Engaging learners is a challenge in any educational setting. However, when you take away the physical presence of humans, you are faced with an even greater challenge. No longer are you able to read the body language or even verbal responses a student may have to a learning environment. The level of learner engagement in an online course is dependent upon the tools and approaches an instructor elects to use. As approaches to instruction are considered, there are three focal points we must consider: content, communication, and collaboration.
To foster the development of content knowledge, an instructor has a vast array of tools available. Among them are vidcasts, podcasts, YouTube, teacher created presentations, Google scholar search, on-line encyclopedias including Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, webinars, and articles. The interesting thing about these tools is that they could be the same tools that students produce as a culmination of their learning. With an online course, I particular enjoy viewing available videos to help build knowledge. They offer a distant physical presence. The videos may or may not be of the instructor facilitating the course; nonetheless, they provide the human figure which often lacks in a distance learning environment. It is also a strategy that helps meet the needs of the diverse learning styles of our students. Beyond video, the internet is perhaps the largest warehouse of information in the world. Google search options like Scholar, online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, and social networks like Twitter provide endless access to knowledge.
Instruction is much more than ensuring that knowledge is accessed and acquired. In order to assess that the knowledge is ingrained in the learner’s thought process, it is essential that communication occurs between students and with the instructor. Communication can take a wide array of approaches. There are the discussions that take place in virtual spaces supporting the course which include discussion boards and course cafes. These are public platforms of communication and they may also include Twitter, social networks, and peer or class blogs. However, communication must also occur in safe places. Emails, Skype video calls or chatting permit students and teachers alike to have more candied conversations regarding the course work. In these spaces support can be offered without discomfort. Peers can not judge feedback in this space.
Collaborative tasks are at the core of instruction that engages learners. Without the content and the communication this piece would not be able to exist. Most of us are familiar with wikis, my preferred wiki is Wikispaces. It is user friendly and ads free. In spaces like these students can create content together and the instructor can monitor who is doing the work. It brings collaborative group work to a more accountable level permitting instructors first-hand to confirm the contributions each member offers a group. Discussion features allow peers to provide discussion point, reflects, and concerns regarding a page or product. Google offers collaborative opportunities for groups to produce documents, projects, and even maps together. However, my preference for presentations is Prezi as it permits shared creation of a project. Finally, a valuable collaborative tool I would like to use more with students and peers alike is Diigo. Social bookmarking is becoming a fabulous tool for students to share as they conduct research as part of a team. Participants are allowed to highlight and level notes on a web page collectively. These collaborative supports offer allow us to offer our students opportunities which span the spectrum of learning from information gathering to assessment.
Involving learners in building content knowledge, engaging in communication with peers and instructors, and working on authentic, collaborative, problem-based tasks in the online environment is readily achieved through the use of rich, web-based tools. Everyday there is something new. (I haven’t even begun to address the apps available to foster new avenues for content knowledge development, communication, and collaboration.)
Anderson, T. (Ed.). (2008). The theory and practice of online learning. (2nd ed.). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.
Durrington, V. A., Berryhill, A., & Swafford, J. (2006). Strategies for enhancing student interactivity in an online environment. College Teaching, 54(1), 190−193.
Siemens, G. (2008, January). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. ITForum.