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After a tumultuous year, here are some fresh online learning strategies to engage students and create community

4 ideas to create engaging online learning activities

After a tumultuous year, here are some fresh online learning strategies to engage students and create community

While most schools plan for full in-person returns in the fall, plans are not 100 percent certain right now. Variables such as more contagious COVID strains, approval and availability of vaccines for children younger than 12, and local COVID outbreaks could force schools back to online learning for weeks at a time.

Teachers and students learned a lot about online learning during the past 15 months–what works and what doesn’t, strategies to engage with one another, and how to form meaningful relationships during online, hybrid, or distanced in-person learning.

During ISTELive 21, Dr. Jennifer Courduff, a professor of education at Azusa Pacific University; Dr. Peter Hessling, an assistant teaching professor at North Carolina State University; Dr. Jean Kiekel, an assistant professor at the University Of St. Thomas; and Dr. Susan Poyo, an associate professor of education at Franciscan University shared four ways to create engaging online learning opportunities for students.

1. Engaging through organization

“When you’re teaching online, whether you’re doing synchronous or asynchronous, one of the most important things is how you organize things. As much as possible, you want to keep things consistent,” Kiekel said.

Make a habit or schedule of sending emails to all students, and get students in the habit of responding, she suggested. It also helps to make sure students know what the learning objectives are–teaching in an online class can seem impersonal, so consider adding regular announcements or weekly wrap-up emails and feedback, and establish teacher presence so students know they’re not just submitting assignments and work into a void.

“The biggest thing is consistency,” Kiekel said.

2. Engaging through connections

“One of the things I have used in online and face to face teaching is Community of Inquiry theory as a foundation for my approach to developing and delivering a class and to building strong relationships with students,” Courduff said. “Making connections and building relationships is key. Think about student-to-student relationships and how you, as the teacher, are facilitating opportunities for student-to-student connectivity. What about student-to-instructor, how students communicate to you?”

Connection is critical. “The sense of isolation went way up [during COVID]. Not being in a physical space has been hard on people,” she added.

Instructor-to-family connections are important, too. Students have been learning from home, and it’s important to understand family units and challenges within a family. And don’t forget teacher-to-student connections. How are you communicating with students to make them feel safe and supported?

Community of Inquiry is organized into three basic parts, Courduff said.

Teaching presence: An instructor’s presence within the course, which includes their efforts to organize the course and course materials organization.

Social presence: Student-to-student interaction and places to collaborate

Cognitive presence: How course content is laid out in ways that makes sense to students

3. Engaging through small group interaction

“When we’re talking about small group interaction, we have to make sure we have some sort of a supportive learning community,” Poyo said. “In order for children or adults to actually work effectively in a small group, we need to feel safe. We need to make sure we have set the stage with an appropriate atmosphere of confidence so students are more comfortable to share as a community of learners.”

Collaboration and peer teaching is one way to keep students engaged and empowered during online learning.

“How can you establish those relationships–how can yo establish trust?” asked Hessling. In his university courses, Hessling asks students to create their own learning goals and learning activities for their peers as one engagement strategy.

He also suggests becoming a peer with students–stepping out of the “sage on the stage” role and adopting a bit more humility when it comes to acknowledging students’ learning processes.

4. Engaging through choice

Using a choice board helps instructors differentiate instruction, lets them offer a variety of learning representations to students, and gives students a way to be in charge of their learning.

“The great thing about choice boards is that not only do [students] engage int he content, they also have a variety of multimedia they’re exposed to and they’re able to particiapte in it and create with it,” Poyo said. “And they all help students meet learning objectives.”

You can watch this presentation here and access resources here.

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