How to design and present “real-time” learning activities to enhance student engagement
A dominant selling point of online courses is convenience – people choose virtual study environments to enjoy the flexibility of self-paced learning. Online course activities, unlike those in the physical classroom, are mostly asynchronous, which means students can engage with content, complete assignments, and interact with peers via discussion forums as and when it suits them.
To leverage the appeal of flexibility, online course designers should make use of asynchronous activities.
However, this doesn’t mean that course design should ignore live, synchronous elements, as these can add immense value to the online learning experience. Synchronous activities make use of web-based video conferencing tools and other instant communication apps to facilitate “real-time”, or synchronous, student interaction. When planned and executed properly, live online activities can result in students feeling more engaged, connected, supported, and more exposed to the synergies that spring from real-time collaboration (E-Learning Faculty Modules, 2015).
Live online classes can also enable faster learning, according to student feedback. Sibylle Pfeiffer, a past online learner of the University of Cape Town and GetSmarter, notes that the feedback he received during live sessions was immediate, compared to discussion forums, where there are typically longer delays between student-instructor interactions. He said: “On the forums, by the time you receive a response, you have to review what your question was. Comparatively, the real-time Q&A in live tutorials is hugely beneficial.”
Instructors also recognise the benefits.
John Wilter, the instructor on the UCT Training and Development Management online short course, observes that verbal communication in live classes often reveals a lot about a person’s context. According to John, this can lead to an improved understanding of the person, which can be useful during other modes of communication. John noted that, “When students engage with you verbally, it gives you context for that student, their workplace, and environment. So then, when they post on the forums, it becomes easier to understand the intended meaning behind their posts.”
To achieve the benefits of live online classes, synchronous activities need to be designed and presented effectively. This article outlines some of the most important considerations for doing so.
The value proposition | Why should students attend?
Given the convenience of self-paced learning, if you’re using live activities, you need to convince students that these will be worth their time. It’s therefore important to frame the associated learning benefits in a way that will persuade students to attend. Depending on the programme or course, it may also be effective to associate rewards or penalties with attendance.
A reward for student attendance could include access to bonus material, a detailed walk-through of critical content, or additional support to understand assignment requirements, thereby increasing the value of their learning. Penalising non-attendance (for example, by disqualifying consistent non-attendees from writing exams or making them forfeit a particular grade) could also help to maintain a minimum standard of attendance. Rewards or penalties can help boost attendance, but the real task is encouraging students to buy in to the idea of live online lessons by helping them understand how it will improve their learning experience.
Tip 1: If you choose to penalise non-attendees, it’s important to make exceptions for students who face technical difficulties or have prior commitments.
The schedule | What time slots will be available?
Defining time slots is critical; if your scheduled times don’t match students’ needs, you’re almost guaranteed to have a low turnout. Part-time students often need to juggle work or family responsibilities, and typically respond well to lunchtime or evening slots. However, no student cohort is the same; you may have more success by polling students to gauge which time slots are most popular and make those available. Alternatively, if students are grouped, you could allow groups to decide on a time slot of their own.
Tip 2: In addition to scheduling time slots, it’s important to consider on which day the live session should take place. For example, if the session covers content released on a Wednesday, it would make sense to hold the session no sooner than Friday, to allow students to first familiarise themselves with the content.
The classroom structure | When and with whom will students interact?
The format of interaction during a live lesson is another important element. Specifically, you need to decide to either host all students in the same instructor-led classroom for the entire lesson, or include breakout rooms whereby the class splits up into groups that break away from the main room, to engage more intimately with fewer peers.
The single classroom approach is more straightforward and easier to manage, for both instructors and students. It can also bring about a sense of fairness and equality, in that “everyone hears everyone else”. In breakout rooms, on the other hand, students can enjoy the benefits of engaging directly with their peers and constructing their own knowledge. However, the makeup of each room is crucial; stronger students should be spread across different rooms so that all groups are empowered to achieve the desired learning outcomes. To this end, manual allocation of breakout rooms tends to work better than forming groups randomly.
Tip 3: Breakout rooms tend to only work well with relatively high student numbers, which again highlights the importance of achieving high attendance. For example, if only four students attend, it would make sense to stay in the main classroom as opposed to having students break out into two groups of two. With six students, however, you could effectively form two groups of three.
The technical support | Are you setting students up for success?
Technical issues tend to be the biggest obstacle in the facilitation of live lessons (E-Learning Faculty Modules, 2015). Whatever software you use, students are likely to encounter challenges. For example, their operating systems might not be compatible, or they might not have had significant exposure to the relevant technology. Best practice is to provide students with a tech checklist either before or early on in the session to ensure that everyone has a stable internet connection, a working microphone, successful audio setup, etc. Presenting a “meet-and-greet” session as a practice run before the first academic lesson will help students get used to the technology.
Tip 4: It’s handy for instructors to have a technical assistant on standby during live lessons, to tend to students’ tech queries while the instructor can focus on presenting the lesson. The tech assistant can also help with classroom administration (for example, splitting the class into breakout rooms).
These considerations and tips do not cover every aspect of live online lessons. Instead, they aim to provide a useful framework for thinking about how to effectively design and present synchronous learning activities on an online course.
And given the immense value of live learning, the latter should not be sidelined or treated as an inconvenient add-on to the ordinary learning toolkit. Instead, synchronous activities should be viewed as a means to support students who prefer a different mode of learning to the usual self-paced, asynchronous activities of an online course. As John Wilter explains, “Students who are better at verbal language than written language can shine and inspire others on the live platform. One student in my last class who did not perform well in written assignments, stood out as a top performer in the live tutorials.”
Perhaps the major benefit of live online classes is their ability to create a heightened sense of community in an environment that can otherwise feel very solitary. This sentiment rings true for Sibylle Pfeiffer, who noted that, “Online learning can become very distant in the sense that you purely engage in a written manner only. But live tutorials are more real; there’s real energy, real connection. I think it just makes the whole experience more human.”
Want to experience an engaging way to learn online?
Further reading: E-Learning Faculty Modules. 2015. Synchronous Course Delivery. Available: http://www.elearningfacultymodules.org/index.php/Synchronous_Course_Delivery [2016, October 20].