggestions of the methods that might be used have been offered. More than anything else it seems important to offer variety to students.  A mixture of synchronous and asynchronous activities is needed to ensure flexibility of timing whilst maintaining the importance of social interactions.  Students also need to be appropriately guided to ensure that they understand the online environment, are able to socialise and have the knowledge necessary for this.  A combination of written activities, quizzes and face to face or through video conferencing software can be used to achieve this.


The role of the teacher

For this section of the literature review, I looked specifically for material relating to the role of the tutor in an online induction, not in terms of the tutor role in online learning as a whole.  I quickly discovered that this area is under represented in the current literature and research.  There are many facets of the role of the tutor in online learning which can be applied to the induction (and indeed, where they are particularly important) and I shall begin with an overview of some of the literature which covers these, before looking more specifically at the tutor’s role in induction before moving on to look at some of the literature which covers case studies where good practice has been applied.


Salmon’s key text on online education (2000) details the five stage model; elements of which can apply to the tutor role in online induction (access and motivation, online socialisation).  However in her book she does not specifically apply them to an induction, merely stating that an induction needs to be a “staged but extensive process” (70) and that there is a “critical need for early and useful learning outcomes” (78).


Many points from Garrison’s (2011) research on the role of the tutor in online learning can be applied to the induction.  He highlights the importance of the need for the tutor to set a good example to the students in the way they communicate online, seeing this as important for an early sense of ‘belonging’: “teacher postings must model…while shaping the discussion…” (58). He warns against the tutor over-promoting himself at this stage, saying that the group identity is more important.  Looking again at ice breaker activities but this time from a teaching/design perspective, he advises that they “should not be focused only on introductions, but designed around discussing course expectations and establishing group identity by asking students to collaboratively explore and negotiate requirements” (41).  A synchronous online group meeting as part of the induction can help to establish social presence and move the group away from introductory conversations and towards learning.


Interestingly, he highlights the need to move away from a learner centred approach to online inductions, stating that the tutor should not become marginalised; otherwise a ‘community of enquiry’ might not develop.  Bearing his earlier comments in mind, this suggests that the role of the tutor needs to be balanced.  In terms of the three main roles of the tutor (design/orientation, facilitation and direct instruction) (57) (Anderson et al, 2001), he does not say how these translate into specific induction activities/approaches.    However, he refers to Vaughan and Garrison (2006) and Akyol and Garrison (2008) who state that more research is needed into the different ways that teaching presence changes as an online course progresses.  This seems to infer that tutor presence changes over time, with certain elements possibly being more pronounced and important at the time of induction, supporting Forrester’s findings detailed above which show that support needs to be provided throughout the life of the course as well as just at the start (2006).


Anderson et al (2001) name the three main roles given above as the concept of teaching presence, which exists in an online environment alongside social presence and cognitive presence.  Whilst his article is key to understanding the various ways in which teaching presence can be managed in an online environment, he doesn’t specifically mention the role of the induction in this.


Goodyear et al (2001) expand on Garrison’s three roles and give more detail as to how these may work in an induction, particularly the role of the tutor as a process facilitator.  They give six main task areas, all of which are important in a good online induction: welcoming, establishing ground rules, creating community, managing communication, modelling social behaviour and establishing their own identity (table 2, 70).  Parallels can be seen with Garrison’s work.  They then go on to list twenty three competencies which an online tutor should have.  Sixteen of these are particularly relevant to online inductions (70).  However, they point out that these competencies and roles are not necessarily specific to an online environment.


The importance of establishing ground rules is also highlighted by Maier and Warren (2000).  Tutors should explain the differences between online and face to face communication at the time of induction. They give practical guidance for tutors on issues in using forums, including the expected standard of English, length of messages, frequency of access and ‘netiquette’ (110).  It is the tutor’s responsibility to make this clear during the induction.


I wanted to find some more specific material, so I turned to some of the reading I have done for this module.  Schrum and Hong (2003) detail some of the strategies and concerns of successful online teachers.  They state that “students…face challenges in an online environment…instructors can provide substantial support for these students through initial counselling about expectations and requirements” (14).  Alongside the supportive role is a need to encourage student socialisation and interaction, as well as minimising any initial technical difficulties (12).  These are practical ways in which the roles discussed above can be applied.

