What did you do during your recent online course?
“I fell asleep.”
“I was playing an online game.”
“I was watching TV.”
“I was chatting with friends on social media.”
“I haven’t seen the last three lectures.”
These are some of the answers from student feedback. On the basis of these answers, one has to wonder – were the students learning anything in the online classes?
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most educational institutions and training organisations into using online classes. To make the adjustment, institutions have thrown a piece of technology, such as Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate, at educators. Many universities gave their professors a crash course over one week to transition to online learning.
Unfortunately, such practices greatly limit the amount of learning that happens during these classes. Teaching online is like asking people who know how to drive to fly a plane. Educators need additional skills and beliefs in order to teach in an online environment to enable learning.
What defines learning?
First of all, let’s define learning. Many people seem to mistake learning for some activity that transfers information. But when that information doesn’t become knowledge, learning doesn’t happen.
Ask yourself – how much do I remember from the last training workshop or class I participated in? And what percentage of that information do I remember? Can I use it effectively? As an educator or trainer, we would all like the answer to these questions to be as high as possible. To achieve this, our fundamental belief about what learning is must be reflective of the function of learning in the human brain.
Let’s start from the beginning. The human brain receives over 400 billion bytes of information each second. Only 2,000 of those bytes are consciously being processed. This tells us that most of what we are exposed to has no chance at becoming durable knowledge. For learning to happen, a piece of information has to have some emotional connection or meaning to become knowledge.
A much more technical and accurate definition of learning looks at the outcome of learning, not the process of it. Learning should equate to a relatively permanent change in behaviour and thought processes.
Simply put, if you don’t remember it, you haven’t learned it. And, if you can’t use it, you have not developed the skills associated with it. To learn you would need to translate the information into relatively permanent knowledge that you can draw on and start to develop the skills to effectively apply that knowledge.
Keys to engagement and learning in the online environment
As more and more institutions are pushed into the online learning environment due to social distancing, new skills and methods of teaching are needed for learning to occur. One cannot just do the same as in the face-to-face environment and expect the same results in the online environment.
The following are some best practices generated from 19 years of online education and gathered from some of the world’s leading instructors with online institutions, along with my doctoral studies in educational and organisational psychology:
• Lectures should last 18 minutes or less: There’s nothing more boring than to listen or watch someone talk for 45 minutes or more in a virtual classroom. On the educator side, it’s a lot of work to prepare for such lectures and presentations. On the student side, most of it won’t be remembered. Since auditory modality of learning results in the least amount of recall, there’s a reason why TED talks are always 15-20 minutes long.
In the online environment, designing lectures that are 18 minutes long can be challenging when there’s so much content. One must balance the need to cover content with how much students will remember. Break the lecture into small segments of 18 minutes or less and design some activities in between to make them more meaningful and emotionally engaging for every student. This leads to the next best practice.
• Create meaningful learning: The human brain will consciously choose to process information when it is meaningful. Otherwise, it gets lost in the 400 billion bytes of information per second that it is receiving. To make learning meaningful, let’s start with a student inventory.
Consider this like an investment portfolio, except with data relevant to learning. Content such as personal goals, core values and interests should be gathered and made available to the educator. The specific skills that the student wants and needs to develop, along with their learning modality preferences, should also be available in this inventory.
Using this information, the connection between course materials and one’s interests and needs can be made easily by the educator. Just as various leadership studies speak to the need to make work meaningful, learning that is meaningful gets remembered.
In the online environment, there’s more time and a place for students to contribute to their personal inventory. Educators can take the time to gather and analyse the information in the student inventories to effectively design the class to be meaningful.
• Apply learning modalities in delivery of content: Every person favours particular learning styles (the method by which new information is received and remembered) when it comes to learning or communication modalities. Some people who retain information better and show increased understanding when it is visually received are more visual learners, while others are more kinesthetic, and a few are auditory.
In face-to-face conversation, adapting to the receiver’s preferred modality helps to make communication much more efficient. In the online learning environment, adapting content delivery towards the various learning modalities of the individuals in the class or group results in the information being more memorable.
