What Makes an Online Class an Interactive Learning Experience?

What Makes an Online Class an Interactive Learning Experience?

You’ve thought about taking an online class but perhaps you aren’t certain if this is an effective way to learn. Maybe you aren’t familiar with the methods that instructors are using now to create an interactive learning environment or you believe that your involvement in an online class is nothing more than reading a textbook, posting messages, and writing papers. Both of these perspectives are valid as some online instructors still rely on the textbook while others are finding additional interactive techniques of introducing you to the course concepts. This post provides an insider’s look into the challenge instructors face when they are developing instructional strategies, how this has a direct impact on your classroom experience, and the technological tools being utilized to make learning more meaningful.

The Problem: Static Materials

In a post on the Wired Campus blog titled Study Suggests Many Professors Use Interactive Tools Ineffectively in Online Courses, there was an indication that community college instructors “are relying on static course materials that aren’t likely to motivate students or encourage them to interact with each other” instead of choosing to implement interactive options such as technological tools. I’m not surprised that community college instructors are still following this format as many are used to a traditional classroom approach or method of teaching and delivering course materials. I began my academic work as a community college instructor and when I first made a transition to the online environment I experienced a technology learning curve. Through time, practice, and continuing education I’ve learned how to bring those materials to life through supplemental tools and techniques.

What the community college study is referring is the use of text-based materials, which is the method initially utilized when online courses were first introduced. And it seems to be the starting point for development of most online classes – course designers begin by selecting a textbook that aligns with the objectives and then include information from that text to support learning activities. Online students are assigned these materials to read, along with discussion questions to answer and assignments to prepare and submit. The process of learning is action-based because students take the information received, process it, and produce a work product – either a discussion post or a paper. The issue raised by this article has to do with the effectiveness of learning when text-based materials are the only resource provided.

Why Students Need an Interactive Environment

I’ve considered this issue in my journey as an online educator. What I’ve discovered along the way is that action is doing something with the materials; however, interaction provides an opportunity to work with the information. For example, students take action by reading the assigned course materials. When students participate in the discussion board they interact with that information and their classmates, which in turn creates an enhanced learning experience. Over time I’ve also discovered that some students prefer to work with more visually appealing materials, some prefer auditory activities, and others have a high technological need because of their use of mobile devices, media, and social networking. In other words, some students want a more interactive classroom environment.

An EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative report, Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview, states that “students say they are motivated by solving real-world problems. They often express a preference for doing rather than listening. At the same time, most educators consider learning-by-doing the most effective way to learn.” The report further defines learning-by-doing as activities that are focused “on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice.”

Within my class discussions I ask students to apply theory to real-world issues and problems; however, this is still a text-based approach to learning. Students are reading and processing information, utilizing critical thinking skills, and writing a response or paper. This is a form of learning; however, I believe that it can become even more interactive with the inclusion of technological tools. Instead of reading, thinking, and writing, what if students were reading, listening, responding to, or engaging with the materials? And what if students could create and develop their work through the use of media or software programs, rather than just read the materials and write responses?

Scott D. Johnson and Steven R. Aragon, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, wrote An Instructional Strategy Framework for Online Learning Environments and noted that “strategies for enhancing student motivation in a web-based environment can best be characterized as either novel and entertaining approaches or attempts to personalize the instruction.” This is an important consideration and I would expand that strategy further because you are not taking a class for entertainment purposes. All learning activities need to be incorporated to help you better interact with your classroom environment so that the course objectives and goals can be met.

Using Technology to Create Interactive Learning

As online instructors discover the benefit of incorporating interactive elements into their classes, you are likely to find the inclusion of more than text-based lectures and reading materials. Yi Yang and Linda F. Cornelious Ph.D., with the Department of Instructional Systems, Leadership, and Workforce Development at Mississippi State University, wrote a guide titled Preparing Instructors for Quality Online Instruction. The strategies they recommend include the addition of “PowerPoint presentations, video lectures and demonstrations,” along with “activities or discussion questions which can trigger students’ interest to explore the answer, which will ultimately foster students’ critical thinking and deep learning.”

These are usually the first steps an online instructor takes to create an interactive classroom environment. Over time, instructors realize that there are many more tools available, especially technological tools. Johnson and Aragon presented interactive techniques in this article that have been used in their online classes. Their recommendations for instructors include:
“¢    ”Incorporate games into the online environment.
“¢    Simulate a radio talk show with multiple DJs and “call-in” guests.
“¢    Use multimedia when appropriate. The MTV generation seems to desire visual over verbal stimulation and there is no excuse for not incorporating multimedia into technology-based learning systems.”

In my last post, Why Students Need Video Literacy Skills, I addressed multimedia from the perspective of adding videos as an option for class assignments. I also presented the following statement and questions: It can be said with almost certainty that as a student you know how to access and watch videos. However, would it be of benefit for you to become a video creator instead of a video viewer? In other words, is it time for you to become video literate? These questions are the result of discovering that I can increase the level of interactivity – whether it is engaging students further in the reading through the inclusion of visual media or asking students to create and develop something more than a written paper. This could be a blog, an electronic portfolio, or even a video.

Some online schools are starting to recognize and promote the use of interactive, technological tools. Florida International University (FIU Online) states that “learning online presents exciting opportunities for new dynamic and interactive learning methods. We have incorporated highly interactive e-learning applications that will enhance your online learning experience.” Some of the tools included in their online classes are: Adobe Connect (for real-time, instructor led meetings), Camtasia (for recording interactive lecturs), and YouTube (for educational videos). It isn’t known to what extent these tools are used within the online classes as some may still encourage only passive participation.

Higher education continues to evolve – and it needs to because society continues to evolve and advance technologically. The traditional classroom first utilized passive learning, with students listening to a lecture and taking notes for an exam. As the online classroom was introduced it became apparent to educators that learning could become more active because of technology. But now there are questions about the effectiveness and type of resources needed for meaningful learning to occur. What I’ve suggested in this post is that there are many resources available for instructors to use to create an interactive and engaging classroom, especially technologically based tools. As a student, you can benefit from these changes and enhancements because you will have multiple ways to learn and likely feel more involved and much more motivated to participate in your class – and that’s what learning should ultimately be about.

Share your thoughts about working within a highly interactive classroom via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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