"First impressions are a constant in society. However, their product, the period that proves or disproves their validity is not; good ones are pleasant and long lasting, bad ones long and difficult to disprove." - Diego Valesquez.
We may not like to admit it, but we're all guilty of judging the book by its cover. The first five minutes with anyone are full of mental judgments, assessments, and categorizing. First impressions often form the basis for all later impressions or interactions. For this reason, it's important for the instructor in the Confer (online) classroom to make a good first impression - before going on to the business of teaching.
Larry Green at Lake Tahoe Community College describes in this video how he handles the first five minutes of his online classes. Instead of waiting until all the students are "seated" and ready to start, he gets students busy with a simple problem so that he can pay attention to entering students and handle "housekeeping" or troubleshooting details without allowing these to become the focus of attention.
Marc Knobel actually makes the process of greeting students the first impression of his class, and because he's so patient and friendly with each student, that early activity works especially well as an icebreaker. In fact, it's given him insights into how he might approach the process of teaching in a face-to-face environment with more personal contact with each student.
Irene Palacios of Grossmont College orients students at the beginning of each semester to the Confer classroom, giving them whiteboard privileges and allowing them to become excited about working in this environment and taking advantage of the excitement of a new class to get them motivated to learn more. She confesses that she's even been able to learn new things about using the tools from her students in these sessions.
Donna Eyestone uses music as a mood-setter as students enter the room (both her online classroom and in her face-to-face classroom). She finds that this gets rid of the kind of awkwardness that sometimes results from students entering the classroom in the middle of a conversation. It also allows her to set the volume on her computer so that - when she later uses multimedia clips to demonstrate - her speakers are set properly.
The important thing to remember is that you're trying to create and maintain an environment that is best for students (and yourself) so that instruction and learning can happen. Consciously create an atmosphere where there is an appropriate opportunity for students to discuss ideas, explore the virtual classroom, and interact with you and one another. Most importantly, give them a chance to come away from their first impression feeling that they belong here and are safe in this learning environment. The safer they are at first, the more likely they'll be to open themselves to the risky task of learning new concepts later.