Thurston (2005, 355) refers to Light and Cox (2001) and Selwyn et al (2001) when highlighting the need for the tutor’s role to be one which fosters and encourages a learning community to develop through the induction process, saying that “the development of a sense of community and connectedness between students was vital to the successful establishment of online learning opportunities”.  Clearly, then, the sense of community has to be established before learning can take place.  O’Sullivan, Hunt and Lippert’s work (2004) is important in taking this idea a stage further through the use of the term ‘mediated immediacy’.  Through approachability and regard for the other in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), a community and sense of affiliation can be quickly fostered.  In an induction, some ways in which this can be achieved are self-disclosure, accessibility, expertise, helpfulness and politeness, which either invite the student to take a step closer to the tutor, or involve the tutor taking a step towards the student.


The role of synchronous communication in helping teachers to foster the sense of community through the induction process is important.  Motteram’s paper (2001) sets out to dispel some of the myths surrounding fully online education (bearing in mind that the paper was written thirteen years ago when online education was less common).  Motteram details how students first use technologies for synchronous communication with which they are familiar, before moving on to new technologies.  He provides helpful guidelines on how teachers should begin to use synchronous communication technologies (from Harasim et al, 1995) and many of these are important in the induction process and supported by other research, including the need to be clear about expectations, being responsive and facilitating the communication process.  His research provides helpful details on initial technological difficulties that students can encounter.  However, if handled correctly, these difficulties can be resolved and can aid student learning through reflection and deep learning later in the course.


Motteram and Forrester’s article (2005) is especially helpful in putting some of the more general tutor roles in online learning into the induction context in a very practical way.  They highlight the importance of the tutor in managing student expectations of their role at the outset (290), pointing out that electronic asynchronous communication can raise student expectations of a fast response, with the perception that online learning involves having a ‘24/7 tutor’.  The induction process is the time when these perceptions should be challenged in order to avoid tutor over commitment.  They highlight the need for the tutor to set boundaries and be realistic, and to direct the student to other sources of support where appropriate, rather than attempting to provide an answer to all queries and problems.


Motteram and Forrester (2005) build on other work by considering how challenging the sense of an online community can be for some students, and how the tutor needs to “promote active participation, encourage collaboration and design purposeful tasks” to assist those students (291).  Scaffolding may need to take place “so that students regard participation as an important and/or enriching source of learning rather than a burden or triviality” (291).  This can be difficult, particularly when working with a group of students where some have studied online before and others haven’t.


They stress the need for the tutor to look at the affordances of particular technologies that will be used in the induction process in relation to their own role and to the overall aims and goals of the induction.

I will now move on to consider a couple of examples of literature that cover case studies of the role of a tutor in an online induction and the principles and research which have informed this role in a real life setting.  Most of the case studies that I found online involved online induction material which could either be used for a fully online course or to support blended learning (for example Greaves, 2008 and E-learning Team, University of Birmingham n.d.).  They are, therefore, only of limited value when examining inductions in a fully online course environment.  However, some of the principles and roles of the tutor are still important.


Greaves (2008) mentions research by Tait (2000) in designing online inductions at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).  Tutor support can be divided into three main areas; cognitive (including provision of course materials and affording access to learning resources), affective (“providing an environment which supports students, creates commitment and enhances self-esteem” (20)) and systemic (transparent information management systems and administration).  The second of these is particularly relevant to the tutor’s role in online inductions, as the sooner this environment is created for the student, the easier they will become part of an online community and be able to undertake effective online learning.


Similarly, the University of Birmingham’s material online induction material is designed to be used in an environment that is not fully online.  Whilst useful and well designed, it is not particularly appropriate to analyse in this context.  I also searched the Jisc website but could find little on the role of a teacher in a fully online learning environment.  The best example I found of a case study was from Forrester et al (2006).  Although this focuses more on the student experience of online learning, out of their research at the University of Manchester come some very helpful guidelines for tutor best practice in order to maximise student satisfaction, learning progression and retention rates (15-16).



“The more adept distance educators become with induction processes…. the more likely it becomes that students will experience a smooth transition to distance learning” (Forrester et al, 2006).


