Online Learning: Best Practices for Intentional Design


According to a recent Institute of International Education, Inc. report, over 90% of higher education institutions in the U.S. are taking a new and different approach to learning this semester, either in a virtual-only or hybrid learning model.  

The continuation of distance learning has pushed institutions to move from the emergency process put in place earlier this year to the creation of sustainable online and remote learning practices.

As students and faculty embrace this transition to online learning, in many cases, coursework must be modified and reimagined to provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know while learning at their own pace. As we've worked closely with many institutions throughout this shift, we’ve seen firsthand that intentionally designed online learning has the power to create meaningful, interactive experiences between faculty and students—and these connections play a large role in maintaining student engagement for the long haul.

Our recent 2020 global benchmark study on the State of Student Success and Engagement found that hands-on instruction (47%) and experience-based learning (46%) are just a few of the methods that students value. 

With the expectation that learning will remain online for the foreseeable future, many educators are still in the process of evolving a course they’ve conducted face to face, perhaps for years, to an immersive online experience. 

Balancing Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships

In our ongoing work to support educators throughout this transition, we’ve identified three commonalities all successful online courses share:

  • Communication: Important announcements are easy to find, faculty can be contacted as needed, and feedback is given to personalize learning.
  • Empathy: Courses are designed to address the social and emotional needs of all learners by providing multiple opportunities for interaction.
  • Consistency: Courses are structured in a cohesive fashion to improve navigation and user experience.

These fundamentals undoubtedly present educators with a balancing act, but together they create a foundation for both student and institutional success.

Kona Jones of Richland Community College calls the above “designing for kindness,” and considers it an important part of reframing coursework. “When students feel like their teacher cares about them as a person, as well as their success in the course, it creates a foundation of trust that promotes meaningful interactions and learning.” Plus, she adds, “It’s important to note that 'kindness' doesn’t mean 'easy.' You can still have an extremely rigorous course. Your course can still do some amazing things with students and expect phenomenal things out of them.”

Dr. Sean Nufer, Director of Teaching and Learning at TCS Education System suggests thinking about three B’s: Be human, be present, and be adaptable. “If you’re new to online teaching, think about what you do in your face-to-face settings to foster relationships between students and between you and students. Be sure you’re continuing to do that.”

Building a Foundation for Engagement

The following best practices can provide educators with practical methods to create online learning that's engaging, effective, and designed to support a foundation of trust, support, and empathy with students.

#1 Create a strong introduction 

“I like to make my courses feel as welcoming as possible,” says Kona. “In Canvas, I use a welcome page to let students know where I‘m coming from and where I want our course to go.”

A good practice, Kona says, is to create a page to introduce yourself and let students know the best methods to contact you. “I also like to describe how the course is designed, so I post a walkthrough where I pull up the course just as it is online. I talk through what the course is, what we’ll do, and where you can find useful resources.”

Kona recommends using the walkthrough to show students the useful things you’d want to know if you were coming into a new course yourself. A “Getting Started” checklist can also be helpful.

Use this as an opportunity to empower students to take ownership of their learning, reminding them that it’s okay to make mistakes and that they shouldn’t be afraid to experiment as they learn.  

#2 Build fluid communication and feedback loops

One foolproof way to get students to engage with your online course is to be active, present, and responsive in the online channels you’re asking them to use—whether that’s your discussion boards, your online office hours, or your preferred communication methods.

Model the behavior you want to see. “And if you notice a student hasn’t logged on for a few days,” says Sean, “frame it as a positive when you reach out.” Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them. “You want to be supportive and express care and concern.” From there you can initiate an action plan and help them stay on track if needed. Phone calls are a good way to reduce the feeling of isolation that sometimes accompanies remote learning, he adds.

Surveys are another useful tool. Kona uses information from an introductory survey to guide her interactions with students and as one more way to lead with kindness. “I want to understand where students are coming from and what’s happening in their lives,” she says. Her survey asks students practical questions, like what kind of technology they use, how reliable their internet access is, and whether they have access to a printer, but also, personal details that will help guide classroom interaction, including how they pronounce their name and what are their preferred pronouns, for example.

A regular feedback mechanism is also important. “This feedback exchange is one of the major ways I can ask students how things are going and help them get the information and resources they need,” says Kona.

Another way to design for kindness, says Kona, is to make sure everything students need for the course is readily available for them to view and access. “When creating your online course structure, consider adding a section that houses all the course materials in one consolidated place in addition to placing those resources in the week by week area.”

#3 Rethink the lecture  

“In online learning,” says Sean, “it’s time to stop lecturing. They’re better in face-to-face classroom situations.”

Instead, he suggests recording lectures in micro-lectures of 3–5-minute segments and breaking more complex topics into multiple videos. “Lectures are best when they’re very small,” he adds. “It can be very discouraging for students to see they have a long online lecture to watch.”

Instead, Sean recommends finding interesting ways to replace lectures. “One way is to create infographics for students. There are various online platforms that are great for creating infographics,” he adds, including visme, Piktochart, Canva, and Microsoft PowerPoint, among others.

Alternatively, have students create and present their own infographics.  

“Case studies are another good alternative,” he adds. “And the science behind learning shows that frequent low-stakes quizzes have a very positive effect on students.”

#4 Use peer-to-peer communication and collaboration

Creating assignments where students work together to learn and teach one another is another successful remote learning tool. Use your video conferencing tool to set up group meeting rooms where students can collaborate and you can check in on progress.

Sean adds, “One of my favorite methods is scholarly discourse in the form of debates. Instead of spending an hour lecturing, try to get the students to debate each other on the concepts of the topic. It’s a great way to enhance critical thinking and collaboration.”

“The peer review process is a great function in Canvas,” says Sean. “It’s a great way to get students collaborating in an academic standpoint and it can help them see the class content from a different angle, from that of the professor, rather than the student.” The peer review process becomes doubly helpful if the student intends to become a teacher themselves.

Adjusting to this new learning environment won’t happen overnight. Institutions that can make traction by providing faculty with tools and skills that help them design their coursework for an online learning environment will position themselves to grow student engagement during continued uncertainty.  

Get More Online Learning Insights

Discover more tips and strategies in our student success series, featuring our study on the State of Student Success and Engagement. So far, we’ve explored the importance of career readiness, interactive learning experiences, and quality of faculty. Next up, we’ll delve into some of the ways that socioeconomic disparities impact student engagement.

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