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Online Learning also Happens when you’re Not Around

By Alexandra Mihai

Some of the most widespread complaints about teaching online are linked to the lack of personal interaction, low student engagement and the inability to replicate the classroom dynamic. While the physical distance between teacher and students does create a different teaching and learning environment, it does not necessarily have to be a change for the worse, as it is too often perceived nowadays. After all, high levels of meaningful interaction are not to be taken for granted even in face-to-face courses. So, if it’s not the medium, what is it that makes a learning experience engaging, both for students and for the teacher?

Interaction by design

Contrary to what we, as teachers, tend to believe, learning can also take place when we are not around. Of course, this requires a bit more effort upfront, at the course design stage, but it almost always pays off. In face-to-face courses, we often rely on spontaneous interactions and we don’t put much thought into the exact mechanics of how students engage with each other, with us and with the content. When teaching online, it is precisely these elements we need to dedicate the most time to. Interaction in all its forms needs to be carefully and intentionally planned and clearly communicated to students. Instructions and expectations need to be unambiguous. While all this is critical in an online course, more focus on designing for engagement can bring face-to-face courses to a different level too.


Trust your students

Online learning is all about independent learning. We often read that as losing control of what students are doing. But it does not have to be this way. I find these three aspects important when designing online learning activities:

• find a topic or a specific angle that resonates with your students, something relevant for their lives or that they can identify with;

• create an environment that encourages and rewards independent learning; teach them the importance of taking ownership of their learning and reflecting on it;

• be there for them to scaffold their learning if and when they need it.

Good online learning does not have to be (only) synchronous. As many of us have noticed especially in the past months, seeing students on a screen does not replace the classroom feeling. Moreover, it brings about issues of privacy and accessibility that sometimes overshadow the experience. So why not think of more effective and stimulating learning activities that take advantage of the virtual environment? Here are three examples of asynchronous activities that can be used in different contexts:


The discussion board reinvented

Before you click away, try to forget for a moment the empty forum pages on the Virtual Learning Environment, where students never bothered to answer your questions. Discussion boards can be used in a more effective way than that. The important thing is to capture students’ attention with a relevant topic and put some time in designing the activity. This often involves assigning students specific roles or tasks and being present in the virtual space to facilitate their learning. The asynchronous mode of this simple but versatile tool allows students to research and reflect before posting their answer. It also creates a useful archive of all contributions and interactions, enabling the students to revisit it when needed and allowing you to monitor their activity and provide feedback.

An activity I run on a discussion board in my European policy-making courses is called “Expert in Residence”. It gives students the chance to discuss with a policy-maker on a specific topic. Students ask their questions on the forum and the expert answers at the agreed time; the discussion can go over a few days. Unlike in a webinar where both the students and the expert feel the pressure to “perform” in the limited time frame, the asynchronous format enables students to understand the topic in-depth and learn from the expert and from their peers.


The ePortfolio as a personal learning space

The ePortfolio is another versatile tool that facilitates independent learning. It may sound intimidating if you never used it before but try to look at it like this: it is a learning space where students do research, build and share knowledge in a personalised way. This can take the form of a blog, a website or a diary, the technology is not the most important thing here. Just let them use whatever tools they are most familiar with. The crucial thing is designing the task in such a way that it encourages students to use their digital skills (and their time online) to advance their learning in your course. The biggest benefit of the ePortfolio, in my opinion, is that it can be a space of reflection, thus also allowing us, as instructors, to follow students’ learning as an ongoing process, and not only by reading their final exams.

I find this tool very useful for a variety of course setups, but particularly where comparative or case study approaches are used, as students can each research and document in depth one specific case (can be a country, an institution, etc). ePortfolios can be used as a learning activity throughout the semester (ideally with weekly or bi-weekly tasks) and can also count as a final assignment; the important thing is to provide formative feedback along the way and also to encourage peer feedback.


Group work revisited

Asynchronous activities do not need to be solitary. While individual learning is, as we’ve seen above, closely linked to online learning, group work is an important part of the learning experience and should not be neglected in online courses. Students can also work together (sometimes even better) when they are not at the same place at the same time. In the classroom, we usually use group work for small tasks. The advantage online is that students can work on a group project for a longer period or even for an entire semester. Of course, the pitfalls of collaborative work online are the same as face-to-face: unequal work distribution, overpowering personalities, etc. Here, again, interaction design plays an important role. Even though you can’t control what happens in each group, you can design the tasks in such a way that each student needs to contribute at a given time. The good thing is that in the virtual environment you can monitor these contributions much better than when students meet on the corridor and discuss the project.

I have tried various formats of group work online and I was always impressed with the quality of the work students created. If I am honest, this is one of the most time-consuming types of online tasks (and students confirmed that in their feedback), but it can result in a high level of engagement and learning. What I also discovered is that no matter how many tools I provide the students within their group space, they will often find more platforms to use to enhance their interactions.

These are only three examples of versatile tools to use asynchronously in online courses. They can provide rewarding learning experiences, for teachers and students alike. They do require some more time at the design stage, and will probably reach their full potential only after a few iterations. But with a bit of curiosity, risk-taking and patience you may just find out that there is more to online learning than you initially thought.


About the author

Alexandra Mihai is Associate Researcher at the Institute for European Studies (IES), Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Her work focuses on designing engaging learning experiences using digital tools. You can follow Alexandra on Twitter @Anda19 and read her blog.