9 Ideas to Keep Your Online Course Interesting

online course ideasLike any presentation of information, online course content can get stale with time. As academic semesters pass, our brand new courses become dated in terms of the concepts presented and the technology used.

Let’s face it, they can also just get dull – uninspiring not only to our students, but also to us as we cover the same ground in the same ways, term after term. What can we do to refresh an online class and keep it interesting for students and teachers alike?

This was an underlying theme during the recent Sloan Consortium International Symposium on Emerging Technologies for Online Learning. I was lucky enough to be a virtual attendee this year and impressed by the variety of topics and presenters that were streamed live. Many of these presentations included ideas for keeping instructor motivation up, as well as that of our students.

There are so many possibilities these days – new technologies, new platforms, new strategies, etc., but we don’t always have a lot of control over the content in our courses or how it is delivered. And getting the inertia to make the changes we can make often seems impossible, as our to-do lists are already quite full.

Whether you have few opportunities to make changes or total control over the content and learning management system, a little time available or months to prepare, keeping a course current is critical to its success. Take a look at some of the suggestions for refreshing the online teaching and learning experience in three key areas: threaded discussions, audio and video, and assignments and activities.

Threaded Discussions

The threaded discussion has become the standard format for simulating in-class open discussion initiated from a prompt provided by the instructor. It’s a convenient approach that is already built into learning management systems, but can be limiting in terms of motivating student interest and engagement.

1. Include student generated discussion questions. In her session titled “How’d You Do That? Tips and Tricks that Might Account for my 95% Retention Rate“, Kari Frisch described her technique for allowing students to submit discussion questions. She pulls from this pool, letting the class know which questions are student created, and shared that “students are more likely to respond to other students.”

2. Vary your comments and replies. Audrey Bartholomew from the University of New England shared research related to “Instructor Participation in Asynchronous Discussion,” which included a framework with three “presences:” social, cognitive, and teaching. Instructor discussion replies were coded in these categories, and it was found that a balance of these types is desirable. I often feel the pressure to make sure every post I make is highly cognitive or instructional in nature, but the social comments (i.e., complimentary and encouraging) have a place, too. Bartholomew noted that “it’s nice when you can’t tell who is the teacher and who is a grad student” when reviewing an engaging discussion online.

3. Use the text editor. There are advantages and disadvantages to teaching from within a learning management system, but the capabilities are expanding. Text editors are just one example and were mentioned by several conference presenters. In the context of online discussions, there are more options than ever to not only format a text-based response (e.g., bold and italics, bullets), but also add embedded links, images, and multimedia. Consider tweaking discussion prompts to encourage use of these tools, as seen in the example below from a version of the Canvas LMS.

Text editor 2

Multimedia Options

Not too long ago I conducted my first experiment with audio feedback on a class assignment. It wasn’t perfect, but it did open my eyes to some of the possibilities. The Sloan symposium included multiple presentations related to adding audio and/or video components to a course. Feedback is just the start. As new tools and easier access become available, multimedia elements can enhance a range of course interactions.

4. Build a community with audio. Educator Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s “Learning Out Loud: Changing Student Mindsets About Voice Comments” session shared her experience using VoiceThread to capture audio comments. While her students expressed that they were often reluctant to record their own voices, they appreciated hearing those of their instructor and peers.

5. Increase presence with video. Northern Illinois University’s Jason Rhode presented “Ready, Set, Record: Being Present and Engaging Students Online Using YouTube.” Rhode focused on the “Video Anywhere” feature of the Blackboard LMS, but walked through the steps any of us could take to add a YouTube video in other systems. The tool’s recently updated recording, editing, captioning, and sharing functions, made it easy for Rhode to add weekly video introductions to his online course.

6. Use the text editor … more. Part of my struggle with audio feedback was the selection of a user-friendly tool that would create a convenient result in terms of size and format, so that I could meet the learning management system’s upload restrictions. As I mentioned in the previous section related to online discussions, video and audio options are now part of learning management systems, allowing you and your students to record from within the course – a much easier route. Take a look at the screenshot below as an example of what is available via the Canvas LMS discussion post text editor.

Record and Upload Media

Assignments and Activities

Traditional papers, presentations, and discussions easily made the transition from face-to-face to online learning, but there’s more we can do in a web-based environment, and more ways students can present their work. Consider that there may be multiple acceptable paths to reach a learning objective, and explore new approaches in your online course.

7. Think about “cool” assignments. Instructors Jessica Decker and Noreen Barajas-Murphy presented “Developing Collaboration Online: A Comparison of Structured Group Assignments in Synchronous and Asynchronous Courses.” These instructors shared their ideas for creating assignments that fostered student interaction with each other. I wasn’t the only attendee struck by the creativity of assignments like the “Cool Tool Duel,” in which students reviewed different resources and used polls to identify the “coolest.”

8. Give students and instructors choices. Several symposium presenters addressed the success of providing more than one option for assignment completion. In these situations each individual student, or perhaps small groups of learners, can decide how their learning achievement will be demonstrated and evaluated, choosing between writing a paper and creating a video for example. From the teaching standpoint, having a pool of approved assignment options could also mean alternating across terms so that there is some variety, but all students in a given section are submitting work in the same format for each assignment.

9. Integrate “active learning breaks.” Another tip from educator Kari Frisch, adding informal social activities throughout the course allows students to strengthen connections with each other as peers in a learning community. An example shared during the conference was providing a prompt such as “What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in your life so far, and how did it change you?” Attendees, including those of us viewing the live session online, answered this in small groups and it worked well. In just a few minutes time we knew a little more about each other and made new connections.

The primary goal of keeping an online course current or fresh is improving the experience and environment for all involved. This effort can include content and assignments, as well as social interaction and technology upgrades, and it doesn’t have to mean a large-scale initiative. Small changes and modifications can make a positive difference for both students and instructors.

How can you refresh your online course? Share your ideas with us here!

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog