Engaging the Online Learner

TrifilioTrish.jpgIs your online class in a rut?  Do you assign readings, ask a question for discussion, maybe have a short assignment, and give a test?  If all my classes were set up this way, I’d be bored with the work and probably boring in my responses.

Engaged learning is not a new instructional concept.  You have probably heard the terms social cognition, constructivism, active learning, or problem-based learning.  Bruner, Vygotsky, and Piaget all professed that humans learn through interaction.  Learning should be collaborative with meaning negotiated from multiple perspectives (enter critical thinking!).  Activities that require students to interact and encourage a sharing of ideas promote a deeper level of thought.

In a face-to-face classroom you can tell when students are engaged by the sound level and energy in the room. Discussions become animated and there is reluctance to move to a new task.  So how do you create a similar environment online without those visual and verbal cues?

First, the activity you choose must meet the learning outcome you seek (matching learning objectives).  The outcomes of the activities should fall into application, analysis, synthesis, or evaluation levels of thinking as described by Bloom’s taxonomy.


How engaging is the activity?

o   Do the learners use online tools (either in Blackboard or on the Web)?

o   Is there a social component in the established classroom learning community?

o   Is a particular problem presented and solved collaboratively?

o   Does the activity involve reflection using the text, Internet, or personal experience

Choose an authentic activity – it can be a motivating factor.

o   Activities that mimic an actual situation or shared personal experiences are great.

o   Failure, repetition, and subsequent reflection can be some of the best activities.

o   Activities should build skills that have value after the life of the course (Lose the busy work).

Part of the responsibility of an online instructor is to build student’s skills in using necessary tools for the particular subject.  This might involve Internet searches with critical examination as to its source and efficacy.  It might include multimedia, or worksheets.  Skills in group work, or debate, or problem solving might be required for certain professions, so build those skills in your classroom.

Remember, your students have come from an age where the internet has always existed.  Use it!  Try games or simulations – Merlot.org, Connextions, and MIT OpenCourseWare  are good places to start.  Take Virtual Field trips, do WebQuests, incorporate video (student created or on the Web).  Take a leap of faith and empower your students with learner-led activities where students become contributors of knowledge.

As an instructor you do not have to include ALL of these different activities, nor do you have to have one activity every week.  Try to improve you course by adding one engaging activity during the term and refine and improve it.  You might need to use trial and error to find the right activities to make your course more engaging, but when you see the level of excitement and enthusiasm from your learners it is worth the effort.

Dr. Tricia Ritschel-Trifilo
Distance Learning Specialist
Faculty Support
Wayland Baptist University


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