In recent weeks, universities and university colleges have made a full transition to distance learning. Lecturers and assistants are currently making great efforts to put together alternative education programmes to bridge the distance to our students. However, there’s still the question of how we can motivate our students to take part in this alternative programme and keep them active.
The Open University - a university in the Netherlands and Belgium with a focus on online learning - has been successfully providing activating online education for years. Recently, several lecturers have pooled their knowledge and experiences in this domain on the website Digital Didactics. The website contains many useful ideas on developing, offering and supervising education in an online environment. We’ve collected some interesting tips from the website and several other authors and summarised them in this teaching tip. Practical applications are illustrated with technologies that are used at the University of Antwerp, but other electronic learning environments offer similar possibilities.
I. Put together a suitable programme
As a lecturer, how can you make optimal use of your own didactic competences so that the technical tools don’t become a goal in themselves? In times of uncertainty, there’s no need to throw everything overboard and start experimenting with new didactic concepts on a large scale. First and foremost, it’s important to think about your own didactic vision: what do you want to achieve with your programme component? That’s where your focus should be.
Some specific tips about putting together a suitable programme
- Find inspiration in the learning outcomes of your programme component and continue to ensure a logical connection between goals, learning activities and tests.
- Focus on the essence. Look for interconnections in the course content and explore them. You don’t have to go through the course/learning content from start to finish; make sure that the connections between the different topics are sufficiently clear. If necessary, introduce larger cases on which students can work individually or in small groups.
- Think about the programme you want to offer. You can work with video recordings, but you can also provide a self-study programme without recordings. Make well-considered choices when integrating recordings of your lessons into your course.
- Online lectures don’t have to be as long as classic 50-minute lectures. 15-20 minutes is enough. You can split up previously recorded lectures and make them available to students or make a selection of existing recordings. You can supplement online lectures with a Q&A on a discussion forum.
- Complement theory with separate examples in which you show a solution in different steps.
- You can opt to replace the scheduled lectures with digital interactive lectures, in which students ask questions about self-learned course matter. You can choose a synchronous option (e.g. via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra), or a more accessible asynchronous version. With the latter, students forward their questions and the teacher answers either in writing or orally, via an audio or video recording.
- Activate prior knowledge by linking to existing screencasts/info videos (more information: teaching tips 55, 56 and 58). Info videos deal with specific themes and are max. 5 to 7 minutes long.
- Take into account the characteristics of your student population when adapting your programme. Do they need a lot of guidance? What are the possibilities with this group?
- Keep in mind that for some students, taking online lessons from home or downloading and uploading large files may not be so straightforward. Ask students to report issues. Students who don’t have a decent internet connection and/or computer at home should be referred to the central student support services (at UAntwerp: STIP).
- Avoid impulsive decisions: stay critical and make well-considered choices.
II. Integrate sufficient pointers
Keeping the workload manageable for all parties is a real balancing act. It’s important that both teachers and students can focus their attention on what really matters. Large efficiency gains can be achieved by integrating sufficient structure in the programme
Some specific tips for Integrating sufficient pointers
- Make sure you have a clear folder structure in your electronic learning environment (e.g. your Blackboard course).
- Clarify the structure and coherence of the materials in a short introductory text or video.
- Make your expectations clear: indicate which course material is compulsory and which is optional.
- Link to study material that has already been provided.
- Highlight tools in your electronic learning environment by creating shortcuts (e.g. to the discussion forum, assignments, etc.).
- Introduce fixed routines: for example, posting a digital lecture and corresponding assignment at the same time every week. Communicate this to your students in a clear manner.
- Coordinate your approach and timing with your colleagues (at the University of Antwerp, you can also do this centrally via the educational administration or the CIKO staff member at the faculty).
III. Don’t let students stray off the path (in other words: offer them guidance)
Interventions providing structure are needed to keep students alert. Merely providing digital material offers little guarantee in terms of success. How can we motivate students to get involved actively?
Specific tips for offering guidance
- Stay in contact with your students via the electronic learning environment. Be direct with your students, but don’t over-communicate.
- Provide a structured feedback process. Make it clear how and when students can expect feedback. In addition to written feedback, you can also give video or audio feedback (McCarthy, 2015).
- Implement live feedback sessions or question sessions (e.g. via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra or Skype for smaller groups). You can split larger groups into smaller ones to intensify the interaction between students.
- Give interim deadlines to keep track of progress. You can make a sample schedule with priorities and deadlines for the students.
- Organise formative testing. Research shows that intermediate testing remains the most effective learning strategy (Adesope et al., 2017). Some possibilities:
- After a self-study component, you can organise an online quiz with automatic feedback via Blackboard.
- Via MyMediasite you can add interactive elements (quizzes, polls and Q&A) to your lecture recordings.
- Intermediate testing during an online lecture can be organised with voting tools such as Poll Everywhere.
- Try to promote interaction between the students. You can do this live via Blackboard Collaborate Ultra or in writing via the Blackboard forum. Make sure the forum is sufficiently structured before you open it up to students.
- You can also promote interaction through group assignments the students have to carry out using online collaboration tools, such as Google Docs.
- Activate students by having them record and upload presentations to the electronic learning environment.
- Show appreciation to your students for their participation in virtual activities.
Want to know more?
You’ll find all of ECHO’s tips on online education in one place on the ECHO website.
For employees of the University of Antwerp, all tips on online teaching (including links to useful tools) have been posted here on Pintra.
Open Universiteit (2020, March), https://www.ou.nl/web/ddguide, consulted on 25 March 2020.
Sluijsmans, D., Surma, T., Camp, G., Vanhoyweghen, K., Muijs, D. & P.A. Kirschner (2020, March). Toolgericht of doelgericht. https://www.scienceguide.nl/2020/03/toolgericht-of-doelgericht/, consulted on 25 March 2020.
University of Amsterdam (2016, June), https://wiki.uva.nl/kb-oa/index.php/Didactische_tips_voor_Blackboard#Tips_voor_het_ontwerpen_van_onderwijs_mede_via_Blackboard, consulted on 27 March 2020.
(teaching tip April 2020)