“Learners will select a variety of instructional formats depending on a number of factors including personal learning style and degree of fit between the requirements of the delivery and the life circumstances of the learner.” (Duning, et. al. 1993, P.251)
Creating online activities and providing online resources provides an outlet for your creative juices. This is a time to let your imagination run wild as you think of challenging activities and meaningful resources for your students to engage in and explore while at the same time keeping in mind copyright and fair use restrictions.
It is essential to remember that we all learn differently; some of us are much more successful when presented with the written work while others of us excel when asked to explain our ideas in small groups. The activities and resources in your online course materials need to represent a wide range of options for the diverse learners taking your course. The bottom line is: the more we design the core of our instructional resources around the needs of the learner; the more likely we are to design a course where our students are successful.
When designing Online instructional units:
- Ensure that each instructional article, web site or game supports the learning objectives/goals of the course.
- Get the learner’s attention immediately by clearly making the topic relevant to something important within the learner’s frame of reference (e.g. job, studies, professional development).
- In the body of each unit introduction provide an introductory paragraph, one or more explanatory paragraphs, and a summary paragraph.
- Integrate questions or other interactive activities — such as exercises, problem-solving situations, games, or short simulations into the body of the unit.
- Always limit the unit to one or two main ideas or concepts.
- Use only the most important “need-to-know” supporting details.
- When possible, support the unit content with audio and/or video clips containing relevant information, such as background information, “how to” instructions, or examples that further clarify key learning points.
- Not all students are comfortable with technology. Therefore, it becomes necessary to create assignments early in the course that will help facilitate a student’s comfort level. For example have learners:
- create a personal blog where they answer safe questions about themselves or their interests
- participate in a treasure hunt that requires them to explore aspects of the course and/or external resources to find answers
- send an email of introduction to the group
- post to an “ice breaker” discussion forum, participate in a chat, etc.
- Create a discussion forum that allows students to openly discuss topics of interest to them. For example encourage them to discuss things like popular music, bands, and movies online. Allow them the freedom to participate and encourage them to do so. This has two side effects: one, it necessitates that they use the learning management system to participate and two, it encourages them to meet one another online.
- Be an active facilitator of the discussion forum. Plan on adding one new topic to the discussion board each week. To achieve maximum participation, present topics that require responses from students that are concise, critical, and substantiated by facts. Monitor and respond to student threads and encourage students to do the same.
- Create assignments, activities, or projects that permit students to “actively construct” knowledge when interacting with the information from the course. Create discussion threads that incorporate hypothetical scenarios, case studies, or theoretical conflicts to fuel discussions.
- If you choose to hold “Virtual Office Hours” be sure to be online and available at the announced time. Not showing up for “Virtual Office Hours” is no different than not showing up for established office hours and/or class.
- Develop a timeline for adding content to the course. You want to engage learners with one chapter at a time. If too much information is available, the students will not focus on the chapter, unit, or module at hand.
- When using technology to learn, learning itself becomes an active process of seeking out information and constructing that information into an internal representation of that information/knowledge. Try and balance the amount of guidance provided while permitting students the flexibility to explore and navigate your materials freely to construct their own meaningful knowledge.
- Evaluation is an extremely important component of the development and delivery of any online course content. It is important that you take the time to prepare thorough surveys or questionnaires to gauge students’ reaction to learning in an online environment. Descriptions of their experiences will help you shape the next online course that you create.
Understand your online teaching style. When designing online content it is important to match your teaching style to the appropriate online course delivery methods.
Make everyone feel welcome and heard; create a comfortable environment. Respond publicly to initial introductions in a way that uses them as a springboard for discussion, connecting participants’ experiences to the course content and raising questions for consideration. After everyone is comfortable, responses can become more global: instead of responding to each message individually, you can post replies responding to issues raised in several messages. Encourage participants to join actively in the orientation session and to get to know one another. Show your personality so that your participants feel as if they know you. Use an informal and friendly tone in your messages. You may also want to include emoticons, or “smileys,” short sequences of letters and symbols that are used to emulate emotions and to express the message spirit.
Establish clear goals and expectations early in the course. Make clear to students exactly what you expect from them in the course. Make sure that students thoroughly understand the criteria that will be used for evaluation or grading. You may want to post a weekly checklist in your announcement of each session, or monitor participants’ contributions in Course Statistics and privately remind them if they are not actively contributing to the discussion.
