Collaboration, Interaction, and sharing form the heart of an online course. Interaction leads to student engagement, and student engagement indicates success. If you’ve taught, or even attended, an online class of any sort, you know how strange it can seem. If you’ve even done a large-scale Zoom meeting—and who hasn’t, at this point?—you know that seeing a person on a screen is not quite the same as having them sitting right next to you. The difference we’ve all learned through the pandemic is that interaction is one of the most valuable currencies in the world. We need to be around other people.
An online environment, and especially large online classes, where students could number as many as several hundred, is prone to being impersonal. A student can fade easily into anonymity, and sometimes by choice. It is important, therefore, for you as an instructor to make an online class interactive, and there are a number of ways to do so. How you do so may simply be a matter of how you encourage interaction not only between you and the student, but between the students themselves.
There has been a significant amount of research on streamlining online classes, including large sections, and professors have not given the idea of “interaction” short shrift at all. Interaction is essential. So how do you pull it off? Read on.
Be Available as the Teacher
First, let’s start with you. We know, from years of experience and pages of research, that interaction between the student and the teacher is critical. But you may be separated by geography and time zone, depending on where the college you’re teaching for is located (and depending on where the student is located, for that matter), so you have to make yourself fully present despite that handicap.
Begin with a discussion board. This is a place where you pose questions and prompts to students and then, most importantly, respond to them. Make sure that you respond to student input as much as possible. Now, in a small class, you can easily do this: you’re going to be evaluating their writing anyway, and it is easy to respond to them in as little as a sentence or two. Commend them on their research, or their opinion. Relate what they’ve written to other readings, or the responses of other students—the latter serves to stir more interaction, of course. Even if the student cannot see you, they know you are listening. Feedback matters.
Another way is through making yourself available for conferences. A “conference” can happen any number of ways. You can set aside certain times over the course of the week for, say, video conferences with an individual student—after all, they will have questions. But in a large class, where there may be many questions, and video conferencing them all will probably be too much. You can still make yourself available via email. Again, feedback is crucial—though later we’ll look at how students can provide that feedback to each other—and no matter how much responsibility you delegate to students themselves, they will appreciate and respect your participation. Be clear from the outset as to what your role will be. Establish the parameters of your availability—and stick with them.
Researcher Marcia Dixson (2010) published a paper on creating student engagement, and one of her salient points as to what makes online instruction effective is a strong instructor presence—but not too strong. She draws from other research, concluding that the teacher should be minimally active in online discussions (leave it to the students, but don’t be entirely absent) and to use email appropriately to keep in touch. Posting messages, responding to students, and participating in group activities are all important—the student will literally see you as a “real person.”
Have the Students Team Up
By now, many students in primary school have been taught how to work together. Group projects are the norm. For younger college students today, I’m going to hazard a guess and say they all know how to work together. But what about adult students?
Here’s one answer: if you’ve had a career, you’ve worked with other people. It’s really that simple. So in a large online class, form smaller groups. If you are teaching students who live in various places, be sure to group them according to what time zone they’re in, at the very least. But no matter how you do it, get the students to collaborate.
Dixson has much to say on this, too—and again, she draws on numerous research papers. Collaborative activities, group discussions, and peer interaction among students are necessary. “Active learning,” she points out, is a broad umbrella topic, which can encompass virtual teamwork, games, case studies, and more. These are different from lectures, readings, homework and tests—all the traditional coursework—which remain not only passive for the most part but individual.
Using nearly 200 students, Dixson investigated what students find engaging—little surprise that a good deal of them are interactive activities! First, she looks at student-to-student interaction. Peer review, as we’ve discussed before was rated by students as high engagement. Discussion forums between students were ranked the highest. In general, research and projects—both of which utilize student interest and self-mastery, of course—ranked highly.
In terms of interaction with the instructor, feedback on assignments was ranked highly—almost as much as connecting by email! The teacher’s participation in forums, too, was seen as important.
Dixson admits her results weren’t outright conclusive, as there wasn’t a large variation between student attitudes on passive and active learning, yet she also comments on some interesting results. “Given the research regarding the potential for social isolation of the online learner,” she says, “instructors should consider learning assignments that engage students with the content and with each other.” When it comes to communication with the teacher and other students, engagement is higher—thus, interactivity makes a class better. Teachers, she says, must create assignments where students interact not only with course content but each other—and require that students interact with each other.
“Students who are working on group projects together, doing peer review of one another’s papers, interacting with a discussion forum on a particular topic, are likely to feel more engaged in the course,” Dixson writes. “Clearly the path to student engagement, based on this data, is not about the type of activity/assignment but about multiple ways of creating meaningful communication between students and with their instructor—it’s all about connections.”
And connections are, naturally, grounded in interaction.
Encourage Interactive Discussions
Discussion boards are obviously an area where interaction happens—but only if approached correctly. You don’t want students to fall into passive responses and, worse, opinion-regurgitating. Professor Micah Pollack from Indiana University Northwest has a strategy.
