A lot has changed in the last couple of years. So shifting your course online, while maintaining the quality and integrity of your teaching style, might feel like a bridge too far.
But with the proper support and techniques, online modes of delivery don’t have to result in a lower quality learning experience. As expert partners for academic institutions of higher learning, we’ve seen how different online learning methods can accentuate the learning experience, foster increased connection, and engage the learner as actively and effectively as possible.
We’ll take a look at six techniques and learning principles that you can use to package the high-level classroom experience you’ve honed over the years and enable unique opportunities for learning.
One of the chief concerns with a shift to online learning is that learners will be lonely, less engaged and able to opt-out of participation. But by using effective learning methods like active learning, we can increase learner interaction and participation, and boost learning outcomes.
In a traditional learning setup like an in-person or online lecture, the educator is actively engaged and the learner is passively receiving information. Active learning techniques reverse this dynamic and focus on how best to get the learner to build, participate and actively solve problems.
Instead of relying on a one-way learning format, course designers can factor in opportunities for engagement. For example, you can host a Q&A session to promote interaction between learners and teachers, use breakout rooms for more in-depth discussion, or establish workgroups for peer-to-peer debate.
“We don’t lose any of the information, we make it a lot more active,” says Hubble Studios Learning Designer, Clodagh Mannion. “You can go from an activity to a discussion about the activity to then providing feedback to learners from that discussion. We can also get the learners to develop their own learning path through social interaction with fellow learners.”
Another unconventional learning technique that upends traditional methods is the flipped classroom. Tying neatly into the goals of active learning, the flipped classroom is designed to promote learner engagement.
Instead of spending classroom time passively listening, learners take in new content at home and apply and analyse this knowledge during class time. In short, they’re doing what might traditionally be considered “homework” in the classroom space, so they are able to focus on teacher and peer engagement during lessons.
“The concept behind the flipped classroom is to rethink when students have access to the resources they need most. If the problem is that students need help doing the work rather than being introduced to the new thinking behind the work, then the solution the flipped classroom provides is to reverse that pattern,” writes TeachThought University.
This might look like a recorded lecture, or a set of online readings that a learner can work through in their own time, with a follow-up session or activity where they can have their questions clarified and work to apply the knowledge in context.
Some of the benefits of this technique include access to more content (whenever needed and despite a possible absence from class) and the possibility of family support (although this will not be consistent for all learners).
Crucially, the flipped classroom also fosters an environment where students can practice taking charge of their learning experience. This paves the way for the next principle of effective online learning, student-centred learning.
When a learner is shifted from a passive receiver to an engaged participant who is responsible for driving their learning forward, the learning outcomes improve. While it might seem an unconventional learning technique, modelling lessons around the learner promotes motivation and accelerates their development.
So how do you achieve student-centred learning in an online learning environment? Well, this relies on providing learners with multiple opportunities to engage with the content, their peers and their teachers.
Student–content interaction is supercharged through lessons that engage the learner on multiple plains: both intellectually and emotionally. A number of the techniques listed below will help with reaching learners on an emotional level (such as effective storytelling and social learning). These techniques help learners to immerse themselves in a principle and to make links between theory and real-world application.
To ensure content is pushing learners to a higher level of thinking, we make use of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. By targeting lessons at the correct level, learners are challenged with higher forms of engagement (such as being asked to evaluate information, rather than just recall it).
Student-centred learning is also enhanced by the flipped classroom method so that any online class time is used to maximise learner–learner and learner–teacher engagement.
Forums, debates, group exercises and projects all help to increase online interaction. This both engages learners and helps to create the more social aspects of the learning environment that can otherwise be missing from online learning.
In addition to promoting interaction between peers, these exercises prompt learners to put a personal spin on the material they’re working with, and to share personal experiences and opinions with others.
Since interaction is considered a key part of successful learning, social learning theory gives us additional tools to amp up the online learning experience.
