January 6th, 2011

How to Create Effective Activities for Online Teaching

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We’ve all used them, first as students and now as online instructors: activities in a class meant to highlight, spotlight, underline, enhance, or explain some aspect of the subject we are teaching. Too often, not much thought or effort is given to these activities, resulting in outdated and unsuccessful activities. With the right approaches and a bit of knowledge, online instructors can create activities that are dynamic, effective, and interesting.

Here’s how …

The best activities are “reality-based” activities. The more a student can relate to a learning activity, the easier it is for that student to get involved in it—and employ the purpose of the activity beyond the course. In creating activities for your online course—whether from scratch or by tweaking other activities to fit your class—be sure they reach into the real world. And that real world can include pieces of history or other events, people’s stories, or really just about any other item that is interesting, unusual, or humorous enough to hold students’ attention, no matter what the subject.

Be certain the activities are up to date. Using outdated activities will likely lead to low student interest (and leave an impression that the instructor is out of touch and/or just doing the “same old, same old”). If a dated activity is still fresh because it is interesting or its “datedness” is precisely why it is being used, fine; but if neither of these is the case, change the wording so it reflects a more current time frame (and certainly one that is relevant to your students).

Be on the lookout for existing or potential activities that can be morphed to fit your class. From textbooks that include activities to cartoons to daily events to newspaper and magazine articles to conferences and conversations to Listservs and blogs to TV shows and movies to everyday life experiences—each of these (and others) presents you with a gold mine from which to unearth new and exciting activities for your course.

Develop any new activities with students in mind, never you. Whether you are form-fitting an existing activity to your class or creating one from scratch, it must be designed to fit all aspects of your students (and your class)—not just you and your creative bent. Too many activities have failed in their efforts to keep students engaged; to successfully highlight or spotlight an idea, formula, theory, fact, or philosophy; or to lead students to new discoveries and insights simply because the instructor failed to keep students in mind.

Keep all activities short and easy to understand. Activities are, by their very nature, not meant to be treatises, dissertations, essays, or theses; they must be short to hold students’ attention and to fit as a component of a larger lesson, and they must use vocabulary and concepts students can readily understand on first reading.

Don’t hesitate to use humor in the activities. Activities that evoke a smile, chortle, chuckle, or guffaw are effective as they have a friendly flavor, thus making them easier and more enjoyable to tackle. But observe three notes of caution. (1) Use these sparingly, not as the norm, for you want a balance in the style of your activities (too much humor can take away from the serious nature of the course). (2) Be sure it is humorous. Too many people try their hand at humor and are miserable at it; it’s much better to try out humor on colleagues first than to have it fall flat on your students. (3) Always keep the humor in good taste!

Make certain all activities fall under your school’s umbrella of acceptability. Schools may have certain policies regarding the use of activities, the number of activities, your activities vs. school-sanctioned activities, etc. Be aware of any of these before you begin creating activities for your course; you don’t want to invest time and effort in activities only to learn you can’t use them.

Make use of the newest online technology. Beyond good ol’ text, there are blogs, podcasts, videos, animation, .mps (audio) files, interactive links, and other options—explore these and see which ones might be a nice bonus to an activity in engaging your students, in presenting your activity’s purpose, and in spicing up your class. We online instructors must embrace new technology and use it to enhance our teaching efforts—and this includes the activities we present to our students.

Be sure to give credit when applicable. If you decide to use something verbatim or nearly so from another source, it is important to give credit to the author. In some cases you must get permission from the publisher.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 14 years and has a national reputation in the subject. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book—How to Become the Perfect Online Instructor.

Excerpted from Teaching Online with Errol: How to Create Effective Activities for Online Teaching, Online Classroom, July 2009.