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Keep the Learning Going. In Online Learning, Communication is Key.

Mar 24, 2020 1:11:21 PM

As more colleges and universities adopt or expand their online learning capabilities, faculty are catching up—but slowly. According to a survey conducted last year by Inside Higher Education, three-quarters of instructors who taught online think it made them better teachers—largely because teaching online gets people thinking about pedagogy in new ways.

Still, a significant percentage of faculty remain skeptical about online teaching, though their reasons ranged from a lack of institutional support to distrust of online vendors. Beneath these worries, though, is a more fundamental one, and we think Kevin Gannon summed it up quite usefully in a recent ChronicleVitae article when he recalled his initial trepidation about online learning:

How was I going to preserve what I thought was most essential — the regular student interaction, the freewheeling give-and-take as we discussed a particular source or topic — if none of us would be together in the same physical space at the same time?

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Preserving what’s most essential, for Gannon, meant preserving the kind of engagement that makes a classroom a classroom: one where conversation, exploration, and reflection work together to produce deep learning. 

Faculty new to online learning will need to flex different muscles, adapt their teaching skills in new ways, and find new ways to encourage the kinds of class discussions that can keep students engaged and learning. Here are some tips for how the online discussion board can be an engine for the kind of “give-and-take” that instructors value so highly. 

Embrace technology.

What faculty can do online will be different from what they can do in the classroom. Once in a while it might even be better. 

Case in point:

Face-to-face: while class discussions can lead to better student learning, they can be a challenge to conduct well. Class discussions can get derailed or interrupted and the time you and your class have to explore an idea can be limited. As well, class discussions are often dominated by a small number of students. And their relevance to the course outcomes isn’t always apparent. 

Online discussion forum: By moving class discussion online, an instructor has the ability to guide the discussion more effectively over the course of days or weeks to achieve specific goals. Thoughtful discussion prompts and orchestrated learning can keep discussions lively and organized. And an online discussion can give students who are typically anxious about speaking up in class the chance to participate in ways that feel more welcoming.

Use new metaphors

Traditional ways of thinking about class discussions don’t always translate to an online environment. Think about what you want to achieve and the processes you’ll need to adopt to get there.

Case in point:

Face-to-face: You give a lecture and assign some reading. Students come to class, where you help them synthesize materials. Your metaphors? Lecture, reading, discussion. 

Online discussion forum: You deliver course materials that might include text, audio, or video. Students join the discussion in real time or within a prescribed period. You help them engage more deeply with the material through a variety of methods—assigning them roles, creating great discussion prompts, and responding consistently. Your metaphors? Presentation, facilitation, support.

Model online engagement

Every day that you teach, you model effective intellectual engagement for your students. Translating what’s become second nature to an online environment requires new skills, new behaviors, and new tools. 

Case in point:

Face-to-face: You model engagement when you show up for class enthusiastic about teaching. When you ask questions that provoke those light bulb moments (or reasoned disagreements). When you help a student think more critically about a hard topic.  

Online discussion forum: You model engagement when you reach out daily in discussion forums, initiate conversations, respond to postings quickly and consistently, prompt ‘lurkers’ to participate, thoughtfully move discussions forward, and praise good ideas. 

Give students the power to take charge of their own learning.

Teaching in an online environment provides an opportunity for you to give your students more responsibility for shaping their experience. That can help them be more engaged and active learners. 

Case in point: 

Face-to-face: Study after study has shown that active learning—a learning environment where students are asked to do something—produces better outcomes. But sometimes students would simply rather sit and listen to you lecture.

Online discussion forum: Here’s the beauty (and terror) of the online classroom—for it to work at all, students need to participate.  And there’s no better way to encourage participation than to put students in charge of how they are learning. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel—most of these techniques have been tested in traditional classrooms. But they work just as well in an online environment. To get started, try one of these three techniques in your online discussion forum:

Jigsaw. A cooperative learning method where students take responsibility for a chunk of learning and teach it to other students. 

Fishbowl. One half of the class holds a discussion while the other half of the class observes and later responds. 

#Powerups. Get social. Have students use hashtags to focus their discussions. 

Join the vanguard.

If not now, when? As college and university leaders search for new ways to improve access, augment traditional learning, and implement continuity planning, online teaching and learning will continue to grow—but teacher readiness will be key. 

Case in point:

Face-to-face: You had great ambitions for putting some active learning principles to work in your classroom, but you got busy with departmental obligations, not to mention that book you needed to finish for your T&P review. Experimentation will have to wait. 

Online discussion forum: Let’s be clear. Teaching online—especially with inadequate or cumbersome technology—can be time-intensive. But as colleges and universities continue to adopt online practices, department heads—and T&P committees—are thinking harder about how they’re supporting their faculties. That’s good news for students and for teachers.

Ready to learn more?  Register for our upcoming webinar, which focuses on how to reach and engage students utilizing the online discussion board.

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