Provide behind-the-scenes support via email. Email is a good way to respond to individual problems or to motivate people to participate without embarrassing them. You will want to be in regular email contact with your students, either by group or individual communication. If students send you interesting content-related comments via email, encourage them to post these thoughts to the discussion forum as well. If you receive a number of questions by email, you may want to consider posting a special discussion forum for questions or suggestions. This way everyone can benefit from answers to questions of general interest.
Foster communication between participants. Phrase your discussion contributions in ways that will encourage further responses from students, and draw connections between students’ comments. Try to avoid “over facilitating.” You don’t need to answer every question and settle every point! You may want to wait a day or two before you address comments to give students an opportunity to respond to one another. When you do post messages, try to push the discussion forward by raising additional questions.
Model participation and discussion techniques for students. Pay attention to the tone of the messages that you post, as you will be setting the course tone. Try to be both professional and informal, establishing an environment of mutual respect and comfort while avoiding any sense of intimidation. Being inclusive and making connections between students’ comments will model this type of discussion behavior and attitude for your students as well.
Keep the discussion alive; prevent stagnancy. Periodically post “acknowledgment” messages to students’ comments, even if you don’t have anything elaborate to contribute on that point. A simple “interesting idea,” “good example,” “I agree,” or similar message can provide the online equivalent of eye contact and a nod of the head: it lets the communicator know that someone is paying attention. Often, this is also a good time to refocus the discussion by posing a new question that stems from the current conversations. Be aware of time. Students don’t tend to check the discussion board as frequently as instructors do, so part of your role is to make sure the discussion lulls don’t last too long. If you keep the discussion alive and stimulating, your students will have an incentive to check more frequently. At a minimum, you should be reading and contributing to the discussion in your workshop at least every other day, more often if possible especially if you have an active group.
Keep the discussion on-topic. Keep the majority of communication in the public forum, even if you find that some participants prefer to share their thoughts with you via email. Do not dilute the discussions on the discussion board with too much private one-on-one communication. Keep the discussions on track; rein in long digressions; push people forward on the topic. If comments drift off topic, be creative. Use subtle or humorous messages, or perhaps a humorous graphic or photo, to redirect discussion. Send personal emails if necessary.
Guide participants through the curriculum. Send out email messages to all participants to announce each new session, introduce the next assignment, and remind participants of upcoming due dates for the course or workshop activities. This can also be a good opportunity to tie readings, activities, and discussion questions together for students.
Make sure the audience and the curriculum are in sync. Observe students’ behavior and responses to assignments and adjust your teaching strategies or curriculum content and presentation as necessary. Encourage students to reflect on the course experience and to provide feedback in the online discussions or via email.
Bring closure to each session before moving on. It is valuable to provide “we are all together” moments to segue from one session or assignment to the next. These pauses help to keep the course participants united as they establish a collective understanding of what they have completed and what they are about to do. Session summaries provide this closure in part, but a number of other types of activities can be used to provide these synergistic moments.
Integrating Technology into Learning Activities
Technology should not be used as a method for delivering information to learners, but instead it should be used as tools to assist learners in developing knowledge. Technologies should engage learners in meaningful learning, where learners are intentionally and actively processing information while pursuing authentic tasks in order to construct personal and socially shared meaning for the phenomena they are exploring and manipulating (Jonassen, Peck, Wilson, 1999). The goal of technology-constructive exercises is for technology to help learners articulate and reflect on what they already know and apply that to the new learning environment. Review the Digital Taxonomy portion of this blog to explore tools and techniques that can be used to create engaging technology based learning activities.
Excellent hybrid courses apply creative combinations of teaching strategies, using methods like instructional units, case studies, simulations, video units and other Web based resources to encourage learners. Such courses adhere to the following:
- The readiness principle, enabling learners to see the relevance of the material
- The experience principle, respecting the expertise learners bring to the course
- The autonomy principle, allowing learners to control their own learning paths through meaningful exercise and activities
- The action principle, emphasizing clearly and continually the connections between what is being learned and the real world in which it is applied
Finally, don’t be afraid to fail. As we all know, we learn an awful lot by making mistakes (although we still feel awful). There is a fascinating article — “The Importance of Failure” — that explores the service we provide to humanity when we screw something up. Seriously, I feel Unsworth is also warning us not to get caught up in a euphoria brought on by change, without truly assessing where that change is leading. Is the emperor wearing cloths or isn’t he? How do we know for sure, especially at a distance?