Making Online Learning More Engaging in Higher Education

With my recent work in Maynooth University (MU) in Ireland and my ten years of refining and teaching the courses we offer in the MAET program at Michigan State University (MSU), Ive been pontificating and procrastinating on what is current state of play with making more engaging online content in the higher education realm.

Using Multiple Platforms for Collaboration/Communication

At MSU we utilise Slack alongside our Brightspace D2L learning platform. This is the latest in a long line of platforms we have added to encourage collaboration and communication amongst our students. Discussion forums on LMS are by default….not the best..and not conducive to authentic engagement. We have found with Slack that engagement is up due to the interface and the fact that Slack has an app. Threads are logical and embedding multimedia works well. At Maynooth University, I taught the blended course TL517 Digital Technology in Higher Education which was delivered in Moodle, the old course framework had a weekly requirement to post to Moodle. I mixed it up a bit by incorporating live Microsoft Team activities along with collaborative Padlets. Padlet gave the students a different visual approach to communicating their thoughts and collaborating with others. The use of breakout rooms in Microsoft Teams gave the students the opportunity to navigate smaller groups in socially constructing knowledge and understanding.

MORE INTERACTIVE CONTENT

Quite logical and predictable, right? However, from my time in MU, the majority of online learning courses are merely substitutions of the analog courses that were delivered within the university walls. Working with lecturers to comb through their content to pinpoint areas that may become more interactive with technology is a very rewarding process. This process might be framed by the ABC protocols or just evolve organically through conversations.

HUMANISE THE PROCESS

When I am teaching an online course I always start with creating a video introducing myself and detail my professional and personal history. I also tell the students about my hobbies and interests. Seeing my face and hearing my voice always gives a human element to a potentially impersonal first impressions of an online course. It is also important to empathise with students online and realise the stress and pressures of real life that students are going through. Being flexible and empathetic with deadlines (to a certain degree) is greatly appreciated.

CONSISTENT WORD-OLOGY

When sorting out a course layout I like to organise the different activities in to action verbs. If a unit is mainly research based then the title will be “Research: “. If a unit involves creating something, then the title will be “Create”. If a unit involves reading to gain knowledge, then the title could be “Learn” or “Inquire”. Consistent wording enables the learner to understand what each unit of a course entails.

VISUALS, VISUALS, VISUALS

If the LMS allows I will create an interface of a grid of icons (which Moodle and other LMSs allow). If a student opens a course and encounters a wall of text it is usually quite daunting. A nice array of colourful yet not distracting icons makes a world of difference. Obviously, videos, infographics, images, and other elements that break down walls of text are all beneficial to the end user.

CREATE ALL THE THINGS

If we still adhere to the adage that to create is to know, then creating artefacts of learning in an online environment makes a lot of sense. I was surprised that the lecturers at MU were overjoyed when I asked them to create infographics to present their understandings of the concepts we had just read about. They immediately could see them using infographics with their students in their field. Something that I have used in K-12 education for a long time had not found its way to higher education and made me realise that certain pedagogical approaches that I may deem mainstream may be innovative in other realms.

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