10 ways to make online learning more engaging


Sean discusses 10 strategies to make online more engaging, and provides specific takeaways, tools, and strategies that can be implemented in the classroom right away.

Video Transcript
>> Hi everybody. Thank you for attending this session. We're going to look at 10 ways to make online learning more engaging, and I am Dr. Sean Nufer from the TCS Education System. I'm the Director of Teaching and Learning, and so, my job is to help teachers teach better, and I love doing that, and I love giving advice on how we can do that. And so, let's dive right in.

We're going to start with my first point, which is, in online learning, it's tempting to do this, but you need to stop lecturing. Lectures are great for face-to-face. Arguably, we might put an asterisk by that, but regardless, if you lecture or not in the face-to-face classroom, there's not really much of a place for it in online learning, and if you do lectures, you want to break it up into micro-lectures. So, we're talking about three to five minutes. And produce a video on one main idea, and if you have more than one main concept or construct that you're presenting, then consider breaking that into more than one video.

So, lectures are best when they're very small. It can be very discouraging for students if they see that there's an online lecture that they have to watch. So, I'm not just saying don't do this. I'm also going to give you lots of suggestions. So, what do you replace lectures with? There are so many different techniques that you can use instead of traditional lectures.

One is to create infographics. There are various online platforms that are great for creating infographics. You can look up Visme, Piktochart, Canva, which is different than Canvas. It's without the s. Even PowerPoint.

You can create awesome infographics within PowerPoint. You can also have students create and present their own infographics. This is a great alternative to traditional lectures. Another approach is the traditional project-based learning. So, looking at peer-to-peer instruction.

I know project-based learning can get a bad rap sometimes, but if you really look into the latest research, latest approaches and strategies, you'll find that it can be quite engaging and collaborative. You can try other forms of instruction, as well, such as the fishbowl activity, jigsaw methods, where you have groups of students who learn a specific concept, and then you break up those groups and form additional groups, so that they have components of each of the concepts, and it's a way that students can teach each other. They can break up the material and reorganize it and present it to their fellow students. You can try think/pair/share, one of the 30,000 variations of think/pair/share that's out there. You can google that.

The gist of it is that you want to dedicate some time to let students reflect, either before classroom or dedicate some online class time, if you meet synchronously, so that they can spend the some moments reflecting on the course content, and then pair them up with another student or two or three other students and get them to collaborate and talk about that, and then, they can share with the rest of the class what they come up with. And one of my favorites is scholarly discourse in the form of debates. Instead of you spending an hour long lecturing, try and get the students to, instead, debate each other on concepts, and you can debate against a myriad of things. You can talk about in the leadership class the difference between servant leadership and transactional leadership, the pros and cons, and have them debate which one is more effective. It could be the peripheral or the direct routes to persuasion.

It could be a myriad of things. Lay out some ground rules. Make sure that students aren't attacking each other and that they're attacking the arguments, but it's a great way to enhance critical thinking, collaboration if you have group discussions if they have to work with each other. Speaking of groups, if you use Zoom or something similar, and you have a synchronous session, consider using breakout rooms, and there are tutorials on YouTube on how to do breakout rooms in Zoom and then, as the instructor, you can visit the different breakout rooms, and you can observe and provide feedback. You can also use Canvas groups for something similar.

Case studies are also a good alternative to the traditional lecture, as are frequent and low-stakes quizzes. The science behind learning says that frequent, low-stakes quizzes have a very positive effect on our students. And so, lecturing is something that we can do differently and online, but also, online learning can be pretty siloing. It can be isolating experience. And so, you want to work hard to get students involved in the class, and I'm going to showcase one technology.

There's many that I could choose from, but want talk a little bit about Nearpod, which primarily is a K-12 educational technology platform, but it can be used in higher education or professional learning, as well. It's on my YouTube channel that I have right there linked. I actually did a tech spotlight for Nearpod, if you'd like to see a little bit more about my perspective of that, but the concept is that you can get your PowerPoint slide deck, and you can present it to the students where you're presenting on your computer, and they're seeing it on their -- it could be mobile devices like phones or tablets or on their computer screen, and they can see your slides as you progress through them, but it adds a level of interactivity, in that you can present things like this, for example. It's an activity. How would you describe who you would like to be in one word? For example, diligent, kind, Batman, and you can have your students submit their answers, and then you'd be able to see all the student answers.

You can hide the student names if you want. So, if there's one that's good, you can share it so that the rest of the student can see that. Another activity that you can do is create a virtual scrapbook of sorts where students can contribute to this board. So, it's kind of like a PowerPoint presentation where they're contributing to the PowerPoint slides, and they can upload pictures or videos or a narrative and text, and so, it really enhances, it brings it to that next level. So, look for ways that you can really involve students beyond just passive notetakers and people who listen to lectures.

Now, your students are very smart. They're great, and they're going to get a lot of A's. I'm going to give you a few B's with this next point, and this is information that I got from an online learning consortium webinar that really has stuck with me, and it's three bes that I want to share with you. One is be human, be present, and be adaptable. So, if you're new to online teaching or if you have experience in the traditional brick-and-mortar face-to-face class, think about what you do in those settings, what you do in your classroom to really foster relationships between the students and between you and your students.

Whatever you do, continue doing that. Make sure you do that. You want to be human. You want to be present as possible. Some ways that you can do that is through video.

If you have Canvas Studio or Panopto or Kaltura or even YouTube, try and create videos, and videos are a great way to interact with students. Also, phone calls, text messaging, and email. I'm going to rewind a little bit. Phone calls is something that doesn't happen a lot and online learning, it's a great way to engage your students and really make them feel like a person. That you're a person, that they're a person, and online students just don't get a whole lot of phone calls.

And so, you can be that professor who does that for your students. Model the behavior that you want to see in class. So, if you want your students to be very active in a discussion board, then you, as the professor, or the instructor, need to be active in the discussion board. You can't just assume that online learning is going to teach itself just because it's in Canvas. Also, part of be present is you want to actually be present in Canvas.

Log on frequently. If you hold office hours, then you want to be on time. You want to engage in meaningful discourse with your students and really work to provide them direction. Something that I do in order to be human and be present is that I have weekly cafes in these low-stakes water cooler hangouts, which I'm actually going to talk about a few points later on, but it's a way for students to engage with each other beyond just the typical academic discussion board, and also, be adaptable. You want to really collect data on each student, because each student is different.

They have different capacities, but also, they have different challenges and things that they're going on in life. And so, we want to be mindful of that. Use the data that you have in order to build a story for each student, and what's the data that you have? You can know attendance. How long have they been logged on? When's the last time they logged on? What pages do they visit in Canvas? What grade to they have? How many times do they email? Are they responsive to students if they're in a group? And then, if you notice that there's a student who hasn't logged in a few days, then don't just email them and say, hey, by the way, student, I notice you haven't logged on in a few days. What's going on? Instead, just frame it.

Frame it to be positive. Say, hey, student. I was just wondering if there's anything I can do to support you? You know, you want to be supportive and you want to express care and concern for your students. And then, possibly, instigate an action plan. Don't call it something like a personal improvement plan.

Don't make it intimidating, but you just want to make sure that your students are on track using the data, and some of that is to be adaptable. But ultimately, you want to engage your students, expressing care and offering your support for them. Oscar Wilde said that you need to be yourself because everyone else is taken. And so, it's important that you don't teach the way that I teach just because you think that you should. Or I shouldn't teach the way the way that other people teach.

You need to notice the good things that people do, but also be yourself. Bruce Lee also mentioned, he said, "Be like water. " So, what he said is that he told us to be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes a cup. If you put water into a bottle, it becomes a bottle.

If you put water in a teapot, it becomes a teapot. You know, water can flow or it can crash. "Be water, my friend. " That's what Bruce Lee was talking about. He wasn't talking about online learning, necessarily, but the concept is that we need to be flexible in our mind as well as flexible in the technologies and the approaches that we use and be mindful of today.

We have unique challenges today that we have never had in any other year in academia. Next point is to solicit feedback, and there are various ways. I have a list here of Canvas polls, Canvas surveys and quizzes. Microsoft Forms, it turns out, is a pretty awesome tool in itself, as well as the traditional SurveyMonkey, Poll Everywhere, but here's something that we kind of flounder in an online learning is I feel like we don't get enough feedback from our students and in addition to the end of the course evaluation that our Office of Institutional Research conducts that's perfunctory and regularly scheduled, that it's good for you, as an online instructor, to also solicit feedback from your students. One way that I do this is just using Canvas surveys.

You know, Polls for Canvas is good for at the moment that you can release a live poll during your lecture, and you can get real-time feedback, but I do lot of, I would say, avant-garde approaches to assessments in my classes. I really want to stretch, you know, stretch the minds of my students and try different things, but I also want to be successful in that. So, it's important that I get feedback from my students regularly. And so, something that I do is I have surveys at the end of the week, very low stakes, with almost no points, but I'm just generally interested in things like I'll ask the students, "In this week's discussion, to what extent did we effectively engage students and help build our community, and how can this discussion be improved?" You know, just keep it simple like that, just those two questions, open-ended. They can share as much or as little as they want.

You might make it worth no points, so it's like no stakes, and another thing I do is since I try so many different approaches, and some of them are avant-garde. Some of them are flat-out very different than what students have seen, but I feel like they're impactful, but I'll do a pre-term survey and a post-term survey, optional, with no points, because I want to get their feedback, and I'll ask them things like, you know, "Did our approaches in this class effectively build communities of learners, and did it enhance your learning and my teaching in any way, and did it engage you?" And it could be Likert thing, like strongly to -- strongly agree to strongly disagree. You know, to what extent were you engaged? Did you feel engaged in the assessments that we did? Again, you can solicit feedback after an assignment, after a week, after a module. It could be from students. It could be from auditors.

It could be yourself, your own reflections, and I'll talk about that a little bit later, as well. But yeah, get the students involved. Another way to get students involved is through the peer review process, and if you've used peer review before, that I applaud you. I think it's a great function in Canvas. I think it's good that we have it.

