March 6th, 2009

Helping Online Students Become Self-Directed, Engaged Learners


Online course design is crucial to student success. It should reflect the intended learning outcomes and provide enough guidance for students to easily navigate the course without being overly rigid so as to stifle the exploratory aspects of learning, says Mary Hricko, library director and associate professor of library and media services at Kent State University Geauga Campus and Twinsburg Center.

Good course design begins with a clear understanding of specific learning outcomes and ways to engage students. “Simply putting content on the Web is not instruction,” Hricko says. “I’ve seen instructors put their post their lecture and text on the course site for student to read, but what they really need to do is think about interactivity.”

For example, rather than posting a linear lecture, an instructor might consider including embedded links to give students the opportunities to explore certain topics more deeply if they choose to. “There should be some areas of the site that the students can [manipulate] for improving their retention of the instruction,” Hricko says. “Sometimes students have to manipulate information so they can learn it better. There should be some facets of the site that allow them to do that.”

Depending on the intended student learning outcomes, this interactivity can extend beyond embedded links. Hricko recommends creating activities that allow students to take some control of their learning. This could include having students:

  • add content to the course website,
  • submit Web links related to the course material and explain their relevance,
  • add questions to a test bank,
  • take pre- and post-module assessments to determine whether they have mastered the learning in that module,
  • moderate online discussions,
  • fill in the blank slides to an incomplete PowerPoint presentation or lecture
  • outline in preparation for a lecture,
  • monitor several blogs and use material from those blogs to generate discussion, and create their own blogs on a topic related to the course.

“If our goal is to generate thinkers and individuals who assimilate knowledge, then we have to involve them in activities that give them the freedom to do that. Simply feeding them the information does not really facilitate their abilities to learn those skills. That’s not teaching. That’s not empowering our students. When students are given the opportunity to participate in the instruction, they gain confidence with themselves and the pedagogy,” Hricko says.

Excerpted from Empowering Students to Become Self-Directed, Engaged Learners, Online Classroom, Dec. 2006.