Of course, information regarding the students’ learning modalities must be readily available. A student inventory would provide this information to the educator. In the online environment, this can be done by assessing students’ introductory posts and exploring the choice of words they use, or with various psychometric assessments.
It is much easier to conduct this analysis in the online environment, since there is more written material provided by every student, than in the normal classroom where students are speaking and often only auditory information is available.
Once the analysis of the students’ learning modalities is available, your lectures and activities can be designed to reflect the right amount of each modality. For example, if the class is predominantly visual learners, ample use of visual tools can facilitate engagement and learning.
• Design engaging activities: In-class activities are great teaching tools. Adapting them to the online environment calls for some creativity and understanding of the technologies being used. Most of the virtual tools being used have functions such as creating groups, making a quick poll and a shared whiteboard. For example, one activity that is always great to assess students’ understanding of the material is to ask them to critically apply it to a meaningful situation “in front of the class”.
This can be done by requesting a few students to draw on the virtual whiteboard and everyone else would see the same whiteboard. Inviting participation and different viewpoints on the whiteboard is very easy and you don’t have to wait for students to walk to the blackboard. This constitutes an activity in divergent thinking.
Of course, the activities should relate directly to both the class content and students’ interests from their inventory. Students should see these activities as challenging and fun, and not just another meaningless exercise for the sake of killing time.
At the end of the activity, the educator should simply synthesise all the ideas into something practical, illustrating convergent thinking. Such collaborative activities can help create new knowledge that is meaningful for the students.
In our university, we use cross-disciplinary faculty teams, along with an educational psychologist, to collaborate on innovative activities that connect our learners to the course materials. While this can take some time to develop as a skill, this team approach takes the weight of creativity off while making it an exciting challenge.
• Effective use of Socratic methods: Using engaging questions enhances learning and accesses a sense of authentic care. By authentic care I mean that, when asking questions to engage students, open-ended questions that connect to the students’ interests and goals are powerful. In an online environment, this can be done by using discussion forums where each individual student gets to participate.
Let’s use an example of communication for a class topic. A possible question that really engages students would be: “How would you apply this concept to better your relationship with your family?” Such a question enables every student to critically apply what they’ve just learned to something most students care a great deal about.
This type of question can be used with almost any topic. This is not an easy skill to develop in a live conversation. The online environment is the perfect place to practise effective use of Socratic methods since most online environments use a discussion forum. As educators read students’ posts, they can practise by thinking through the questions and writing them in response posts to test the engagement level.
The theoretical foundations of these best practices come from educational psychology, constructivism and andragogy (adult education). While in a different forum we can go into detail on the theory side, this article is meant to be a practical and actionable guide.
One complexity of creating an engaging online learning environment is the systemic nature of online learning. As indicated above, the best practices all work in concert with each other, just like music at a live concert.
This is where institutions and training organisations can create the systems that enable the development of such skills and applications within a learning framework. Systemic thought in designing the desired online educational environment in order to achieve significant impacts in learning is crucial during and after the pandemic.
Applying learning to yourself
As you have reached this point, you’ve now invested time in reading this article. Let’s apply learning as we defined it earlier. The best way to obtain a great return on your investment in time is to apply a few of these to your daily practices.
Whether you’re an educator in a university or a professional training organisation, apply some of the ideas to maximise your students’ or participants’ recall and their ability to develop durable knowledge and skills. If you don’t apply it, you’ll likely forget most of this. This applies to any new information you receive.
Let’s make the most learning happen during this challenging time while many people are quarantined. When you help people learn something meaningful, you help to refocus and reduce the psychological damage from this pandemic. At the end of the day, we all want to walk away from our educator role knowing that students continue to learn and we, as educators, continue to be the hope that lights their future.
Dr Ted Sun is a professor, consultant, author and researcher who has worked with universities and students across all major continents in both face-to-face and online environments. His online education experiences date back to 2001. He is currently the chief innovations officer at Transcontinental University, which offers developmental partnerships to other universities or training organisations, in addition to educating and transforming students and organisational executives across the world. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.