The evidence is clear. The best predictors of student success is their level of engagement in their online course. When the student has a sense they understand the purpose of learning, can contribute, can connect with other students and can feel a sense of “owning” their learning, they do better than when they are passive and expected to simply replicate the information “taught”. Just as teaching is an active task, so too is learning.
But how do we engage students in the experience of online learning? How can we create a sense of engaged, active and authentic learning?
The Big Framework: Community of Inquiry
The design framework for highly engaged learning focuses on the idea of “presence”. How we create a sense the teacher and student are present and are interacting not just with each other, but also with the content they are asked to understand, engage with and master.
In 2000, Randy Garrion, Terry Anderson and Walter Archer developed a design framework for online learning, which they called the Community of Inquiry. The idea is learning online should be a memorable learning experience in which there is a real presence of a teacher; a real sense of challenge and cognitive presence; and, a real sense of belonging to a community of students engaged in active learning, all focused on a specific body of knowledge, skills and capabilities set in a context that is purposeful and meaningful. These ideas are captured in this diagram:
This framework aligns with 2019 research, which looked at the core characteristics of award winning online courses. The researcher found five characteristics:
- Teachers make the purpose and intentions of the course explicit and clear and outline how the course fits into the students’ learning journey;
- The course material connect students in relevant and authentic ways to the knowledge, skills and capabilities the course requires of them – they could relate to the content;
- The course material includes multimedia elements and not just text, but a range and variety of materials;
- Students are expected to create content, both on their own and through interaction with others; and
- Students are asked to reflect on their learning.
The implications of this design framework and this research are significant. Course design must create opportunities for activities and projects which reinforce the learning and create opportunities for teachers to do more of what they do best: challenge, coach, connect, co-create and critique.
Online learning should be less about the mastery of content and more about using knowledge, information, skills and capabilities in an appropriate way to demonstrate learning in action.
But how do instructors do this? Below are twenty ways in which course design can do this and the implications of these ideas for assessment and teaching.
Twenty Design Ideas for Student Engagement
Different kinds of teaching require different kinds of activities. A drawing class, a music class, a science lab, or a land use course are all different and each has unique design needs. The twenty design ideas may be helpful for a range of course subjects, but not all.
1. Create Opportunities for Inspired Conversations
Each week, challenge the students to explore a question or issue for which there is no simple answer (preferably one connected to the core focus for the course, but which you as the teacher are also interested in, but do not have a definitive view). For example, why is productivity in Canada in decline? What factors enabled the Supreme Court of Canada make this decision?
In one online course focused on COVID-19, each week had a different instructor focused on a different aspect of the impact of the pandemic – epidemiology, sociology, psychology, economic, business, etc. Each week, a different challenge was set to build a picture of what C-19 was doing for the social networks the students connected to. New evidence and data were actively created.
In another course, the conversation was about the “hidden curriculum” in medical education. Students were taught to use casual layer analysis as a tool and then work in pairs to look at what was hidden in the teaching of various aspects of medicine.
In a graduate course with 24 students (four teams of six students), each team generated over 250 explorations, comments and discussion points (average length 250 words) over the eight weeks of the course. The instructor’s task is not to respond to each one, but to nudge and guide the conversation.
2. Build a Knowledge Centre
In an economics class focused on Canada’s competitiveness, each student is expected each week to add two new resources to the knowledge centre. Each week there is a different topic, e.g. productivity, innovation, leadership, access to capital. A class of 40 students adds 80 new items each week (just URL links to avoid copyright issues) and a 200-word statement of why you should read, watch, listen, engage with the item and why they felt it important. Over the course of fourteen weeks, there is a massive content and resource library created and curated by students. No duplicates are allowed.
This replaces the textbook. All the instructor has to do is to create a framework for understanding what matters most for that week’s topic, what kind of evidence counts as substantive and why they should not include material from Wikipedia. Academic quality, statistical evidence, and consulting reports are all acceptable.
3. Group Projects
In a course on activism, students were asked to co-create designs and actions focused on a social issue of concern to them. One group created a complex mural focused on equity and justice; another created a “real” women’s version of a woman’s magazine that focused on the issues women actually cared about; and another created six pieces of street art that depicted the impact of climate change.
In a history course, students were asked to each take different roles in the Danish War with Prussia of 1864 and design a war game, which depicted the key political elements of this drama. In another history course, students were asked to role play and develop a depiction of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles focusing in particular on how the parties divided up the Middle East.