Pollack, writing in the Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, describes his approach to online discussion that he created, A.V.I.D., which stands for (A)ctive, (V)aried, (I)nteresting and open-ende(D). Let’s summarize.
Active questions have “real-world relevance and require students to investigate and define some tasks of the activity on their own…” As a business and economics teacher, Pollack has students pick a particular good—like coffee—and poll friends on what they would be most willing to pay for that good; next, students go to stores to find actual prices of the good. Their analysis arises from all this information—and it’s information that gets them away from the computer.
Varied questions allow for both active questions—like the one that gets you out polling friends and visiting stores—and more reflective questions. Now they can sit back and think about their results and draw conclusions from that. This helps the teacher attend to different learning styles (active movement vs. sitting-and-thinking) and gives students flexibility in their approach.
Interesting questions, Pollack writes, are ones that are “relevant, personal and even controversial for students.” Recent news, politics, and popular cultural happenings all make for relevance and interest. Discussions related to a student’s life—like their stance on gun control and student loan debt, for example—encourages enthusiasm in the student.
Finally, Open-Ended questions do not have a single answer, or a single firm conclusion. Here’s his example: Rather than ask “If the minimum wage is raised, what does the supply and demand model predict will happen?”—this will generate less discussion—ask instead “Do you personally think the minimum wage should be raised or not? Use the predictions of the supply and demand model to support your view.” The latter question generates many conclusions.
Now, what does the teacher do once they’ve asked this? They should moderate discussion rather than actively participate in it—and if you do respond, which you should at key points, be sure to do so in a way that encourages more discussion. Watch for errors in terminology and misunderstandings and correct them. If you can find alternative views to a student’s post, provide that—it will enable yet further discussion.
Use the Communication Tools
We’ve talked about discussions—about communicating, basically—but we haven’t yet talked about how one can do that—or, to put it bluntly, the actual technological tools to do that. Paige Cunningham (2017), in a publication by Johns Hopkins University Press, will help us get even more specific.
The online class, she points out, is not a one-way street. It’s no longer about teachers sending out material, lessons, and assignments, and then students simply returning their homework. Message boards, chat rooms, and wikis have made classes two-way streets—for the better.
Cunningham takes the constructivist approach to learning: the idea that learning happens communally, and that students learn by having conversations with themselves, their teachers, and their peers. This model, she notes, applies very well to distance education, the MOOC, the online class.
One of the best tools is the asynchronous collaborative tool, some of which include things like forums and various ways to message each other. Forums, for one, are essential—and this in the constructivist outlook—because “they serve as a venue for both academic and social discussions, thus helping students who are not physically together in a classroom to interact in a constructive manner.” Messaging functions, too, “can help provide online students with a method to talk privately about both coursework-related and non-coursework-related issues.”
There is a database-creation tool that “allows students to construct a group database that can be used to store research or files or track a project. All of these tools can be invaluable for helping online students find ways to work together and share knowledge remotely.” Additionally, she mentions chat rooms, wikis, audio/video conferencing, and virtual classrooms (VCs). Wikis, to describe just one of these features, “can be used for taking shared notes, managing a group project, brainstorming on ideas, and many other functions.” The fact that they are free, open-sourced, easy to learn, updatable, and able to be used asynchronously makes them valuable. Audio/video conference software, which makes an online course synchronous, provides instantaneous feedback—the interaction is live.
It’s important to know, Cunningham makes clear, that you can use these tools badly: “their ineffective use can cause considerable damage, such as students possibly feeling dissociated from the course and institution, failing to connect with classmates, losing interest in participating in the course, or simply doing poorly in the course.” The answer to this begins with training—for you. You, as the instructor, have to maximize the full benefits of these tools by learning them to their core. Utilize the full range of their possibilities. Some colleges offer training in their LMSs (learning management systems), their CMSs (course management systems), or their VCs.
You can, of course, train yourself, as well. After all, students already know the basis of this stuff, though they probably aren’t familiar with a specific system.
Students, Cunningham reminds us, come into college expecting technology. They are used to multitasking, and they expect immediate responses to their questions, emails, and texts. Connection—through social media, texting, and all things smart phone—is a way of life. Not only do they not handwrite, relying on typing, but much of that typing is with their thumbs on their phone! CMS’s and LMS’s are perfect for them, the way they see it—they have instant access to grades and assignments (and if they missed class, all the better) and they can readily message other students and their teacher. Student engagement is fully there—at least in potential, and your own buy-in will enable theirs.
To pull it all together, remember one adage: interaction leads to engagement. Train yourself in the tools and use them to their full potential. Focus especially on anything that allows students to communicate with you and each other. Even a large class will benefit.
Cunningham, P. (2017). Bridging the distance: Using interactive communication tools to make online education more social. Library Trends, 64(4), 589-614. https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/103584/Cunningham.pdf
Dixson, M. (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 1 – 13. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ890707.pdf
Pollack, M. (2017). Designing and managing engaging discussions in online courses. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 6(1), 6-80. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/jotlt/article/download/22367/29070/53041