September 13, 2008

Creating an Active Distance Learning Environment

By: in Distance Learning Administration, Online Education

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Kristopher Wiemer, instructional technology specialist at Philadelphia University, encourages instructors to adopt active-learning strategies such as hands-on activities, interaction, and research “to make sure students are engaged and aren’t just sitting there like sponges.”

“I introduce [faculty] to the concept of active learning. Most of them are new to this and will attend one of my workshops on campus to answer the questions ‘What is active learning, and how can I integrate it into my course?’ That’s usually a good way to get a foot in the door, and then when they come in we’ll discuss a little further about their goals for a particular course or project. Usually, once I get the faculty member to identify their goals, we can strategize things together, and, usually, they’ll end up taking the lead.

“I think each discipline has its own special requirements. You might not use the same techniques in a textiles class that you might use in a history class, but there are commonalities to all subject matter that I think can be applied across the board. I present the instructors with options, and they present content, and we try to fit the two together in the best was possible,” Wiemer says.

There are many ways to create an active learning environment. Among the most common at Philadelphia University are simulations and online discussions. Faculty can either create or reuse simulations others have created. Using a simulation that already exists and adapting it to one’s course takes less work than creating a new one, but sometimes it can be difficult to find a simulation that suits a particular course. Both methods involve extra effort on the part of faculty, but research shows that when students are actively involved in the learning process, they understand and remember things better than when a less active approach such as a straight lecture is used, Wiemer says.

“I don’t think creating a course where all students do is read PowerPoint slides and write a few papers would help them learn all that much,” Wiemer says.

Wiemer is not opposed to using PowerPoint, but he recommends using it sparingly in the online environment. “PowerPoint is a nice way of introducing some materials, but in an online environment, where you never see students face-to-face, it kind of loses something.”

To compensate for the communication that is lost when using PowerPoint online, Wiemer recommends using Impatica or Microsoft Producer to import audio or video. “You never get to see your students, but you can put a voice-over to your slides, which can substitute for a face-to-face situation because you’re actually talking like in a face-to-face course and using your slides to support that,” Wiemer says.

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Another option is to break up the slides with discussions or group activities, which makes the experience more engaging than a longer presentation. The design of these presentations would vary according to the goals of the instructors and the characteristics of the students. For example, Wiemer notes, generational differences have course design implications. The younger generation has an easier time being online for extended periods than older students, but the older generation generally has more patience for working on the same thing for longer periods.

Research has shown that in the classroom, students need a change of ideas or activities every 10 to 15 minutes. Although Wiemer has not seen any research on how this works in the online classroom, he knows from the online courses he has taken that “after 15 minutes, I’m ready for a change.”

For an online course in which one module is equivalent to one week of a face-to-face course, this might mean using five or six activities per module in addition to the online lecture, Wiemer says.

To supplement face-to-face courses, Philadelphia University uses the course management system Blackboard. Although a course management system isn’t necessary to create an active learning environment online, several of the functions of such a system can make it easier, Wiemer says. For example, Blackboard features a tool called “Groups,” which can be used to create a space for asynchronous and synchronous communication, file sharing, and easy e-mail access.

Wiemer likes this feature because it enables access to an entire course in one place rather than making it necessary to go back and forth among various online learning tools. Having an e-mail account through Blackboard also means not having to worry that a student’s in-box is full. And the ability to share documents makes it easy to manage different versions in the same space.

Contact Kristopher Wiemer at WiemerK@philau.edu.

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