Instructors: turn your online courses into active learning experiences

As Colorado State University continues to embrace online learning and its host of benefits, including flexibility of when and where courses can be conducted, it’s important to remember that it still has its challenges. Many have expressed concern that online courses lack the rich communication that comes with classroom learning.

To an extent, this is true. How many of you structure your online classes in a “just-do-the-reading-and-submit-the-assignment” manner? While that might seem easier, it doesn’t necessarily create the best learning experience for students. It’s up to you, the instructor, to foster meaningful interactions to help students achieve the best learning outcomes.

To help you in this endeavor, instructional designers at CSU Online suggest using the following tools and tricks.

Use Announcements

The “Announcement” tool in Canvas is the easiest way to broadcast information to the whole class. This can include customized welcome information, a weekly content progress report, occasional course changes and updates, assignment due date reminders, and more. It is also a great place to send out a greeting or introduction before a class officially starts.

Don’t Dismiss Discussion Boards

Probably the oldest, most tried-and-true method of communicating in online courses, a discussion board (known also by various other names such as discussion group, discussion forum, message board, and online forum) functions as a “bulletin board” where students and instructors can leave messages and post responses. You can easily use discussion boards to build community by posting open-ended questions about course subject matter. Not only does this allow students to share opinions and insights, it allows you to track students’ progress toward specific learning outcomes.

Get to Know Each Other

One particular way you can make use of your discussion board at the beginning of the semester is to use it for asking the “warm-up” questions that you would ask in a classroom on the first day of class. Ask students about their educational background, knowledge of the subject matter, relevant professional skills, their attitudes toward the course, expectations of the course, or their concerns about the course. You can start the conversation by sharing your own answers to those questions.

Create Conversation Hubs

Just as students do in the classroom, those in the online environment like to talk to each other. By creating a “Coffee Shop” (you can name it whatever you like) in Canvas, you can give students a space to exchange information and chat freely online. Also commonly used as a “help desk,” this is a space where both instructors and other students can offer support to those with questions about assignments and course technology. Canvas also offers a chat tool that allows students to send short messages and receive feedback immediately, as well as an inbox tool that functions like a Canvas email system, allowing students to communicate with the entire class or with a specific person.

Establish e-Portfolios

Help students self-reflect on what they learn and accomplish throughout the semester by having them create e-portfolios or journals. Then require them to review and reflect upon their peers’ projects as well. Students can share these through discussion boards in Canvas, or you could set up an external blog for them to use.

Harness the Power of Video

Videos are by definition more interactive and engaging than text. You can use videos for question and answer activities, individual or group presentations, synchronous class activities, and more. CSU uses YouSeeU (YSU), which is a new platform that provides video-based assignments in Canvas to enhance communication, collaboration, and personalized instruction. The latest version includes asynchronous activities and recordable synchronous meeting capabilities.

Gamify Course Activities

Another way you can break free of mundane text-based assignments is to use interactive learning activities. These can include matching games, drag-and-drop activities, and jigsaw puzzles that allow students to “learn by doing.” Instructional designers can add this content into Canvas and customize it to your specific learning objectives.

Offer Tech Support

Contrary to what you might think, not all of your students are tech savvy. As such, it is always beneficial to include technology support information somewhere in your Canvas course. It could be as simple as an external link to a campus technology support center, a page that includes contact information for tech support, or a multimedia file (PowerPoint slides, animation, video, audio, or image) to guide students through the technology before they begin a course. An instructional designer should be able to help you create something to fit your needs. Presenting this information at the beginning of each course is especially important, helping students feel ready to tackle course content without the hurdles of learning new technologies.

Meet with Your Instructional Designer

If you’re interested in getting assistance adopting any of these ideas for your online classes, contact the instructional design team at CSU Online at (970) 491‑5288.

Article written by Sirui Wang and Julia Selby Smith