Designing Online Learning Environments that Engage Learners
(first published on OnCUE Summer 2010 Vol. 32 No. 2 p. 10-11)
Teaching online is fundamentally different than teaching face-to-face. The design of effective online learning environments requires rethinking teaching practices. The rapid advances of educational technology encourages the growth of collaborative online learning experiences unconstrained by time and space. Even so, students may not learn from technology alone; they learn with the support of competent facilitators who design learning strategies that support learning goals and objectives.
Online learning technologies were first used to digitize existing instructional materials for easier distribution, to enhance consistency, and reduce costs. Unfortunately, this use of technology did not actually improve instruction. Now there is a shift to more theory-based online learning strategies that use technology to enhance an instructionally sound learning experience that meets the needs of all learners.
“Technology can play an important role in the achievement of learning outcomes but it is not necessary to explain this enhancement with a special account of learning. Rather, the challenge is to describe how the technology allows underlying processes common to all learning to function effectively (Mayes and de Freitas in Beetham and Sharpe, 2007, pg 13).”
With funding cuts, districts are looking at creative ways to provide courses not offered at their site. Students are becoming more proactive along with their parents on what they need to meet their learning goals so they graduate with appropriate credits. The number of K-12 students taking online classes is growing exponentially. University students take it a step further. They not only search for learning opportunities at their school and online, they know a good online class. These students are picky about which classes they sign up for and will drop a class if the teacher is not effective. They are the new, savvy consumers of online education. In response to their higher expectations, designers of online education are incorporating increasingly sophisticated instructional approaches such as animations and simulations that address the challenges of presenting dynamic content to learners.
I asked online learning providers from my PLN (Personal Learning Network) how they design an environment that engages and motivates the learner to actively participate in the learning process. The top answers included:
- Posting syllabus with due dates
- Providing timely feedback
- Individual support and coaching
- Face-to-face meetings
All of these answers work to nudge the learner to logon, participate, and complete an assignment. Yet, even experienced curriculum designers are rethinking how to deliver instruction online so students want to be engaged in the learning process. Survey respondents also shared that about 10% drop out. Top three reasons presented were technology issues, not able to do assignments, and motivation. As educators with limited budgets and resources, we may be trailing the world of instructional design. Today’s students are different than five years ago. They are used to instant information, cell phones, games, and simulations. It is going to be difficult to keep them engaged with traditional education.
Virtual University Class
Scott McLeod, Ph.D., associate professor in educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University, communicates with his students via web cam. McLeod is teaching two sections of Educational Law and Ethics wholly online for the first time this February. Each of his students were given a webcam to allow face-to-face interaction without having to leave their homes.
“The technology side of distance education is an add-on to the instructional content,” McLeod said. “…when students have lived in this online community for a semester, they start making connections back to their schools and translate these educational practices to their students and staff…”
Google Reader, Adobe Connect, and Moodle are also integrated into the course. Students are able to use Google Reader to keep abreast of new developments in their field, even after the class is complete.
“This enables them to continue learning, far beyond the classroom,” McLeod stated.
Professors who find they need to promote their courses are experimenting with social media and new technologies. Universities around the world are building virtual classrooms with Second Life, designing interactive programs and games, and posting free online courses.
Experience History as it Happens
Maybe we need to find content that lets our students experience how historical events really happened such as the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum’s We Choose the Moon (http://wechoosethemoon.org). At this site, users listen to the actual commentaries from Houston as Apollo 11 is launched. Users can watch and hear what happened on their own time by clicking through the stages and on different galleries.
Virtual Museums and Galleries
Schools are cutting back on field trips because of limited funds. Students now can navigate around exhibits right from their desktop with videoconferencing and links such as:
- Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa)
- Exploratorium: the museum of science, art and human perception
- Color, Contrast & Dimension in News Design by Poynter.org
Learn by Doing
There are numerous online activities where learners of all ages can learn by involving themselves in hands-on activities.
- Design a Panda Habitat by National Zoo
- Virtual Dinosaur Dig by Smithsonian Museum
Play while Learning
Most students play games, so why not introduce games into your learning repertoire?
- BBC Interactive Games
- Saibai Island Canoe from the National Museum of Australia
- Maryland Budget Game from University of Baltimore
Interact with Videos and Audio
Reach those students that are auditory and kinesthetic learners with multimedia.
- Math Tutorials at Brightstorm
- How Your Brain Understands What your Ear Hears by NIH
You as the teacher can be the instructional designer creating a learning environment that is engaging and challenging. You can set the pace and rhythm, vary the format of the instruction you deliver, give the learner control, and make learning fun: fun for your students and fun for you.
I recommend teachers building their own PLN with other teachers and instructional designers where everyone collects rich curriculum and learning activities to share with each other. Use social media and your network to learn about new resources, bookmark and tag them in del.icio.us or Diigo, and then share them with your students in an organized way that enhances your instruction. There is no reason to reinvent learning activities if they are already available.
Beetham, H. & Sharpe, R., 2007. Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age: Designing and Delivering E-Learning 1st ed., Routledge.
Rydell, M. Online learning environments enhance education for Cohorts. Iowa State University news, February 11, 2010
Thanks for good information about online learning.
I couldn’t agree with you more that “they learn with the support of competent facilitators”. This is the most essential piece! Even when there is good design the facilitator must’ help the students connect with the content and each other.