In a business course, students were asked in a group to develop a statement of why a specific industry in Canada (oil and gas, agriculture, green energy, health care) has low productivity, review the past efforts to improve productivity and present at least five recommendations to improve. Their presentation is made to the class and to selected leaders from the industry who provide feedback.
In group projects, team charters are used to establish roles, tasks and responsibilities; rubrics are applied to the work both in terms of process and outcomes; peer feedback on the contributions made (or not) by each team member are sought and the final “products” are subject to peer-to-peer evaluation as well as assessment by the instructor.
Some business schools are making use of projects designed by instructors and local businesses or non-profit organizations and are using Riipen (a platform that connects industry partners with educators to participate in short-term projects with students) to facilitate this process. Others are using Kritik (a platform that enables fair, accurate and quality peer evaluations) to manage the peer assessment processes.
4. Build a Humour Gallery
This is similar to the knowledge centre idea, but instead focuses on memes, cartoons and fun materials. To make the point in a class on “fake news”, students were asked to gather humorous materials that made the argument for and against wearing masks in public. Some of the material was simply outstanding examples of improvised masks. In a different example, to make the point not all that one reads in a newspaper or online is true, students were asked to find twenty-five examples of ridiculous healthy product suggestions.
Learning can (and should be) fun. Why else would anyone attend an event in which you share the big ideas of your doctoral thesis entirely through dance?
In Future Studies courses, one practice used by some instructors is to design and share a “thing from the future”. Students “build” or create their “thing” and then share it live through a synchronous presentation. Many are serious, but some are fun.
5. Reading Jig Saw
Reading jig saw is a well-established process for in-class activity. For a long or complex reading, the reading is divided into chunks”. Each student in a group is given a chunk, a fixed length of time to read and digest it and is asked to share their understanding (key point(s), additional things to note) with the other members of their group. This can be done live as a group activity in Zoom or asynchronously through Moodle (it is more impactful live). Then each of the group writes three bullets about their chunk and the group puts the jigsaw back together. Quick, but gets everyone engaged in a conversation.
6. Collaborative Mind Mapping
Mind maps have been used for a long time and is a skill every student will find helpful, at least for some of their work. Individual mind mapping tools have been available for some time, such as Mindmup, Mindmeister and Venngage Map Maker. Now there are collaborative mind mapping tools which make doing this work online easier, such as Mindmeister GitMind, and GroupMap.
Each student is asked to build one part of the map and offer suggestions for another. For example, a mind map on what it will take to return to a fully functioning global economy may have seven or eight elements (health, community, business, global trade, debt, education) and each one has unique features and connections to other areas. Dividing roles and building a collaborative map teaches soft skills as well as makes clear what the students know and don’t know.
7. Story Boarding
All of us who have produced books, managed projects, undertaken complex research have used a version of storyboarding. Most of us use Post-it Notes to lay out ideas, stages and sequences and shown connections with arrows or overlaps.
Now students can use storyboarding software to create storyboards full of links to published materials, videos, images, uploaded files, and other materials. In a recent course, student presentations at the end of an intense period of study were done by storyboard (with or without music and video). Some used Milanote to create impactful collaborative story boards. Some used this same resource for their own work and shared it with a few peers and the instructor. The key feature of this software is that it is easy to use and share and comes “ready” with a variety of different kinds of storyboards. There are alternatives, such as MakeStoryboard.
The difference between storyboarding and mind mapping is form and style. Mind mapping is a particular technique requiring a specific visual approach. Storyboarding is more open and flexible, with the key to the idea being what happens when and what happens after that?
8. Peer-to-Peer Learning and Assessment
Peer-to-peer learning has been a feature of higher education since the first university began in Pakistan in 700 BC. We can now formalize and put rigour around peer-to-peer learning and assessment using new software like Classkick and Kritik or the peer learning and assessment tools built into many learning management systems. Group projects and many of the activities already described are peer-to-peer learning activities, but peer assessment is the emerging opportunity here.
Peer assessment can:
- Empower students to take responsibility for and manage their own learning.
- Enable students to learn to assess and give others constructive feedback to develop lifelong assessment skills.
- Enhance students' learning through knowledge diffusion and exchange of ideas.
- Motivate students to engage more deeply with course material.
Peer assessment also teaches students how instructors think when looking at someone’s work and how they actually apply the rubrics for that activity.
While some fear students will “conspire” to give each other A+, when used carefully (and supported by Kritik, for example), students are often tougher on their peers than instructors are. What makes this better is if students are given just a little help on how to do the work of peer assessment well.
9. Brainstorming, Prioritizing – Using Dotmocracy
For a variety of subjects, such as history, politics, social science, epidemiology, and law, students can be asked to brainstorm explanations, ideas or ways of responding to a challenge. Whether live via Zoom in a breakout group or online through asynchronous dialogues, they develop a long list and debate the list. Then they are asked to prioritize the list in terms of a principle, rule or rubric. A simple way of doing this is to vote (if being done in a live session, the instructor can quickly create a poll in Zoom and give people a number of votes which they can use), what in a classroom might be done with “sticky dots” (voting through dotmocracy).
Brainstorming software does exist. IdeaBoardz is a widely used platform but this activity can also be done with simple Google documents.
10. Case Discussion
The case method has been used in business and law schools since they began. The instructor identifies a case and provides basic information about the case to all students. Each student then explores the case and prepares notes as if they were the decision-maker in the case. Then small groups (usually no more than four to five students) discuss their view of the case with the idea of determining a collective view while recognizing the subtle differences between the team members position. Then the whole class looks at the case with the instructor taking the role of “provocateur”, with the class developing a summary of the key lessons learned from the case.
Cases are widely available, either free to use or for purchase. Cases are also something students can be asked to create under the guidance of the instructor.
Case discussions can take place synchronously or asynchronously and are usually time limited.
11. Simulations and Virtual Labs
In the 1970s and 1980s, paper-based simulations were developed for all sorts of fields of study. As technology advanced, simulations were built for disaster management, fire management, land use, business and human resources, engineering and many other disciplines. We can now use simulation to look at the varied impact of climate change in different parts of the world.
But for your course, is a simulation available? If so, how expensive is it and what are the practical issues in using it?
A growing volume of simulations are available as open educational resources, which are free to use under a commons license. Many of these are in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields of study. There are also simulations for business and health related disciplines, not all of which are free to use.
12. Challenge-Based Problems and Projects
Team challenges, especially challenges that demand attention and solutions because the students can engage with them, because of personal commitment and experience, can be highly engaging learning activities. Issues of mental health, community development, gender and racial equality, climate change, food security, and loneliness can all be rich areas for project activity. But so too can ecology, land use, water use, biodiversity – the list of potential topics is endless.
The Challenge Institute, which works largely with K-12 challenge activities, developed a guide for the effective use of challenge based learning (CBL), which is free to download. There are also a great many resources linking CBL to the United Nation’s sustainable development goals.
SCAMPER is a check list that promotes different ways to think about an existing product/issue/problem and to create a new way to think and conceptualize so new “solutions” to challenges or issues can emerge.
The method uses action verbs to stimulate ideas and creative thinking. This method is used extensively in design thinking to help students think differently about something, such as car, a house, an event, or a production.
Here’s how it works.
- Identify a specific challenge, opportunity or problem. For example, how can we reimagine eldercare? Then develop responses using action verbs to these prompts:
- Substitute: What can you substitute?
- Combine: What can you combine or bring together somehow?
- Adapt: What can you adapt for use as a solution?
- Modify/minify/magnify: Can you change the item in some way? What can you remove? What can you add?
- Put to other uses: How can you put the thing to different or other uses?
- Eliminate: What can you eliminate?
- Rearrange: What can be rearranged in some way?
- Once a group of students completed SCAMPER, they use it to develop a proposition for change and then share it in the larger class.
14. Blogs, Social Exchange and Social Media
Student reflection on their learning and sharing of their learning experiences in class can be an important part of the learning experience. In a leadership development program held every quarter over the course of a year for executives, a closed Facebook page provides daily ongoing linkages between participants. In a semester long course on philosophy, a blog hosted within the university’s learning management system permits reflection, sharing and dialogue.
Notice these spaces are closed and not open to the public. Also, there is no suggestion these activities are a part of assessment. These are spaces for students to share if they choose to do so.
15. Make It All Interactive
Nearpod is a resource that enables “lessons” taught online to be much more interactive. There are modest costs, but there are free components which can be used in all sorts of ways. For example, there are pre-built open educational resources or lessons you can purchase, which enables rapid development of lessons with the ability to design and build interactive activities, including simulations. You can use Nearpod either as an asynchronous resource or as part of a synchronous class session.
