Designing successful online learning experiences: 10 tips

Didactics address the question how to engage students in productive learning activities. As learning is not and never will be easy (being the result of made mental effort), designing effective online learning experiences consists for a large part of motivating your students to invest this effort. But how to do that..? 

1) Take it seriously
In the current educational system students are (taught to be) very sensitive to what their teacher finds important. Thus if you, as teacher, take the online assignment seriously (meaning: committing time and attention to it!), then so will they. Simply offering a forum and saying ‘If you, want, you can also use the discussion board’ will usually not do the trick. Also, let us please not subject our students to the same sort of assignment in every course (whether it is an online discussion, a group paper, a presentation, a case-study or something else). Rather, I would say that (streamlined) didactical pluralism is the key, focusing on your own strengths as a teacher. Thus, íf you decide to employ a certain type of online activity, do it right.

For example: Reserve 15 minutes of every face-to-face meeting to address the  discussion/assignment: Answering questions, identifying good messages and persistent misunderstandings, or discussing the process itself. 
2) Communicate clear expectations
Be clear and transparent to your students about your expectations, the evaluation procedure and its criteria, and the guidance they can expect. With collaborative assignments this sometimes seems to be forgotten, as teachers somehow expect ‘magical’ effects from online collaboration. However, if you are used to setting up strict criteria and evaluation procedures for your individual assignments, why not do the same with the collaborative ones?
Furthermore, when moderating online it’s important to avoid confusion. Any doubts about expectations, criteria or procedures may spread like wildfire and will not do the motivation of your students any good. As confusion will be more difficult to repair online (with its decreased sense of ‘presence’ and increased sense of ‘distance’) than it is face-to-face, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. Should any confusion still arise, address it directly and clearly.
For example:   If you decide not to actively follow or take part in the discussions, tell the students in advance. You could negotiate then how they can get your help and feedback if they need it. If you opt for a time-extensive guidance, for instance, you could agree to answer emails only if students have already made the effort to solve the issue themselves and have formulated a clear and detailed question.

