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Online Pedagogy and Engagement


Teaching an online course can be very different from teaching a traditional course. Most often, pedagogical changes must occur to make the online teaching/learning experience a positive one. Chickering and Gamson (1991) provide Seven Principles for Good Teaching Practice that apply to both traditional in-class instruction as well as online instruction. These principles can serve as a guide while developing materials and learning exercises.

As stated in the Seven Principles, a well-constructed online course should offer an active-learning environment. In such an environment, students are actively engaged in the learning process, rather than passively participating (listening). “Effective online education is a blend of pedagogy, technology, and organizational support. For meaningful online learning experiences, prospective online learners should evaluate the strengths of these three elements and play an active role in exploring the increased interaction opportunity that online learning provides.” Yoon, S. In Search of Meaningful Online Learning Experiences. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education no. 100 (Winter 2003) p. 19-30

While these principles can guide curricular decisions, more specific information is needed to implement them. For example, the instructor should incorporate methods to engage the student. But, what engages one student may not work for another. The engagement may be based on the individual student’s learning style. Therefore, the ideal online environment should offer a variety of materials that address the various learning styles and encourages interaction which can make the learning process more efficient and effective.

Engaging Visual Learners

In the classroom, visual learners often prefer to take detailed notes to absorb the information. In the online environment, visual learners would benefit from PowerPoint presentations, graphs, videos, website references, outlines to complete or any visual example of the subject.

Engaging Auditory Learners

In the classroom, auditory learners learn through lectures and discussions. Written information is not as important as listening. In the online environment, these students would benefit from audio microlectures, websites with an audio component or VoIP (Voice Over IP) chats. Discussion boards also work well for auditory learners.

Engaging Tactile/Kinesthetic Learners

In the classroom, tactile/kinesthetic learners require activities and exploration. In the online environment, these students can utilize website activities, internet exercises, case studies, research projects, or any activity where the students can explore and apply what they have learned.


Choosing an Online Communications Tool


There are a number of communication technologies that can be utilized to connect with and engage students. Knowing characteristics of these tools enables an instructor to adopt the best tool(s) for his or her purpose. The figure below categorizes commonly used communication technologies into a quadrant depicting tools for synchronous (same time) or asynchronous (not occurring at the same time) and for one-to-many or one-to-one communications.

Asynchronous Communication (Announcements/Messages and Email /Discussion Board/Blogs/)
Most asynchronous communication tools are one-to-many approaches involving a user (e.g., instructor) posting a message and responses from other users being posted at a later time (discussion, blogs/). That is, a single person's message is read by multiple other people engaging in this activity at different times. Although often overlooked because it is used so commonly, asynchronous communication can also be one-to-one (Email). Inherently, one-to-many and one-to-one asynchronous communication allows the learner more time to reflect on the topic at hand before sending or posting a message. Additionally, with one-to-many communications the effect of audience typically generates more effort in message composition.

Best Practices in Asynchronous Communication

  • Inform learners of your expectations for how these tools will be used as part of the course.
  • Create a “Tell About Yourself” Discussion Area. Post information about yourself and the course initially. Ask students to do the same. Your use of the tool models an appropriate use of it and provides students with the initial prompt to begin a discussion. This exercise will also reveal if students are having difficulty understanding how to post or reply to a message.
  • Focus the discussion by carefully preparing questions in advance.
  • Provide discussion board participation guidelines to students, including instructor expectations and rules of conduct.
  • Monitor the discussion or assign a student monitor to keep learners focused on the topic.
  • Oversee the quality and regularity of the postings. If learners appear to post late (when you have already gone on to another posting), do not participate, or post non-substantive messages, communicate with that student privately.
  • Consider asking students to facilitate discussions in specific content areas where they may have particular expertise or where expertise needs to be developed. Having a student lead the discussion can lead to the student preparing in advance with relevant issues and information.
  • Provide a summary of the discussion before moving on to a new thread.

Synchronous Communication (Chat/Instant Messages/Whiteboard)
Many learners are accustomed to using chat for recreational purposes which are often very informal and quickly composed without reflection. Effectively adopting chat for academic purposes requires structure and effective moderation of the discussion. As a synchronous tool, chat is usually one-to-many and involves all participants being online simultaneously and often has them interacting at the same time. Without time for reflection, some instructors have found it effective to prepare students in advance with specific questions or content for them to mull over before engaging in dialogue. As a one-to-one tool, many instructors are finding instant messaging to be an effective tool for conducting virtual office hours and for providing more responsiveness to student requests.

Best Practices in Synchronous Communication

  • Inform learners of your expectations for how these tools will be used as part of the course.
  • Outline the rules in your syllabus (i.e., no harsh language, no belittling of their fellow classmates, keeping their comments relevant to the topic).
  • Decide what your objectives are for using chat. Ask how using chat can assist the learners in achieving the overall goals of the course.
  • Prepare a focused topic in advance for each chat session.
  • Monitor the dialogue to keep it on topic.
  • Consider the number of students that can be meaningfully involved in chat.
  • Establish a protocol so that learners will know when another has completed their message (i.e. ask learners to add an asterisk * at the end of their sentence).
  • Be aware of those who tend not to participate. Is it due to a technological or skill problem? Some learners can type very quickly while others type quite slowly. This may affect the frequency of learner participation. If nonparticipation seems to be attributed to neither technological problems or typing skills, is there a way to draw them into the chat?
  • Summarize the major points at the end of the chat session.

There are a number of other technologies used for online learning that go beyond communication tools. Most web-based learning management solutions (like Blackboard) offer quizzing, course information, calendars, and a number of other features. Not only can student participation be increased with such tools, but the administration of the course can be simplified as well.
If you are new to online teaching and learning and you would like to assess your ability to adapt to the online environment, take this self assessment, Are You Ready to Teach Online.



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