A lot of the materials within Nearpod were designed for K-12, but many of the resources are also useful for first- and second-year college or university. In 2019, with the help of universities and colleges, Nearpod expanded its resources base into higher education.
There are also polling possibilities built into Zoom (and PowerPoint). Adding other interactive elements to synchronous and asynchronous activities can significantly increase student engagement. Instructors also found ways to create simulations in Zoom or by using iDecisionGames from Harvard University. The key message here is don’t lecture; engage and through engagement, develop the student’s capabilities, knowledge and understanding.
16. “Pub” Quiz Night
Learning can be fun and engaging. Each week in a large class (intro psychology), an instructor asked one of the teams of students (a large class of 126 is in fact 21 teams of eight students) to create a 20-item quiz (rather like a pub quiz) for the whole class, done in the last 15 minutes of the Zoom class. The focus of the items was on the topics for the week, theories of motivation, evidence of psychological capital, etc. The idea was to have fun. The other idea was for the instructor not to have to do the work, though they did “review” the questions before class.
This could also be done via a learning management system but is not so much fun. Teams within the class competed (just like a pub quiz) and there was a prize each week for the winning team.
What became clear was that creating the quiz tested each team’s understanding of the topics and answering the questions gave the instructor a strong picture of how the class understood (or not) key ideas taught in the course. Quiz night became a popular feature of the end of week synchronous sessions.
17. Student Presentations – Pecha Kucha or 5-Minute Presentation
Students need to develop communication and presentation skills as part of their “soft skills” development during their higher education. Asking them to do a presentation is a way of exploring their communication abilities.
One specific approach is to use a Pecha-Kucha format. Rather than a lot of PowerPoint slides full of text, this approach asks for 20 images / slides, which capture a key message the student wants to present. Students have just one or two words on a slide and a maximum time of 20 seconds to present each image to tell their “story” in a memorable way. There are wonderful examples on the Pecha-Kucha site from around the world or from local sites, like the one from.
Presentations help build communication skills, student confidence, connecting with an audience and using language persuasively.
18. Causal Layer Analysis
This is a particular method used in strategic foresight, but can be a small group activity. Students are asked to look at a particular issue, for example, the suggestion that governments need to balance budgets or that artificial intelligence (AI) will destroy 30-40% of all jobs in Canada. To get beneath the surface of the idea, students explore four layers of the “iceberg”:
We think of the top of the iceberg as THE LITANY, what we see in the newspapers, on TV, or on social media. The repeated statements. For example, "30-40% of jobs will be lost because of AI and related technologies" or that "low skilled workers will be replaced by technology like robots and artificial intelligence". What is the litany you see when you explore this issue?
Beneath the litany, there are SYSTEMS and MECHANISMS, which are the systems that produce the headlines or ideas behind them? For example, if a significant number of students leaving school have low levels of literacy and technical skills, does this make them more vulnerable to be replaced by technology in terms of work?
Beneath the system and the mechanisms (still keep the iceberg in mind), there are WORLDVIEW OR PARADIGMS that encapsulate values, beliefs, and assumptions. For example, given we will spend a lot of our lives in work (around 90,000 hours), work defines much about who we are and our status in the world. Trade work and professional work are not equal (in fact, some trade workers earn more than some professionals). Or part-time work is less valued than full-time work. You may not agree with any of these statements, but beliefs about work shape our personal and social attitude towards work.
The final layer is the MYTHS and METAPHORS layer. These are the stories and myths we have about AI in education, such as "AI will lead to more personalized learning" or "AI can replace certain kinds of teaching" or "coding is essential if we are to make the most of the AI revolution". Notice these myths may be just that; myths that may not be true. For example, coding is something which some AI systems will not need as they are self-programming.
Students work in small groups to complete their analysis and then come together in the larger class and share what they discover. This can be done via breakout groups in Zoom or online in the learning management system in small groups and then shared in the larger group. It really starts to reveal student understanding of complex ideas.
19. Connect to the Community and the World
In a normal classroom, in a remote part of the country or even in a major city, the logistics of bringing in a guest speaker is difficult.
One of the great “ah-has!” of Zoom, and the COVID-19 lockdown, is the realization almost everyone in the world is just a click away. In a recent one-week intensive learning experience, guests each day included leading experts from Ireland, Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Chile. Rather than read an article just published, why not invite the author in for a 15-minute presentation followed by a 15-minute Q&A? Many are happy to do this work without charge.