3) Design (small) success experiences
Experiencing success is motivating. It allows students to build confidence, trust and social ties. Just like in any other project, it helps participants to get into a mood and habit of collaborating successfully. So how to design for success?
Firstly, you can start with small and concrete tasks or topics and gradually make them more complex and abstract. Secondly, working in small groups (like 3-6) tends to work better than using large groups. Participants will have a better oversight, less risk of miscommunication and more group cohesiveness. Thus, make the group as small as possible while still ensuring a sufficiently high amount of online activity (which always needs to ‘keep flowing’). Thirdly, of course chances of success also greatly depend on the provided amount of structure and support. After every small success experience, you can scaffold the provided structure and support to a lower level.
For example: To structure a literature-processing task, you can divide it in two different phases. First, have students discuss the meaning of the text with the goal of really understanding its intended meaning or message. Secondly, let them engage in a more critical discussion, sharing their opinions of this message. This staging will create a more focused discussion with less misunderstanding than when the two forms of conversations (establishing meaning and criticising it) are mixed together as students then engage into a critical debate about a text without sharing a proper understanding of it.
For example: To scaffold (gradually decrease) teacher guiding and support, certain moderating roles, for instance, can (and will!) be gradually copied from the teacher’s ‘example behaviour’ and be adopted by the students themselves. This can be asking each other checking questions (‘So you mean that ….’) or asking for argumentation or elaboration (‘Why do you think that?’). You may also officially hand over some moderating tasks to your students. Finally, you can also reward demonstrated responsibility by offering more freedom regarding students’ choices of content, tasks, and activities. 
4) Make the activity worthwhile
In order to be a successful and motivating experience, the collaborative activity must prove itself to have been worthwhile, meaning it provides enough return on their investments. As we know online collaboration is very demanding and writing coherent contributions takes more effort than a conversation face-to-face (while, of course, this requirement of making ideas and argumentation explicit also is what offers great learning potential). Thus, as a teacher it is important to keep in mind that the discussion or assignment is still a means to a goal. It is not to ’have discussion’, ‘argumentation’ or ‘a lot of messages’ per se, but to have students engage in productive learning activities, resulting in deep, appropriated, and applicable knowledge and understanding!
You can only ensure this usefulness of activity by careful design and all different activities in a course should be designed to complement and provide an added value to each other. For example, great importance lies in little things such as planning: discussion for deep collaborative literature processing is only useful if students have already individual read the material. Similarly, online discussions and face-to-face meetings should productively build upon each other. A discussion can, for instance, be a preparative activity for a face-to-face meeting so that the teacher can get a glimpse of the conceptions of his or her students beforehand, but it can also be used to let students digest and deepen their understanding of a given lecture.
Finally, you can also ask students for feedback on what they experience as useful activities. In the end, students are responsible for their own learning process and know very well what helps to learn and what does not. It is possible to be sensitive to their wishes and needs, while at the same time inviting and convincing them to engage in the activities necessary to reach the set academic standards.
For example: Employ online discussion only for difficult/ complex articles that really need it, so that the discussion really offers an added value. This selectivity also applies to the duration of the discussion, as its better to focus online activity in time (specifying, for instance, 2 or 3 weeks per article) to ensure a sufficient flow.
For example: If you do not want to evaluate students’ participation in the discussions, you can make the discussion worthwhile by asking them to write a position paper at the end of the course that is based on their discussion contributions. Thus, the effort they spend during the course on writing contributions and creating a ‘line of thought’ pays off in the creation of their final paper. This indirect way of evaluating students’ participation is also possible through other means than an essay, such as a final presentation or a portfolio. 
5) Offer choices
We probably all agree that forcing assignments ‘down students’ throats’ won’t give the best results. In order to avoid this, offering students choices (with associated rewards) can make their motivation more intrinsic. Offering a degree of freedom within a defined assignment, can give the students more feeling of control of their own learning process and can keep them more engaged and committed. Offering choices in subject or activities is also in line with the idea that everyone is different. Stimulating excellence amongst students means allowing and encouraging them to develop their own talents.
The nice thing about offering choices is that it becomes a 2-way process: The teacher can also pose requirements for his or her input/involvement. For example, you can say something like: “I will only answer questions that have already been discussed among students themselves and if they have been made concrete and specific”. Thus, you reward their effort in constructing an explicit question with your effort of responding to it. Students know really well what helps them in learning and what doesn’t. That is why they always highly value teacher input: they want to make sure that they are ‘on the right track’.
For example:   Provide students with the possibility collect a certain amount of ‘points’ by choosing to perform certain roles or activities from a larger variety. These activities should be useful for the process and the group as a whole and could be, for instance, performing different roles in online discussion (chairing, summarizing, etc), editing a WIKI, or writing weekly summaries of the face-to-face meetings. In return for performing these activities students can ‘earn’ some extra privileges such as, for instance, an extra point on their final exam. Instead of assessing these activities only post-hoc, you can even let them officially ‘sign up’ in advance, turning it even more into a kind of mutual ‘contract’ (not only between you and the student, but also between students themselves, as these activities will influence the group process).
Be aware, however, that with offering more freedom, you will also have to establish clear and transparent boundaries of that freedom. Formulating explicit criteria will also help to remain fair and strict (treating every student the same), which is also important in maintaining students’ motivation and respect. 
6) Start with a (real) problem and finish with a (real) product
To increase the usefulness of an assignment as perceived by the students, you can start with a real practical problem or research question. Studying and understanding the subject matter then becomes a logical and necessary step to answer this question or solve the problem. Here, don’t forget to explain why the literature you selected for them is important and relevant! Of course you have your reasons and they may be a ‘given’ for you as a teacher, but it is always important to make them explicit to your students as well.
For example: Like on discovery channel, try to start your course by presenting a compelling problem or question. This might be a question that research already has solved, but can also be (part of) an actual research question that is currently being addressed. With the latter, you are developing towards more ‘research-based’ education.
To increase motivation and students’ sense of doing something useful, you may also try to make the end product more authentic.
For example: Let students write a column or book review that will be actually be ‘published’ online, for instance by the library or another institution. You can also easily publish something online yourself, these days, using a free provider and a creative common licence. All you need to ask official instance for, then, is to create a link to your students’ product.