If you've never done peer review, just know that the research behind peer review assessments, in terms of a student assessing another student in the class, is that there's actually good amount of reliability from the feedback that students provide other students to the feedback that instructors tend to provide to other students. So, it could make your job a little bit easier, but it also helps engage the students with each other and the added benefit, that, you know, especially I teach a lot in grad school. My grad students often want to go into teaching. They're learning something, but they want to teach what they're learning. They want to be a professor of behavioral economics or they want to teach IO psychology, and in education, generally, sometimes we have a hard time preparing our students for life in academia.

And so, peer review can give them that opportunity that they can put on the teacher's hat, and they can provide good qualitative and quantitative feedback. And it also helps them see the content, the course content, from a different angle, from the angle of the professor, instead of continuously from the angle as a student. And so, on your assignment page, if you edit your assignment, you'll have a peer review option. If you select that, then you'll have another option to assign manually or automatic, the peer reviews. You can have students evaluate more than one peer, and we can have them be anonymous, as well, and once you set that up, then on your assignment page, in the top-right corner, right by SpeedGrader, you're going to have a peer review link.

And when you click on that link, it'll take you to a peer review page where the peer reviews are automatically assigned. So, you can see those assignments, and you can also change them after the fact, as well. and you can have them evaluate more than one student, as well. And what that would look like, once you've had peers evaluating each other, then in SpeedGrader, on the right hand column, you're going to see on the column here, on the comments portion, you're going to see all of the comments that the students have provided for this particular student, as well as if they used the rubric to grade. Then you'll be able to see the rubric, and you can see each student, how they used the rubric, as well.

From the student perspective, on their assignment page, they're going to see your feedback, as well as the peers' feedback, and if the student responded to you or their peers, then that dialogue will be on their page. So, peer review is a great way to get students collaborating in an academic standpoint. You also want to encourage collaboration among students as they're doing their assignments. So, look for collaborative tools. I have a few examples here.

This is not comprehensive but something to get started with. But have students work with each other to solve real problems from your class. You know, you can work collaboration into online class time. If you're teaching synchronously, then you can build that into your lesson plan, and that's a good way so that you can, real time, give feedback, ideas, and suggestions to groups. One thing that's not on there, if you use Zoom, you can have breakout rooms.

In Canvas, you can have groups, and you can see how they interact with each other. Most institutions, I think today, probably have subscriptions either to Office 365, which includes, One Drive, or Google Documents, and that's a great way. It's a suite of platforms that allow you to engage synchronously in the collaborative process. So, look for that. The other thing you can do is think outside the box.

This is very broad, so, I'll have you think of what that means. I'm going to showcase Kahoot! I could showcase a myriad of platforms. I chose Kahoot! because usually at Instructor Con when I present, this is my fourth or fifth time presenting, I usually run a Kahoot! which is a quiz. You can create a quiz for your students with pictures, videos, multimedia, of sorts, and you can have them answer their questions. What it looks like is you will present your questions on a main slide deck here, and there are various options that they can choose color coded with shapes, and on their devices, their computer, their tablets, or their phone, they'll be able to select one of the possible answers, and the faster they respond, the more points they get.

There will be a leaderboard. And so, it's a great way to engage students beyond the typical lecture or PowerPoint. I mentioned earlier about creating a water cooler. This is what it looks like in my class. Every Monday, my classes run from Monday to Sunday, every Monday, I have my students engage in a discussion thread that's not traditional.

It's more of a water cooler. I just want people to talk to each other about what's going on in life. So, my two portions, I have a cafe, an idea cafe, where they can just let us know how they're doing. How's the family? How's, you know, how are your challenges, your trials, you vacation, your DIY projects, and then, right now I have as an option, a reflection. In the past, it was a portion of it.

Now with the pandemic in everything, I want them to think about their ah-ha moment from the previous week. What's their main idea? What's something that really clicked with them? And share that with the class. I want them to pull last week into this week, so the previous modules don't become a ghost town. I talked about the pandemic a little bit, just briefly. You want to make the current events relevant to the content of your class, because if you don't, it will find its way into your class anyway.

And finally, I'll mention fail forward. You know, students might not be technologically literate, but they do expect a teacher to be, but this is a fairly forgiving time for all. So, try something new. Keep trying until you succeed. One approach that I use is the start-stop-continue model where what did I do? What was this assignment? What worked well that I want to continue doing? What didn't work? What's on my stop list? And is there something new that I could try that I didn't incorporate that I can start? So, we have our points.

We're going to stop lecturing from now on in online. We're going to make sure that we get students involved, because online learning can be isolating, and we want to make sure that it's not. You want to be human, be present, be adaptable. Be like water, my friend. Solicit feedback from your students often and genuinely.

Engage in a peer review process. Look for collaborative opportunities for your students. Think outside the box. You want to create some kind of water cooler, some kind of informal setting for your students. Make your content relevant to -- right now it's the pandemic.

In the future it could be current events. It could be weather. It could be politics, something, whatever's going on. You know, bring it into the class, and finally, fail forward. And so, these are my 10 strategies for making online learning more effective, and I appreciate your time and your attention.

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