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9 Next Steps to Make Online Education More Engaging

Video lectures may have worked as a stop-gap measure in the emergency move to online learning, but they just don't cut it for the long term. Here are nine ways to bring distance education courses to the next level.

college student working on a laptop

For professors who thought that higher education was best delivered in a classroom, the coronavirus pandemic has required a profound paradigm shift. But, in reality, for most faculty members, classes are still delivered as lectures. It's only the modality that has changed. Instead of delivering lectures in elegant lecture halls, they are doing so over the internet. That is not sustainable.

At first, students were thrilled that faculty were able to create academic continuity online, so that they would not lose a semester of coursework. Nonetheless, as students begin the move to the end of their semesters or contemplate continuing summer school through distance education, they are becoming restless. Delivering courses via Zoom is not enough. Students want more in their online courses. And that brings me to a key point: The internet is the place where students today "live." They engage with their peers online through social media. They share stories and pictures of their lives — their triumphs and failures — online. They keep up with the news online. Yet routinely, we as faculty fail to engage them on their terms in the environment where they feel most comfortable.

The traditional college lecture given by the "sage on the stage" differs from the facilitated learning style expected in a dynamic, asynchronous, online course where the instructor acts as the "guide on the side." As faculty members become comfortable with distance education, many are also eager to do more in their online classes so that they can create a richer educational experience for their students.

Below are some suggestions to bring distance education courses to the next level. They include tools, strategies and materials that can be used to make online classes more dynamic and engaging. Find your own tools or ask your students to help. Lots of students are probably a bit bored at home and would value using their internet and social media skills to enrich your courses. Plus, when students participate in the educational process, they learn more.

Here are some additions for your course toolbox:

1) Post your syllabus. Before doing anything else, post your syllabus to your learning management system (LMS) if you did not do it at the beginning of the semester. Whether you use Blackboard, Canvas or another LMS, posting your syllabus, assignments and even announcements is easy to do and a great way to engage with students. You can post text- or video-based announcements. Video-based announcements are a great way for students to "see" you. Videos can be recorded directly through your LMS or on your phone and then posted. You can get help to do this through your school's Instructional Design team or Help Desk.

2) Stop lecturing. You want your students to be actively engaged in the educational process. Even if your classroom lectures were fantastic, they do not typically translate well to an online modality. Few online students would be able to concentrate for the full 50 to 75 minutes of a normal classroom lecture. Take breaks every 15 minutes. Ask for student questions. Or ask them a question and solicit student feedback. Find other tools to break up the classroom time. You may want to try presenting short (less than five-minute) animated videos from YouTube or textbook publishers to summarize your key points. You may also want to provide a one-page summary of key points in your lecture, which you can post on your LMS. If you use the board extensively in your regular class, students will find these summaries particularly helpful. You may also want to record and post your course for future student reference (but check your school's privacy settings for recording Zoom classes).

3) Get students involved. At least once every two weeks, structure your class to include student presentations. This ensures that your class focuses on student involvement rather than lectures. Or present students with a problem and ask them to work together in a Google Hangout, Zoom breakout room or similar space, and then have several students report their solutions back to the class. Ask students a question and ask them to take five minutes to search for solutions online. Then have them present answers to the class. Or you can randomly call on students. That ensures that they participate and are listening, rather than doing something else online.

4) Solicit student feedback. Using tools like Zoom polls or Canvas quizzes, ask students questions and use their feedback to build your lectures. Pre-load the polls or quizzes so they work more smoothly. You can ask questions about reading for this week's material or based on last week's homework, and then review or move on depending on the level of mastery of your students.

5) Think out of the box. Your students are probably familiar with online games like Kahoot. Take advantage of that and create an online game for your students, by asking questions about material in your course. Play it with them during class or for 10 minutes during your office hours and give the three top winners bonus points in your course. You may have some students create their own Kahoots for the topic to be presented in class.

6) Encourage students to self-assess. With each week's assignment, provide a 10-question self-graded quiz. Most LMSs have a built-in quiz tool which you can use. Let students know that their scores on the quiz will not count for final grades — but provide answers explaining the correct answer and linking each question to reading materials, so that students can review material they got wrong and understand why they did not answer the question correctly. Provide a quiz each week but also include questions on material learned in previous weeks. There's lots of data that indicates that this approach enhances student learning and retention.

7) Use collaborative tools. Encourage students to work together as partners to solve problems. Often faculty members are reluctant to have students collaborate because one student shoulders the burden for the team. Particularly if you build collaborative work into your online class time, you can evaluate how the collaboration is working. Whether you use tools like Google Hangouts or Zoom breakout rooms, you can visit those groups and monitor how the collaboration is progressing. You can also provide ideas and suggestions for the group. If students develop material together, you can require them to use Box or Google Docs and include you in the share document. That way you can monitor the progress of their collaborative project and ensure that everyone contributed.

8) Make material relevant to the pandemic. In almost every course, there is an opportunity to relate material to the pandemic. Too often our students wonder about the "why" of what they are learning. In a psychology course, faculty can discuss the psychological impact of isolation and sheltering at home, as well as how people will react when they can once again ride the subways and return to work. In political science, there is much to discuss regarding how states and government reacted to the crisis. Also, there is lots to discuss regarding how statistical analysis has impacted our understanding of the progress of COVID-19. Discussing the pandemic and the viruses in all science courses should be a requirement.

9) Hold office hours. Online office hours can be of tremendous value to both faculty and students. Students may be reluctant to ask you questions during class time, even in a small class. But there is much more you can do during office hours. You can review exams, pose questions and encourage your students to explore topics of interests. Zoom can provide a great opportunity to meet your class as a group or one-on-one. Schedule appointment times so students can log in separately or in groups.

Including even small additions to course delivery can enrich your students' online educational experience. Using tools readily available online or through your LMS can engage students and help them master course material more effectively. Both you and your students will find your online classes to be more educationally rewarding and enjoyable.

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