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Designing Interaction in an Online Curriculum

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Much of the information available online about “creating interactivity” focuses on specific software applications such as PowerPoint, Acrobat, or Flash. What the designer of an online course needs, however, is not specifics about interactivity in individual programs, but rather a big picture idea of what interactivity is in the classroom and how to embed that interactivity in online learning in order to provide the richest possible learning experience for students. In a F2F environment it is easier to adjust the level of interactivity on the fly, in contrast to an online environment, in which more careful planning is required in advance to ensure that the intended interactivity of the course is well-supported.

 
Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Interestingly, F2F teaching and online education are not very different in regards to what makes a "good" class and how students are engaged with the content. Designing interactivity into the curriculum is largely the same whether the students are physically present in the classroom or are working from home. The same concepts apply in both instances. The difference is that,unlike in a F2F setting,online instructors are unable to read student body language to determine how effective and engaging their instruction is from second to second. So with this type of constant monitoring impossible, the initial course design must be more focused on compensating for this inability. Here are several strategies for engaging students and keeping them motivated in a well-designed online curriculum utilizing a strong interactive focus:

  1. Promote active learning – Under a constructivist learning model, it is essential for students to be actively engaged in their learning. This can mean a variety of things, but most importantly, it means that learning cannot be passive. Your students must be doing something either to initially learn the material or to reinforce the learning provided through lecture and reading. This article from the International Conference on Technology and Education, titled "Strategies to Incorporate Active Learning into Online Teaching," outlines several tactics that instructors can use.
     
  2. Create a community of learners – A community of learners provides accountability and learning-focused interactivity. It is one of the things that happens naturally in a successful F2F classroom, and is more challenging to replicate online. Challenging does not mean impossible, however, and incorporating some or all of this list from Engaged Learning of  10 things you should and should not do to create a virtual community, will help guide you in involving students in your online classroom.
     
  3. Make coursework authentic – Though making coursework reflect what professionals in the field do is challenging, it is well worth the reward in terms of student interest and the feelings of accomplishment and confidence that it inspires. This overview of authentic learning for the 21st Century from EDUCAUSE provides an excellent background on the ways in which you can incorporate authentic learning into your online curriculum.
     
  4. Connect students to real-world mentors and experts – In much the same way as providing authentic learning experiences, connecting students to active professionals in the field gives them a sense that they are engaging with their intended professional field in deep and meaningful ways. According to Lave and Wenger, students learn most effectively when they can interact with insiders in their area of study, preferably in the actual context in which they intend to work. Edutopia provides a resource about how to connect students to real-world experts in the teaching profession, while FacultyFocus offers a how-to guide for connecting online students to leaders in the business world.
     
  5. Incorporate social media into the instruction – According to this article from iePlexus, which reviews survey data from the Sloan Consortium, students want social media in their classes. Today’s students are generally so tied in to their social networks that utilizing them in an online class is essentially as normal as talking. If students are interested in using a particular tool, the instructor has an inherent advantage in terms of creating interactivity and engagement with that tool. Faculty Focus provides advice on how to best integrate these tools into the online classroom.
     
  6. Require collaborative learning among students – An effective way to encourage participation in online learning is to require that students work together to socially mediate the meaning of the course content. Sometimes you, as the instructor, may need to force students into learning in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Collaborative learning exercises often do just that. From the perceived difficulties associated with working with others at a distance, to being responsible for their own learning, students often resist this model of instruction. As the authority figure in the online classroom, you need to require and support collaborative learning as a way to increase both interactivity among students and the retention of the knowledge they create. For a more detailed explanation of collaborative learning, visit this page from the Learning Commons at Evergreen State College.
     
  7. Provide regular and timely feedback – Accountability to an authority figure in the classroom is one of the best strategies for engaging students (Faculty Roles in Student Retention, Penn State). One easy way to accomplish this is through providing timely and meaningful feedback for student work. Not only do you, as the instructor need to be accountable for providing the feedback, but the students themselves need to be accountable for handing in work on-time. Feedback is a two-way street.
     
  8. Encourage critical thinking – Crafting your curriculum around sophisticated, real-world problems that require students to delve into broad societal issues while simultaneously solving practical, discipline-focused problems, provides an excellent way to inspire students. The Foundation for Critical Thinking maintains a resource page to help college instructors better incorporate critical thinking into their classes.
     

These are just a few of the strategies that can be employed to enhance interactivity in the online classroom. While there are obvious differences between F2F education and online education, many of the same techniques will work in both. If you are already a successful classroom teacher, think about the ways in which you interact with students in the brick-and-mortar classroom and what tools or strategies you could use analogously in the online environment. You will be surprised by what you find you can do virtually that you may not have thought possible. Creating a rich and interactive learning environment online requires more intentional planning and forethought than it does in the F2F classroom, but the payoff can be just as rewarding for you and your students.