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Engaging Online Instructional Activities

Long gone are the days of creating an online learning experience simply by posting a series of recorded lectures, documents, and assignments on Blackboard for students to review then “testing” their compliance via auto graded quizzes and exams.  Research1 demonstrates that a positive online learning experience is related to three factors: (a) connectedness with the instructor; (b) a sense of community with classmates; and (c) engagement in learning. And these three factors interact - students who feel a sense of connectedness are more likely to engage in the class, improving the learning experience. 2,3  

Collaborative learning, peer feedback, learner choice, and sustained discussion that includes personal stories, perspectives, and experiences can all encourage higher order learning while also creating a positive learning community. Below is a list of recommendations for creating positive online learning experiences. Consider using multiple strategies; refer to the section on Universal Design for Learning for more information about how multimodal approaches support learning and engagement. 

Recommendations for Developing Engaging Instructional Activities

Create “sites” for interaction

When a class has few or no opportunities for in-person interaction, we have to intentionally create spaces for students to interact and collaborate. Think of these as ways of creative virtual sites for interaction:

  • Discussion threads. One of the most common methods for fostering interaction among students is to use Blackboard’s discussion function. Many instructors ask students to post both an initial response and an expected number of substantive follow up responses.  Less experienced students will benefit from concrete examples of initial and follow up posts (to avoid the “I agree” or “This happened to me too” responses) and a timeline for engaging (initial post no later than Wednesday, three follow up posts by Sunday). Instructors should “pop in” and engaging the students with posts, to spur a lively exchange, provide informal feedback, and create a sense of instructor presence.
  • Voicethreads: Voicethread also allows for group discussions, but can increase engagement and student choice by allowing students to contribute through multiple modalities, including text, voice, and video.
  • Student created blogs. Another creative way to engage students in discussion is through student blogging assignments. Each student creates a post and peers comment on one anothers’ posts. Derek Bruff, Director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, has written extensively about the student blogging assignments here.
  • Shared virtual workspaces. Wikis or shared docs in Teams allow student groups to work collaboratively at a distance by giving the ability to share and edit content over the Web.
  • Student-made “podcasts,” videos, or vlogs. brief, 3-5 minute, media clips allow students to relay information, highlight significant individuals, or coach classmates.  These work equally well with synchronous or asynchronous courses. A guide for creating podcasts is available here

Use Icebreaker Activities

One feature lost in a transition from face-to-face to online instruction is the valuable snippet of time individuals have before the scheduled starting time.  Much can be learned about one’s fellow participants in these moments of casual exchange.  Trust and camaraderie can be established in increments.  Friendships can form.  Intentional ice-breaker and getting to know you exercises can serve as substitutes for these impromptu conversations. Some examples (see this website for more ideas):

  • “Getting to know you” questions. Consider using the discussion board in an asynchronous class and ask everyone to post a response to your questions (consider asking students to submit questions to you as well).  Good questions will go beyond the type of demographic information common to roll calls (name, home town, major, year in school, campus affiliations, etc.) which can lead students to form impressions based on stereotypes or inherent biases.  The best questions will encourage a deeper dive by adding “and why” to get to the story below.
  • Student introduction videos. Both the instructor and students can post brief introduction videos, sharing a few things they want their classmates to know about them as well as their hopes for the class experience.
  • Virtual Nametag Assignment. Students create and post a virtual nametag in which they share some of their characteristics, experiences, and interests  and then look at their classmates’ nametags to identify commonalities and differences. Look here for more details

Give students some control

Give students a sense of ownership with learning activities by providing some options for learner choice and perhaps even engaging students in the design of some components. In addition to encouraging engagement, engaging students as partners can build a sense of trust, and gives students, including those who may experience significant barriers to learning (online access, socioeconomic issues, learning differences, time constraints, etc.) an opportunity to weigh in with their capacity. For instance:

  • Find out what students want to learn, and use their goals to help shape the class.
  • Develop learning activities/ assignments that allow students to choose topics or the modes of expression.
  • Share your learning objectives for a particular unit or module and ask students what types of learning experiences and assignments they would like to engage with. Less experienced students may require examples of what past classes have done. 

Connect with a related class

Create a more integrated and engaging experience for students while lightening the design load for any one faculty member or instructor. Examples:

  • Connect assignments across classes. For example, students in one class could become the audience for those in another class.
  • Common problems. Address a common problem or “grand challenge” in multiple courses. Students begin to see what different courses or areas of the discipline bring to that problem, and instructors collaborate in some aspects of the course design.  
  • Shared modules. Many core concepts and skills in a discipline are addressed, by design, in multiple courses. Instructors can collaboration on the design of some shared or common modules, and students can benefit from a more scaffolded opportunity to transfer their understanding from one course to another.