“This is one of the areas that a lot of lecturers, understandably, are very worried about: that learners will feel that they’re on their own”, says Clodagh. But there are ways around that.
“When learning occurs entirely through computer-mediated instruction, an important part of the instructor’s role is ensuring the learning environment is “people focused” or humanized,” write Susan Spellman-Cann, Erin Luong, Christina Hendricks and Verena Roberts in their case study of an educational technology MOOC (massive open online course).
Social learning theory asserts that knowledge is created and shaped through the learning experience and through a range of learning interactions (including learner–content, learner–learner and learner–teacher).
A social learning environment is supportive, rather than monitoring. Social learning principles are used to promote collaborative learning and interaction, improve motivation and attendance, and help learners to be more confident when approaching new tasks or participating in lessons. It also works to drive learners along the journey through encouragement and ongoing feedback.
So what would an educator do to facilitate more social learning in the online classroom? An online learning environment should prioritise opportunities for peer feedback, through posts (written and recorded), working groups and general learner interaction.
“One of the biggest benefits is that we can have students from all over the world,” says Clodagh. “So you can get a diversity of opinions and experiences that you would not often find in a classroom.”
Frequent learner–teacher engagement should also be built into the online learning environment. When educators are able to establish strong, personal connections with learners, they are more likely to enjoy and engage in the learning experience.
“One of the basics of making good online courses is not to throw bells and whistles at it, which Hubble doesn’t,” says Clodagh. “It’s to build robust courses that could actually stand alone without technology, and technology is brought in to enhance that learning.”
One of the ways to do this is through immersive learning, which can rely on complex solutions like augmented reality, or simpler designs with robust storytelling.
Whatever the form of delivery, immersive learning helps to bridge the classroom and the real-world application and establish physical or emotional relevance.
Hubble Studios worked with a client to set up an immersive experience to help learners prepare for a study abroad trip. The experience was established with strong narrative pathways and a simple tech setup.
The learners were able to drive their own experience forward by choosing between different narrative pathways through the city. In this way, learners decided what they wanted to see, and when. They were able to backtrack and revisit areas as well to build familiarity. By exploring a place digitally before their arrival, the learners were able to build up their confidence and their sense of place in preparation for their trip.
It’s a great way to ease a learner into practising complicated technical or soft skills in a low-pressure setting. And as mentioned in the example above, it’s also a great way to embed a learner in a specific context and bring that situation to life.
Storytelling and Gamification
“Storytelling is a powerful learning tool, as it allows for the content to apply to each learner’s life,” explains Clodagh. “Online learning allows another dimension as we are able to have learners from all over the world sharing their own personal stories. This just wouldn’t be possible in a classroom setting.”
As technology evolves, there will be more and more opportunities for gamification to be used in online learning. By and large, gamification involves using game tactics to make learning fun, sociable and engaging.
According to research published in Frontiers in Psychology, “Usually, the game (course) is designed to progressively introduce new concepts to be mastered; students must then apply these concepts to increasingly challenging problems and ultimately apply prior knowledge to new situations…”
But gamification doesn’t mean online courses need to include animated or interactive visual design. Gamification ranges from quizzes to question rounds and evolving scenarios. The key is to pull out aspects that make games fun, like stories, great design, competitions, rewards and feedback. And that can all be done with a low-tech solution.
Hubble Studios maintains that learning objectives should always be prioritised over technology and that online courses should be able to stand alone.
This wisdom is echoed by other leaders in online learning. “Begin with the end in mind: What do you want learners to have accomplished at the end of the course? How will they have changed?” said Jared Stein, Vice President of Research and Development at Canvas by Instructure.
“You will want to choose the tools that provide the best opportunities to learn, practice, and socialise with the least amount of technical overhead,” he continued.
While transitioning your course to online does have its challenges, it also provides you with new tools that can make the learning experience better than ever. Still, it helps to have a guide.