It is also possible to engage community members and organizations to be guests in a course. If you are looking at the future of eldercare or the challenges of epidemiology in a small community, why not ask elders or community organizations engaged in this field to participate. Rather than study “black lives matter” in the abstract, ask advocates to join the class either live via Zoom or through the learning management system to participate in a part of the course.
20. Organize a Performance or an Exhibition
Colleagues in the performing arts, especially music and drama, found ways to rehearse and perform during the COVID-19 pandemic, producing wonderful memorable and stunning performances and exhibitions.
Art and other “hands-on” subjects found ways to work in an online environment. New technologies, 3D image capture with an iPad or tablet, can make exhibitions truly moving. Dance instructors also found ways of using Zoom.
But other performances are also possible. The Timmins Native Friendship Centre created a virtual women’s drumming group, building on a long tradition of capturing Indigenous performances on video (throat singers, and Powwow Dance).
Rather than seeing the challenges of pulling off a show as insurmountable, engage students in the challenge and let them find, with instructor help, their own way of solving the challenges.
Five Challenges Created by Engaging Students
Shifting to a highly engaged form of learning online, one that is active, provocative and exploratory, has consequences.
Not all students engage in the same way and at the same level of intensity. Some students much prefer to be passive rather than active. If the assessment scheme for the course simply offers grades for work submitted and not for participation and contribution, then students will soon work out they do not have to engage to be successful.
Assessment must change to enable the kind of community of inquiry envisaged here to work. These kinds of activities require the development of what is known as authentic assessment. An authentic assignment, according to Grant Wiggins, has six characteristics:
- It is realistic.
- It requires judgement and innovation.
- It asks the student to “do” the subject and not just to repeat the information provided.
- It replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace, in civic life, and in personal life.
- It assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skill to negotiate and complete a complex task.
- It allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.
Rather than indirectly examine what the student knows through multiple choice or essay-like assignments, we want to get to know not just what the student knows but how they apply what they know to the challenges we provide.
Varying Levels of Student Engagement
Instructors need to encourage and require participation. In one course, participation and presentation activities constitute 40% of the available grade with 60% available for assessing the “products” and responses the student produces. In other classes, participation may be lower or higher and students must achieve a passing grade (70% or higher) in both components of this assessment scheme (participation and products) to pass this course.
Rubrics need to be clear. For example, comments on the work of others is not a measure of frequency (how many posts did you make on the learning management system) but of value and insight those comments provide.
By changing the assessment scheme and requiring participation, participation will increase but there is always the problem of some students doing more than others. This is why many who teach using these highly engaged learning designs ask their students to evaluate not just the product their peers produce but the extent of their contribution using a simple 3600 feedback tool, coupled with focused marking rubrics.
What Happened to Content?
Some instructors are convinced time spent on activities such as those described in this post is time lost for students who need to “master content”. One said at a recent webinar “if I did some of these things, students would never get to Chapter 20 in the textbook!”.
Some students, even when required to, never get to chapter 20! The evidence from studies of student behaviour is students are more likely to seek out and use knowledge and information when they have a reason for doing so linked to a task which is assessed and which seems authentic to them. If chapter 20 is needed to solve a problem in a simulation, create or be able to answer questions in the pub quiz or be the basis for the presentation the student or her team has to do, then they will master the materials in that chapter. What is more, they are more likely to remember it. If they are reading a chapter and work out the quiz related to it is worth just 2-3% of the final grade, they may or may not read it and remember it after the quiz. Student engagement is a significant predictor of learning outcomes.
Content is everywhere. The student can find various versions of the content they require to solve problems and engage in a meaningful dialogue about an issue. What matters is how they understand and use content in action. That is what student engagement is about. Seeing how students use knowledge in action helps instructors offer relevant guidance about what else they need to know and how they can better apply knowledge to the challenges and issues knowledge relates to.
It is More Work!
Some instructors suggested the kind of activities outlined in this post (and there are many more) require more work than giving a lecture, designing quizzes and setting and marking assignments, some of which can be alleviated by the use of teaching assistants in larger classes.
Quality online learning requires an investment in upfront design and a significant refocusing away from a content focus to a student focus. Creating any kind of community, including a community of inquiry, requires design time.
The results can be surprising. Students continually surprise their instructors with what they are capable of and how they can apply knowledge, understanding, skill and capability when given the opportunity to do so. The results produce a more satisfying experience for both instructors and students.