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Going Digital: Tips on How-To Make Online Learning as Effective as An In-Classroom Experience

When I first started teaching online, I was shocked at how much work was involved. The course I was to transition was titled “Designing Technology Rich Curricula.” (How meta!) We used Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design model as a starting point, then examined and experimented with different curriculum development models so that students could better determine which of those best meshed with their teaching philosophy and context. It was a course that invited a lot of back-and-forth discussion, working in teams, presentations, and a lot of Q&A.

Moving from a physical classroom to a learning management system wasn’t the hard part. No, the hard part was reimagining what my course would look and feel like. More importantly, how would I be “present” in my course? How would students be present? How would we engage with one another the way we engaged one another in the physical classroom?

I wasn’t worried about my lecturing into a camera. I was worried about not truly seeing my students, not seeing their reaction to what’s being presented, not being able to field questions as they arise, not being able to experience that intellectual level of intimacy that’s an important part of the learning experience. Could we still achieve all of that online?

Over time and through trial and error, I learned I could “be there” for students using technology. I like to compare the process of “going digital” or transitioning to teaching fully online to taking your favorite book and making it into a movie. It can have the same characters, the same plot, the same point of view, the same pace, but the style, the organization, the dialogue, may need to change to be more effective.

Here are a few ways I was able to establish presence in my online courses that were equal to, and in some ways, better than my in my physical classroom.

Polling
One of the first ways I learned how to be more present with students was using digital polls. I found I could pose a series of questions to better understand where students were in their learning process, find out what was working, and what was giving them problems. I set ups weekly poll as a way to stay checked in and in-tune similar to what I would do more informally in my physical classroom.

Groups
While many of my colleagues never asked students to engage one another much, my physical courses did. I found group activities work spectacularly well when I made sure each group member had a specific role, with specific expectations, and detailed deliverables. This doesn’t matter whether you’re physically together in a classroom or working remotely online. It was a big step the first time I tried group projects online–How could I be sure students understood the instructions and were progressing effectively? To avoid confusion, I created specific time slots for the teams to check in with me during the week to monitor progress and make sure their project elements/deliverables were clear.

Discussions
One of the biggest challenges I had to going digital was building too many activities and assignments thinking I needed to compensate for not being together face-to-face. For me how to effectively use a discussion forum was one of those hard-learned lessons. Discussion forums can be an outstanding way to open up conversation about specific topics, issues, and problems of practice, and to probe students to see what they are learning.

Unfortunately, when I first started using them, I turned discussion opportunities into deep writing assignments that required peer feedback and overly thoughtful commentary with awkward deadlines and due dates. As you might guess, that never seemed to work out the way I wanted it to. When I kept the discussion forum focused on specific prompts and gave students explicit instructions and feedback on how they could respond using video clips, YouTube examples, links to news articles, I found participation increased four-fold with students taking the conversation deeper without any pressure or prompting. Students would report how much they enjoyed the tangents our discussions would take and that in some cases, they enjoyed the tangents more because they tended to focus more concretely on real-world, practical concerns and practices.

There are no quick fixes, no one-right-way to do discussion forums. The secret is experimenting with different ideas and finding what works best for you and your students. I found if I focused on strategies that allowed students to bring something to the conversation, then we could all keep learning together.

Today, for many schools and educators, going digital is no longer an option. Being there with students is something I will always cherish. Making it work online is not always easy, it’s not always seamless, and it’s not an exact substitute for a physical classroom experience. But with a little practice, a little imagination, a little patience, and a little help from your friends, you can create a truly meaningful learning experience that’s on par with your physical classroom experience. You might even be able to make it better. All you need to do is try.

Sometimes I like to think old Sisyphus actually enjoyed pushing that giant boulder up the hill only to have it coming tumbling back down the hill. I like to think it kept him fit, kept him humble, that it’s really a story about continuous improvement.

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