It can be challenging to keep online courses engaging and interesting. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares five methods and strategies to help online educators enhance their classroom. Learn how to increase student engagement through asynchronous discussions, online group work, gamification, guided exploration, and leveraging the full power of your school’s learning management system.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
I thank you for joining me. It’s wonderful to be with you here today, to talk about methods and strategies teaching online. There are so many ways you can engage with your students in the online classroom, many of which involve special tools, interfaces, apps, or other items that might be considered bright and shiny objects.
Just to help you avoid getting overwhelmed, I’m going to introduce you to five specific methods and strategies you might consider using in your upcoming courses to help you keep the overwhelm at a minimum and get excited about trying something new and creative.
You might already know this, but choosing methods and strategies that work for your online environment and also guide your students appropriately through the topic, it’s challenging but it’s also necessary.
Creative strategies are so needed because students otherwise will disengage. Online education can be very isolating. If we always use an essay and discussion board approach, it can also be very dry and boring. Engaging your students and getting them excited about what they’re going to learn and how they’re going to learn is only part of the battle. We’re going to talk about that: how to learn it.
Think about the typical online class that focuses mainly on a lecture and some kind of assignment the student will give back to you. This is somewhat an imitation of a live class, and most of us would see this as the typical way a college class occurs. Online students need way more opportunities to interact with each other, with the content, and with you.
Online learners are a bit different than the residential students you might have at a traditional face-to-face university. Many of them have busy lives and need to be able to look at smaller bits of information, like a little video clip or something engaging they can click through or several of these things.
If you take the time to chunk information and use special strategies to create engagement, these strategies will really help your students be interested in your online course and help them throughout their learning and help them enjoy the process.
The tools that give your students the opportunity to work through the content that they need to learn, compete with their own performance, and manage the overall learning process can really help your online courses become more exciting and motivating.
As I’ve already mentioned, this could quickly lead to overwhelm for you. So choose one thing to try in your upcoming course, keep it small and simple, and you will be very pleased with the way this leads to a better result for you and your students.
Five Strategies for Improving Student Engagement
So here are the five methods and strategies I’d like to share with you today to help you get something more interesting going on in a small and simple piece.
The first is asynchronous discussions. Asynchronous discussions are the hallmark component of online courses. Most people expect to see a discussion forum at some point in an online class. Some people use discussion forums throughout the entire course. Discussion forums give students the opportunity to teach and learn from each other. They can try on ideas, analyze, explore, debate, discuss. They can really get into the content through a discussion. They can also engage in dialogue with you, the instructor.
The discussion can include text. It could be based on images, audio, video, or multimedia, or you could include some combination of those things. In a previous episode of the Online Teaching Lounge, I explored a lot of different ways to manage your online discussions and creative a forum prompts you might consider trying. I hope you will take a look at those previous episodes. They’ll give you a lot of ideas in the asynchronous discussion area.
Online Group Work
The second method and strategy I would like to suggest is online group work. Learning can be a collaborative endeavor and group work can promote dialogue while refining understandings. This can be done in a way that fits the subject matter that you are teaching.
Group discussions, group projects, and peer-to-peer activities can also make online learning much more enjoyable for your students. This will reduce the tendency to have just lecture and discussion-based courses, and it will also make it more interesting when they’re forming connections with their classmates.
One of the drawbacks of online learning is that students do not really get to know each other deeply. When they work in a group, they have a better chance of getting to know each other, connecting and maybe even knowing a familiar name when they go to the next course in their program.
Group work can be very difficult to manage. I used to do an online project in the music appreciation class that I am teaching most. In that course when the group work came up, sometimes I would specifically assign students groups of people that were in the same time zone. My students tend to be all over the world at any given point, so I like to creatively manage that.
I had also chosen groups based on similar demographics. Maybe they’re in the same military branch or maybe some knew the subject of music a little bit and some didn’t, and I would combine those to give everybody a better chance of engaging about the content.
Group work needs clear instructions, creative activities to explore where each group member can contribute something. And, of course, some kind of criteria for grading that makes it worth the student’s time.
When I say worth their time, I mean that they’re going to actually be graded on their own contribution and not solely on the group grade. Students get very discouraged when they’re graded on the work that classmates have not done.
It’s also very helpful in group work assignments to let students choose some component of the assignment themselves. Maybe there are some creative elements they can put in there. Maybe there are several choices of what could be created or discussed in the assignment, and maybe there is also the opportunity to choose what the output format is going to look like whether it’s an essay, a PowerPoint, or some multimedia presentation.
Considering group work as the opportunity to really engage in a real-world fashion, this is an opportunity for you to also coach your students on how to work as teams, especially online.
Games and Simulations
The third method and strategy I’d like to introduce, this is the area of games and simulations. Games and simulations are opportunities for your students to apply new learning in real life scenarios. These can be supplemented through hypothetical situations, maybe they’re even role-playing or through specific apps and platforms built for some kind of educational gaming.
You might consider badging. Sometimes students get very excited about earning these little badges that appear as tokens of their achievement. There might be something built into your LMS that allows badging or up-voting or some kind of other engagement about the game or simulation itself.