7) Allow ‘identities’ or ‘reputations’ to be built
Building an online ‘reputation’, for instance as expert on a certain topic of interest, as a constructive helper, as an effective moderator, or as a talented summarizer can be very motivating to students. Lettings students develop their individual talents and positively reinforcing them, may be much more effective than only focusing on correcting shortcomings or mistakes. Repairing a ‘wrong’ conception in a discussion can often be done just as effectively by pointing out the ‘right’ one.
For example: Provide students with official ‘titles’ and responsibilities for the activities such as mentioned above. Real and successful online communities also use this powerful mechanism in various ways. Similarly, you may for instance also hand out ‘awards’ for ‘message of the week’, best helping behaviour etc. 
8) Moderating: be sensitive-responsive
Many moderators prefer not be too dominantly active in the discussion, as not to ‘kill’ discussion amongst students. I believe it is quite important though to give students a sense of you ‘being there’. You can be quite passive, but be responsive when students get stuck or ‘off track’ to give them the feeling you are there to help if needed. When intervening, it’s generally a good idea to reply with questions that help them one step further in the right direction. These questions function as ‘miniature assignments’, aimed to help them to arrive on their own at the next mini-level of understanding (ZPD).
For example: If limited in time, you can even give students the responsibility to contact you when they need help in the discussion. This also may help establish awareness that teacher time, attention, and feedback is a very valuable thing in terms of students’ learning processes and that there might be some effort required in order to receive this. 
9) Create a ‘safe’ and constructive atmosphere

Emphasizing the importance of a safe learning is still very relevant for online assignments. Especially in undergraduate courses, online assignment will have the goal of helping students to process, ‘wrestle with’, and try to understand difficult subject matter. In this case ‘discussion’ or ‘debate’ have a wrong association that may not help you to reach your goal. As learning is all about being reflective and open to new ideas, an atmosphere that is too critical risks ‘entrenching’ students in their existing ideas.
As academics we tend to value critical thinking, but we must not forget that this is a higher-order skill. You cannot criticize something you do not yet understand. In order to facilitate the construction of this understanding, first, a more constructive environment is often much more effective. It is important that students engage in so-called ‘perspective taking’; trying to put themselves in the shoes of someone else (being either their peers or the author of their literature) and try to understand what he or she is trying to convey.

For example: Whereas students will know 'discussion' and 'debate' from everyday life (TV-shows etc.), a true constructive 'conversation-for- learning ' will probably be new to them and you have to explain it. Thus, make it clear to your students what you want and expect (possibly avoiding the term ‘discussion’ totally), give examples and 'lead by example'.
Another important reason is that in order to remediate any misconceptions, you need students to express these misconceptions first. Only a ‘safe’, constructive atmosphere, will makes students feel free to express all their tentative and uncertain ideas. Finally, letting students share all their immature ‘hunches’ and ideas is also essential for their knowledge building process, as they form its building blocks!
For example: Remind and show your students that ‘there is no such thing as a stupid question’ and make it very clear that their contributions will not be evaluated on their accurateness. 
10) Profit from the different strengths of different tools
If you make constructive use of specific tools for specific tasks, you can profit from their individual strengths, while compensating their weaknesses. Online discussion, for instance, is useful for deep and diverging conversation but not as strong in converging on shared outcomes. For the latter, a WIKI might be better suited. Chats are useful to get fast feedback, but sometimes lack the deep reflection of asynchronous discussion. Blogs are more personally reflective. Rich media provide a lot of information, but also stimulate passive behaviour. The Annotation tool (see figure below), finally, offers specific functionalities for the collaborative close reading of texts and interactive peer feedback.

Of course, the affordances of different tools only serve as a basis for facilitating successful learning experiences. I hope the previous 9 points have made it clear that making appropriate didactical choices are essential. 
More Info:
- Annotation tool for collaborative literature processing
- Annotation tool forinteractive peer feedback
- Combining tools to take advantage of their strengths and weaknesses


SIG's en subthema's: Digitale Leer- en Werkomgeving


  • Afbeelding Jimmy Herbst

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