Leverage the online medium

Some especially engaging approaches to online teaching learning involve leveraging the unique affordances of an online environment. For example:

  • Bring in guest speakers or distinguished alumni panels (who might not otherwise be available for an in-person visit)
  • Use social media or other high immediacy tools (e.g., Teams chat) to have students connect what they are learning to the world around them and share their learning while it is happening. In this In this example from Derek Bruff’s Leading Lines Podcast, Margaret Rubega of the University of Connecticut describes how in her large enrollment ornithology class, she asks students to post about birds on Twitter as they see them in daily life. The goal is to support transfer: getting students to apply what they are learning in the class in other contexts. Transfer is a sign of robust learning, but must be intentionally scaffolded through course and assignment design. But ultimately, this is what we all want out of our courses, right?

Support difficult and necessary conversations

Discussions of challenging and potentially heated topics can help students develop important skills, in meaningful discourse, evidence-based critical thinking, perspective taking, and listening. See this page for guidance about how instructors create a positive climate for class discourse about difficult or divisive topics, whether in a live interaction OR asynchronous discussion forum (e.g., discussion board, chat channel, email, or VoiceThread). 

Foster deep reading

Faculty members frequently express concern about students' ability to read critically, and that concern is heightened in a digital environment. See this page for recommendations for fostering deep reading in a digital environment

Some Examples of Engaging Online Activities

Case studies. Give students an opportunity to consider and discuss a real or fictional case that incorporates theory or concepts.  Provide guiding or reflection questions to encourage a richer dialog whether students interact synchronously or via a discussion thread.  Provide an opportunity for individual reflection at the end, such as through the Journal tool in Blackboard. After exposing students to example case studies, you might even ask students to write and analyze their own case studies to illustrate key themes in the course.

Debates. Provide students with a situation or argument, divide them into two (pro/con) or three (pro/con/third way) groups, provide some time to formulate an argument, and let the exchange begin!  Again, providing an opportunity for structured individual reflection at the end is helpful.  Here is an example of a full assignment with a reflection guide, developed by Amy Leyerzapf for her leadership studies course.

Fishbowl discussions. These are most useful for synchronous class discussions (online or in person). Large class discussions can be intimidating, particularly if enrollment numbers exceed the number of screen tiles that can appear on Zoom at once.  Consider breaking the class into two or more groups and conduct a fishbowl discussion.  A guide to get you started, with several variations, can be found here.  

Jeopardy or other “game show” Q&A’s – for courses where students need to master quantities of objective content, trivia-style Q&A’s are a good way to test knowledge.  Instructors of asynchronous courses may want to consider inviting students to a special exam review or office hour via Zoom for a few rounds.  A reliable template in either Powerpoint or Google Slides is available for download here

Living history presentations. Students may enjoy researching significant figures related to the course and presenting their findings in character either live during a synchronous class session, or by video or podcast as an asynchronous activity.

News of the day. Assign, or allow students to choose, a course topic or important construct.  The student can present a current event in the news and connect the event to the featured concepts, and share in one of the course interaction tools (e.g., discussion board or student produced blog), or to start off a synchronous class meeting (consider assigning different students to different class periods).

Peer consultations. Pairing students for feedback, particularly on major assignments, can reduce uncertainty, build community, and ultimately make for higher quality assignments and easier grading.  Structure helps here.  Consider pairing students rather than allowing them to choose their partners and conducting multiple rounds of feedback over a longer period of time (the last 20 minutes of class, one meeting a week over three weeks for example).  Provide students with a copy of the grading rubric to guide their critique.  Breakout rooms work well for synchronous courses, while students can collaborate outside of asynchronous courses via Zoom, Teams, or other video conferencing or document-sharing platforms. 

Creative Ideas for Engaging Students

Spark some ideas for your own course(s) by checking out these examples of Engaging Ideas for Flexible and Online Teaching from KU Faculty members in Spring 2020: instructional activities or assignments that were especially successful in engaging and stimulating students, were fun to implement, or took advantage of the online environment in ways they had not discovered before. Also What Worked Well: Bright Spots from Fall 2020, a collection of essays showcasing the many innovative and inspiring ways in which KU instructors overcame Fall teaching challenges.