Engagement: The Secret to Teaching Online This Fall

When hundreds of spring and summer undergraduate courses were abruptly moved from onsite to online delivery in the wake of COVID-19, several faculty and students nationwide reacted with panic and uncertainty. Currently, instructors are busy preparing for the 2020-2021 academic year where several students will continue taking courses online. At my institution, fall academic courses will be primarily virtual (along with several others across the nation), with some in-person and hybrid instruction for performance-based, clinical, and laboratory courses, and some students living on campus.

I believe faculty want to teach and students want to learn.  Therefore, rushed course conversions from in-person to online are probably insufficient to get through the fall, given that faculty won’t have time to prepare. Those teaching during these uncertain times may find some clarity in reassessing their commitment to Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  The UDL framework considers the variabilities of all learners, thus including learners who are underrepresented and formerly relegated to the margins of our higher education systems.  To its credit, COVID-19 has exposed vast inequalities in higher education for both institutions and learners.  This unevenness can be influenced by several factors, including personal income, family history, location, state, and federal policies. This past spring, I witnessed students dropping classes during the online rush because they did not have reliable internet or a working, personal computer. This fall, the expectations and stakes will be higher, so here are few things to consider when planning an online class. 

Beware of the synchronous versus asynchronous trap.  Before the spring quarter, several colleges and universities had never offered online classes during their regular academic year, while others only provided continuing education courses online, and some offered a few online programs.  A few years ago, I developed an online master’s program in special education and an onsite undergraduate program in the same area.  I quickly realized that several administrators had not considered the need for well-placed online-learning paths.  Designing online instruction as a discipline is backed by decades of eLearning science.  I had to take several courses in eLearning, read copious research articles, and speak to various EdTech vendors to understand the scope and magnitude of eLearning. I also relied on my experience as a special education teacher at a K-12 online public school. Near the end of my first quarter in higher education, I made a personal pledge never to teach a fully-traditional, onsite course.  Since then, all of my classes have been hybrid or entirely online. 

Right now, faculty may believe they are preparing eLearning courses. However, several will instead be developing and teaching remote courses as they try to teach as close to their onsite method as possible, using much of their same pedagogical approaches. At the same time, many are still busy attempting to get a handle of the intricacies of their Learning-Management Systems (LMS), conferencing technologies (Zoom), and remote testing protocols to develop Quality Matters level eLearning courses. 

In order to make a smooth transition, faculty should avoid the synchronous versus asynchronous trap. Instead, they should be willing to use both approaches. Synchronous learning is online or remote learning that happens live and in real-time, whereas asynchronous learning occurs through online channels without real-time interaction. Instead of dedicating one’s entire fall semester or quarter to one modality, instructors should consider using both.  Supporting both synchronous and asynchronous models can result in blended courses suited to supporting the flipped teaching model.  If faculty have not done so already, they should begin developing course content accessible on an LMS, where some of the course activities can be completed before or after a live session meets. 

Keep it simple with eLearning modalities.  I advise instructors to use all of the approaches below when developing courses for remote or online learning.  Let students and the nature of the content you teach dictate whether synchronous knowledge-gaining or asynchronous knowledge-gaining experiences are best.  I highly advise the use of both options in the same teaching segment.  For example, in a 60-minute live lesson via Zoom (or Teams), I have found the following strategies for engaging students beneficial:

  • Lecture for no more than 20 minutes (with copious amounts of engaging activities and formative assessment).
  • Break students into active group discussions (break out rooms) and end the live class with a debrief.
  • Break instructions down into three to five clear, concise, and sequential steps. Always provide guidance in written form and ask students if they have clarifying questions (I ask students to give me a green check if they are ready to start).  
  • Switch gears and offer new and diverse ways for students to engage physically, verbally, or textually every six to eight minutes. Leverage all forms of communication, including verbal responses, gestures, and chat responses.
  • I allow students in my virtual sessions to use their hands, bodies, and facial expressions to demonstrate understanding or responses to questions.
  • Optionally, I develop an interactive google doc/hyperdoc to increase participation instead of PowerPoint slides. When I am using slides, I use a third-party software presentation and a participation software such as PearDeck to assess student engagement effectively. 

Lastly, several instructors have been trained to believe that synchronous learning is better because students receive immediate feedback. The reality is that this belief is far from a universal truth.  Not all-recursive feedback should be immediate, and again, instructors should let the nature of the content taught and the make-up of the class decide how and when they offer feedback. 

The promise of virtual engagement.  The assumption we have to move to understand all elements at play is essential to active knowledge-making.  Therefore, keeping it simple with eLearning modalities means using a multimodal approach focused on usability and multiple uses of text, media, sound, and data resources for fostering learning and teaching content.  In the traditional classroom, two forms of confinement are present—boundedness in space and time.  Faculty would be mistaken to bound online or remote learning to the same. Instead, faculty should consider using what eLearning experts refer to as ubiquitous learning: teaching remote courses with the diversity of their learners in mind, and offering ease of access to content at any time using the learner’s preferred device.

I encourage faculty to figure out their new normal, to set a new standard of teaching and learning, and be good at it.  My point is not to radically redesign assignments, but to consider what affordances the online space provides that are consonant with your vision and learner needs.  One way to focus on authentic assessment is by designing learning activities that students can later use as evidence of learning (more than quizzes).  Many instructors worry that students will cheat during online quizzes or exams and that online learning makes plagiarism easier. However, the best defenses against cheating are well-designed assignments and rubrics.  Cheating is less likely with authentic assessments.  For example, there is value in scaffolding assessments. I often require students to turn in portions of assignments at specific times throughout the semester, starting with ideation and moving toward the final product.  They receive feedback from their peers or me with every submission.  Additionally, instead of multiple-choice quizzes, I require students to use a video of themselves answering questions or doing presentations (I often use Flipgrid).  Successful online instruction must be flexible and focus on providing a space for live, virtual collaboration, giving clear instructions, and continuously checking for understanding.

Neria Sebastien, EdD, is currently an assistant professor of special education at Seattle University’s College of Education.  Sebastien has previously served as the director of online special education programs at Walla Walla University and an online K-12 public-school teacher (Oregon Virtual Academy).

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