1. Helping students get ahead. Working ahead is one of the best strategies for any class, and that is especially true for online classes. It is consistently the top advice that students recommend to future students, as you can see here: Peer Advice - Time Management. Having the classes open in Week Zero is all about getting ahead!
2. Taking advantage of slack time. Once students' other classes start, I am competing for their attention. Because I teach Gen. Ed., my class is understandably not a high priority for many students; classes for their majors must come first. So, if I really do want these students to get ahead (see reason #1), then taking advantage of the slack time before the official start of the semester is really important!
3. Making sure students know what they are getting into. Not all classes are a good fit for all students. My classes, for example, are writing-intensive, which is not something students expect from a Gen. Ed. class. By opening up the class early and encouraging students to give it a try or at least to see the course materials/assignments, they can see what they think. If they decide to drop, they will obviously have a better chance of finding another class to add instead if they are looking in Week Zero as opposed to looking for an open class in Week One or, worst of all, in Week Two, when you can only add with instructor permission.
4. Checking to see if the courses really are ready. I am so grateful to the students who alert me to broken links, instructions that are not clear, etc. The more I tinker with the courses (and over this winter break, I tinkered way more than I usually do over winter break — there were just so many good ideas from students last semester that I wanted to try out!), the more likely that there will be typos, broken links, etc., that I need to fix. I really depend on the pioneer students during Week Zero to help me find the things I need to fix!
5. Refining Inoreader folders, rules, and labels. By having incoming blog posts from the students, I am able to make sure my Inoreader folders, rules, and labels are going to do what I need them to do. Last semester, I found Inoreader too late to do a really efficient job with the rules, but I learned a lot from my mistakes in order to set things up more efficiently this time. Of course, I thought I had it all figured out... but when actual student blog posts started coming in this week, I realized lots of little tweaks that would help make my folders, rules, and labels work even better. I need actual student blog posts in order to match the workflow to reality!
6. Bringing the class blogosphere to life. Not only do the live blogs help me in configuring Inoreader, it is also a big boost for the students who who will be starting the class next week: they can see the posts that students wrote in Week Zero, and seeing actual examples of the assignments is just as important as the instructions I provide. Indeed, for some students, it's even more important because they might just skim the instructions, getting their real sense of how to do the assignment by looking at the work of others. Thanks to Inoreader's rules and feeds, I can automatically share those assignments; here, for example, is the first blog post assignment: Favorite Place(s). I love the way it updates 24/7 automatically as the blog posts come in!
7. Getting to know the students. I love the way I have time to read and respond to all, or almost all, of the blog posts during Week Zero. That is less true in Week One, and then in following weeks, it's the students replying to each other mostly, with the blogs being more "their" space in the class while I focus on their projects. During the soft start, though, I have a chance to really get to know the students who start early, reading all their work, getting a sense of who they are, their goals for the class, etc. It is always such a pleasure: my students are a fascinating bunch, and I really like having time just to get to them know them in a more leisurely way during Week Zero. This week during Week Zero, appx. 40 students set up their blogs (but not all of them have started posting in their blogs), and I made 87 comments on actual blog posts.
8. Setting up lines of communication. When I release the classes to the students, I start using the different channels of communication that we will be using all semester long, so the students can begin getting used to that, even if they aren't doing work for the class. So, I start posting in the Announcements blog, I revive my class Twitter feed, I start pinning regularly to my class Pinterest Boards, etc. In most of the classes at my school, the focus is 100% on D2L BS (our course management system), but for my classes, D2L BS is not important at all for the content or communication in the class, and I want the students to be aware of our Class Announcements blog, the different websites I use the class, etc. So, the emails I send them about the soft start are not lengthy emails. Instead, they are just a few key links to get them started — link to the Class Announcements blog, link to the class websites, etc. Not D2L.
9. ENTHUSING. One of the most important ingredients for success in my classes is enthusiasm: the students' enthusiasm and my own enthusiasm combined. By starting the classes early, I can demonstrate and share my own enthusiasm with the students, hoping to be a catalyst for some enthusiasm on their part — and my enthusiasm for these classes is ENORMOUS... even though I have fun during the school break, I am always so excited to get back to work and make sure the classes are ready to go.
10. Getting myself into school mode. I love my job, but I also love the holiday vacation. I stay up too late, watch too much Netflix, read mountains of stuff, start new projects, indulge my own obsessions without restraint. Luckily for me, some of those projects and obsessions are school-related, but there's still a HUGE difference between my daily routine when school is in session and when it's not. Having the soft start is a way for me to make that transition so that when the craziness of Week One arrives, I am ready for it! Well, sort of, ha ha.
... yes, I do get up early when school is in session! Here is a rhyming Latin proverb on that subject.
(Latin: Est sanum plane de lecto surgere mane.)