Sometimes a little bit of competition actually makes the learning process even more fun. Games and simulations are becoming increasingly popular. I was at the Online Learning Consortium Conference a couple of years ago where a faculty member actually introduced the idea of using a Dungeons and Dragons scenario in a class, for gaming options.
If you explore the possibilities of gaming and simulations that are available, you just might find one that works fabulously in your subject matter. Simulations are a little bit different than games. They’re a little bit more applied and real-world oriented and might revolve around a case study or a role-play.
A simulation is something that might have a decision tree. For example, maybe the student enters a crime scene and they’re in a class where this is the area of focus. In the simulation, they might need to examine evidence and make a choice. With a decision tree, when they click on one choice, it will go to one avenue, and when they click on a different choice, it will take them someplace else. It’s a little bit like the 1980s example of choose your own adventure books. You get to choose the different options and the program takes you in different directions.
There are a lot of apps and things available that allow for decision trees. Even a simple PowerPoint presentation could be rigged so that you have a decision tree option available. You can create a slide where a student clicks on one or the other item on the slide, and depending on what they click on, it moves them to another slide entirely, skipping over a whole bunch of slides in between.
If you’re not sure what to use for a simulation and you’d like to try, I recommend starting with a simple PowerPoint. You might also consider reaching out to your classroom management team, whoever is working on your LMS at your institution, to see what’s available. Some apps can even be integrated into the learning management system to make this a lot easier for your students and for you.
Going back to the idea of gaming, I will go back into an app that I’d like to recommend today. There is one called Quizlet, which is well known for flashcard studying. Quizlet hosts flashcard-style tools to create simple interactive and game-like components that are easily embedded into any LMS.
A lot of students search for subject matter content online, maybe they do a Google search for items related to your class that you’re teaching. And many of them actually find Quizlets already available that help them study the terms that are taught in your class.
If you decide to create a Quizlet, it can be very simple to just create a list of terms or ideas, concepts, scenarios, and you can set up various options in the Quizlet program, making it fit your subject matter and your strategy the best.
Keep in mind that any new technology you may be learning as the instructor might be equally challenging for your students. There is a learning curve to everything, so when you’re trying a new interface, a new app, or a new program, keep yourself limited to one. This is going to help you avoid the overwhelm that comes with bright and shiny object syndrome. And when you get overwhelmed with a lot of new options, it can be paralyzing, making it difficult for you to integrate that into your classroom.
If you’re able to develop simulations, role-playing games, or other gamification that might go into your courses, this could be really engaging and fun. It will generate interest in your class and in the content of your course. And also guide your students to learn at a deeper level, and the results will definitely be worthwhile.
A fourth area I recommend is called guided exploration. Guided exploration helps your students quite a bit. It can be delivered as an instructor-made video. Perhaps you are doing a screencast that walks through the entire classroom, showing your students around. Maybe it’s a narrated screencast. It could be a classroom tour, a list of steps for investigating a topic, a guided exercise in the subject matter. Maybe it’s an analysis presentation of some kind of case study or other issue, or other teacher-led tools.
When we think about guided exploration, this is often the idea of lecturing on a content matter. If you use guided exploration, really what you’re doing is giving an overview of a subject or the topic, walking students through it, and describing, discussing, and analyzing it as you go.
As the instructor, you’re giving a little bit more information about the thinking for this kind of subject, maybe what we might notice. One example I’d like to share is from the music appreciation class, because of course, that’s my subject area. Guided exploration in this case might be a recording of a performance where I’m going to pause it, point out a few things in that video, discuss it and record myself doing this, and then continue recording a little segment and talk through which musical devices are showing up.
As I do that kind of guided exploration video, my students are going to have a lot more hands-on guidance so that when they listen to their musical example and have to analyze it, they feel a little bit more prepared.
Leveraging Your Learning Management System
The last method or strategy that I would like to share with you today is your LMS. Your LMS, of course, isn’t a strategy itself, but it comes with a lot of different components to help you track student progress and create creative assignments. You can communicate with everyone through your LMS, usually. You can also reach individuals privately. There might be some kind of messaging feature. There might be something also that enables interaction or even live video. Leveraging your LMS and all of its different components could allow you to create things that are new and different.
Some learning management systems have a group setting. You can take a forum discussion and randomly assign students into different groups so that they’re just discussing the topic in smaller groups than they normally would. Sometimes this alone is a very engaging method for students to get connected and a strategy for helping them dive to a deeper level.
Just in review, we’ve talked today about asynchronous discussions, group work, games and simulations, guided exploration, and learning management system components. Methods and strategies in your online class are a little bit different than deciding what to teach, it’s more about deciding how you will teach it.
As you spend the time creatively deciding your methods and strategies, you’re going to be able to be creating something that is more interesting for your students and more engaging overall. It will also give you that feeling of trying something fresh every so often. So that you don’t get stuck in patterns that you teach every single semester, but that you keep trying something new.
I hope you will try at least one of these methods and strategies today to freshen up your online teaching. And I wish you all the best this week in your online teaching.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.