The area of induction is one that certainly requires further research. White (2005) suggests that “a focus on the situated experience of students in their initial encounters with distance learning environments represents a critical area of research within distance education”, and Forrester et al (2005) back this up by stating that “research which investigates solely the induction needs and experiences of distance students is relatively sparse in the literature”.


Whilst many of the facets of learning and teaching online are evidently important for both the learner and the tutor in an online induction, much of the current literature does not, in our opinion, clearly differentiate between the support that is given across the life of the course and support that is given specifically at induction.  Our experiences of induction have varied across the different modules that we have taken on this programme of study and these experiences, together with the research that we have jointly undertaken, means that we are now more aware of the importance of a carefully planned and well researched online induction, both for the teacher and the learner.



Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R., Archer, W. (2001) Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5(2) 1-17

Anderson, T (2008) The Theory and Practice of online learning. Canada: AU Press, Athabasca University

Bach, S., Haynes, P. & Lewis Smith, J. (2007) Online learning and teaching in Higher Education Maidenhead, Berks: Open University Press

Collis, B and Moonen, J (2001) Flexible learning in a digital world: Experiences and Expectations London: Routledge


Conrad, C (2005) Building and Maintaining Community in Cohort-Based Online Learning Journal of Distance Education 20 (1)  1-20


E-Learning Team, University of Birmingham (n.d.) Using technology to support student induction Retrieved from http://www.weblearn.bham.ac.uk/designer_guidelines/Support%20Student%20Induction.pdf

Forrester, G., Motteram, G., Parkinson, G & Slaouti, D. (2006) Going the distance: students’ experiences of induction to distance learning in higher education Journal of Further and Higher Education 29 (4) 293-306


Garrison, D.R. (2011) E-Learning in the 21st Century: a framework for research and practice (2nd ed.) London: Routledge

Goodyear, P., Salmon, G., Spector, J. M., Steeples, C. & Tickner, S. (2001) Competencies for online teaching: a special report Educational Technology, Research and Development 49(1) 65-72

Greaves, N (2008) Are your students ready to study in an online or blended learning environment? Learning and Teaching in Action 7(2) 19-23 Retrieved from http://www.celt.mmu.ac.uk/ltia/issue16/greaves.pdf

Gunawardena, C , Hermans, M , Sanchez, D , Richmond, C , Bohley, M & Tuttle, R (2009) A theoretical framework for building online communities of practice with social networking tools Educational Media International 46(1) 3-16

Juwah, C. (2006) Interactions in online peer learning in C. Juwah (ed.) Interactions in online education: implications for theory and practice London: Routledge

Maier, P. & Warren, A. (2000) Integr@ting technology in teaching and learning: a practical guide for educators London: Kogan Page

Motteram, G. & Forrester, G. (2005) Becoming an online distance learner: What can be learned from students’ experiences of induction to distance programmes? Distance Education 26 (3) 281-298

Motteram, G. (2001) The role of synchronous communication in fully distance education Australian Journal of Educational Technology 17(2) 131-149

O’Sullivan, P.B., Hunt, S.K. & Lippert, L.R. (2004) Mediated immediacy: A language of affiliation in a technological age Journal of Language and Social Psychology 23(4) 464-490

Salmon, G (2000) E-Moderating: the key to teaching and learning online London: Kogan Page

Salmon, G (2011) E-Moderating: the key to teaching and learning online (2nd ed.) London: Routledge

Salmon, G (2006) Online bricklaying Retrieved from University of Leeds Staff and Departmental Development Unit website http://www.sddu.leeds.ac.uk/uploaded/learning-teaching-docs/teachtalk/14-2-2006/handoutsGillyFeb06.pdf

Schrum, L. & Hong, S. (2002) From the field: characteristics of successful tertiary online students and strategies of experienced online educators Education and Information Technologies 7(1) 5-16

Stodel, E, Thompson, T, MacDonald, C (2006) Learners’ Perspectives on What is Missing from Online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 7(3) Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/325/743

Thurston, A (2005) Building online learning communities Technology, Pedagogy and Education 14(3) 353-370

White, C (2006) Contribution of Distance Education to the Development of Individual Learners, Distance Education 26(2) 165-181 


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