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Creating an Engaging Online Learning Environment

Creating an Engaging Online Learning Environment

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By Helen Beth Driver
Faculty Member, School of Arts & Humanities, American Public University

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain and reduce its spread, many educators are switching from face-to-face classrooms to virtual courses. The change can be jarring at first for the inexperienced online instructor. However, the transition to a beneficial online learning environment conducive to student success is possible with a bit of knowledge, creativity and patience.

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Instructors might be tempted to just use email to send lessons and receive assignments. While email is necessary to allow students to directly contact instructors, relying on email to deliver instruction can actually limit student learning potential and interaction among classmates.

An Online Learning Management System Can Enhance the Virtual Classroom

Instructors should consider using a learning management system (LMS) to create a virtual classroom. Many schools already have LMS tools available such as Brightspace, Schoology or Blackboard.

However, if your school does not have an LMS available, there are free alternatives. For example, if your school has Microsoft 365, you can use Outlook Teams. Another alternative is the free Google Classroom app.

Because each LMS has a different technical mode of delivery, it is important to educate yourself on which LMS best suits your needs before creating your virtual classroom. However, there are similar components in most online classrooms: announcements, lessons, readings, discussion forums and assignments.

Here are some of the important LMS features:

1) Announcements: Students should first see an announcement immediately upon entering the online classroom and before beginning a new lesson. An effective announcement is straightforward and clear.

Many announcements consist of an introduction (usually a few sentences) and a bulleted list of the lecture, readings and graded work for that lesson. Following the list, you can add some reminders, due dates and other pertinent information. Make sure, though, you limit any student confusion by keeping the announcement simple.

2) Lessons and readings: Your lessons should be easy to access from a direct “Lessons” link on your classroom’s home page. Make sure to add variety to your lessons; making them interactive will keep students interested and motivated in this new online learning environment. Each individual lesson should house objectives, readings (either from a physical textbook or from added URLs) and some sort of lecture.

When creating the lecture portion of your lesson, consider all learning styles. Do more than just add text; that only addresses linguistic learners. Add images for visual learners, videos for audio learners and online games that highlight the lesson objectives for kinesthetic learners.

Another option is to use QuickTime or ScreenCast to record your lessons, rather than simply having students read text. Also, consider adding synchronous meetings to the lessons within your LMS: Teams (through Microsoft Outlook), Zoom (free for 40 minutes), Google Hangouts (free meetings for 10 people) or Skype all have video classrooms that allow “real-time” instruction.

3) Discussion forums: Most online courses contain discussion forums. That’s where students form a community and develop critical thinking skills. These forums are usually text-based: students comment and evaluate the readings and lessons together. Be sure to have clear instructions for each virtual discussion, so students understand the forum’s focus and how they will be evaluated.

Be wary of turning the forums into “mini-essays.” Instead, keep the conversation informal, letting your students’ ideas flow as naturally as they would in a face-to-face environment. Often, online instructors use an initial post from each student and two follow-up posts to classmates in the discussion forums. However, you may want to be a bit more creative, using a single-threaded forum instead, for example.

4) Assignments: Of course, students will be completing assignments in your online classroom. However, avoid simply assigning essays that only focus on students who learn best through reading or writing.

Instead, try to address other learning styles in your assignments as well. For example, you can assign students to prepare a PowerPoint speech; students record an audio version of their speech or have students record a video using QuickTime or ScreenCast.

Another option is to have a class debate in the discussion forum where students can discuss a two-sided issue within the lesson. Be creative – address the objectives, but remember it is important to consider student engagement as well.

Adjusting to an online learning environment can be tricky, not just for the educator but for the student as well. This adjustment may be rocky at first. However, with some time, patience, creativity and a bit of technical know-how, you can create a motivating and engaging virtual class for your students.

About the Author

Helen Beth Driver is a faculty member and English instructor of the School of Arts and Humanities at APU. She teaches courses in writing and literature, ranging from English Composition to Mythology and World Literature. Prior to joining APU, Helen taught at various colleges in New York State, including Saint Thomas Aquinas, Mount Saint Mary and Cayuga Community College. She also has experience working as an English Writing Lab Instructor for developmental and advanced students.

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