Five Things to Know about Online Learning

By guest columnist Dr. Dennis Trinkle, Ball State University September 14, 2020. As faculty members and administrators continue to develop effective responses to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, many institutions have looked to online and digital solutions for sustaining instruction and a positive learning experience.  The sudden onset of the pandemic has forced institutions globally to prioritize digital transformations and enhancements to their systems at a rapid pace that can be tough to keep up with and to accept “good enough” solutions in the short-term.

Now, as institution look toward the 20-21 academic year with more time to prepare and assure a quality learning experience for students, there are many lessons to be taken from the high-quality best practices in online learning and remote work that have been shaped and driven by careful assessment, experimentation, and development over the past three two decades.

Five key understandings may be particularly useful to instructors and institutional leaders developing plans for the fall and for a future educational ecosystem that is quite likely to heavily incorporate online learning.

Lesson 1.  Connections and relationship between students and instructors are foundational.

Students are most engaged and successful in online learning when they feel connected to their instructor and peers.  During these unsettled times, it is already anecdotally clear that students value and benefit from relationship and communication.  Success is anchored in relationships.  When instructors can consistently connect live with students, it is highly beneficial.  Instructors should think about how they can most effectively accomplish this in their courses.  Some effective practices include:

    • Making a live connection whenever you can
    • Sharing short pre-recorded personal videos with students to provide affective presence
    • Introducing key assignments or/and discussions with short videos
    • Holding online connection hours or “coffee” chats
    • Using discussion forums specifically for interaction and discussion forums discussion of key topics
    • Using AI-conversion tools to translate interactions to meet accessibility needs
    • Leveraging voice-over and screen annotation tools to provide discussions and explanations of materials and content

Lesson 2.  Connection and interaction between students are also vital.

When students have the opportunity to interact with one another, establish rapport and collaborate, they feel engaged, connected and part of a supportive community.  Amidst Covid, students have regularly commented that their group projects have been an anchor of stability and personal connection for them.  Students who feel engaged and connected also feel more safe, stable, secure and able to focus on learning.

Useful strategies for fostering student-to-student online interaction include:

    • Incorporating group projects
    • Assigning groups of students to own and lead weekly discussions
    • Using group presentations to reinforce or expand on key learning goals
    • Assigning study teams or share pairs
    • Asking students to provide feedback to another student on a project or assignment
    • Encouraging students to use collaboration forums in an LMS or a social collaboration tool like Slack to support each other

Lesson 3.  Clear and consistent communication is essential

High stress environments such as a new learning or environment or our current extreme circumstances negatively impact cognitive processing.  We simply do not process, retain, or learn as effectively in stressful circumstances.  Thus, it is essential to communicate as clearly, directly, and simply as possible, repeating important information or content in multiple formats at multiple times to reinforce absorption and understanding.  For essential topics, repeating 7 ways on 7 days can be a useful tactic. Being especially clear on expectations and logistical information is important.  Content may be complex and challenging; directions and guidance should be simple and clear.

Specific tactics for assuring clear communication include:

    • Repeating key information in multiple places and different ways (textual, graphically, etc.)
    • Being as precise and detailed on operational and logistical expectations as possible
    • Modelling a safe environment for students to ask questions and seek clarity
    • Provide regular feedback! Qualitative feedback is important for student engagement and learning
    • Keeping inclusively and culturally-sensitive communication practices top of mind for online learning environment

 Lesson 4.  Provide structure, patterns and predictability 

A close correlate of effective communication is a clear organizational structure, patterns of work, and guidelines for course expectations.   Some learning experiences require ambiguity and uncertainty.  In all other cases, organizing the course content and structure so that it is clear, direct, and easy to comprehend is important to the learning experience. While this may seem obvious, it is far harder to create and provide concise and clear directions, so it is often neglected.  Make it a priority.

Specific techniques for assuring clear organization include:

    • Providing a clear map of weekly expectations and assignments
    • Using weekly topical themes that highlight and reinforce learning objectives
    • Re-stating assignments, goals, and objectives each week
    • Keeping inclusively and culturally-sensitive communication practices top of mind for online learning environments

Lesson 5.  Be flexible and capture student feedback

In a live classroom, providing students with regular real-time feedback and being flexibility happens organically.  In an online environment, it requires a deliberate and consistent approach.  The inevitable glitches and challenges that pop up in online learning environments and life are smoothed out when instructors are flexible and responsive.  And, students also are more grounded and engaged—and learn more effectively—when they have the opportunity to provide feedback and help shape the course.

Specific techniques for assuring clear organization include:

    • Asking students for regular weekly feedback on what is working and not working in the course
    • Using small stakes assessments and assignments to track students’ progress, surface issues, and make adjustments
    • Don’t set it and forget it.  Instructors can frame online learning as set and self-sustaining where they would consistently adjust in a face-to-face course.  Be mindful of acting on feedback
    • Using weekly that ask students to reflection and tie together key learnings

Dennis A. Trinkle is the Director for the Center of Information and Communication Sciences (CICS) and Director of the Applied Research Institutes at Ball State University.  Dr. Trinkle brings a diverse multi-sector leadership background to his leadership of CICS, where he also holds the rank of Professor of Information Sciences and Communication.  Prior to joining Ball State, Dr. Trinkle served as the system executive, provost and chief academic officer for the 12 campus Harrison College system.

Dr. Trinkle has served leading institutions across the higher education, corporate, and government sectors, including serving as the chief executive officer of IHETS, chief information officer, associate vice president for academic affairs, and Tenzer Professor of Information Technology for DePauw University, and CEO for multiple technology companies and non-profit organizations.

Trinkle is the author and editor of 16 books and more than 50 articles on entrepreneurship, technology, leadership, teaching and learning, and history.  He earned a bachelor’s degree, from DePauw University, an MBA in technology management from the University of Phoenix, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati.  He resides in Indianapolis with his wife, Kristi, and two sons, JT and Nathan.


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