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These COVID-19 times are disrupting our lives, our work and our learning. They force us to find new ways to deliver our curriculum and to best connect with our learners at a distance. For many, remote teaching at the end of the spring term and summer session was little more than firing up a Zoom session to synchronously deliver classroom sessions. Unfortunately, this was less than satisfying to many faculty members and students. It left some with a distant feeling that was less personal and less engaged than they had felt in the prior face-to-face model.

Fortunately, there are many more online options than merely turning on the camera.

For the past quarter century, online learning has been mostly asynchronous -- engaging students in print materials, short video clips and discussion boards. This “traditional” approach affords the greatest student flexibility -- anytime and anywhere. It is relatively low bandwidth while still allowing engagement between and among the students and instructor in the discussion board. Working adult students in particular have valued this approach for the ease of time shifting and mobile phone access through many learning management systems. Online pedagogy and practices have developed over the years to facilitate learning in this mode.

Over the decades, we have endowed this approach with active learning methods. As Steven Mintz of the University of Texas at Austin articulated in his Inside Higher Ed column last month, there is an unending list of effective ways to make the learning online active. Engaging students in meaningful activities is at the core of success both online and on campus.

Online learning offers an array of strategies and practices that can be implemented within the same class. For example, one module might best benefit from an online simulation for a period of a week or more. The Colorado School of Mines has assembled this impressive list of simulations across a whole host of disciplines. Inserting a simulation into the online class schedule can enhance the engagement of students. Another strategy would be to offer a choice to students enrolled in the class: take the simulation or, instead, proceed with the material delivered in the standard “chunked” format -- short video lectures -- with readings and a discussion board. If one is careful to ensure the same or equivalent learning outcomes, this gives the students greater control and satisfaction in their learning experience.

The online platform supports a wide array of competency-based learning approaches. In many cases, we think of competency in terms of an entire curriculum. In this case, though, I suggest we consider enabling students to demonstrate learning of the contents of a module within the class in a competency mode. For example, for a two- or three-week period students might choose to demonstrate knowledge of the assigned topic through journaling or detailed chronicling of how and when they learned the topic of the module, including outcomes validating the learning. Much like the simulations mentioned above, perhaps they would be given the alternative of demonstrating competency in that specific area, or they could choose to continue in the “normal” mode of mini-lectures, readings and discussion.

I wrote some weeks back about the importance of knowing your students. It is important to understand the circumstances in which students come to your class -- especially in these COVID-19-affected times. Many of our learners are in flux. Some are working, others are not. Some are self-isolating while others are out and about pursuing a variety of activities that preclude a regular schedule or location of study. In order to adapt to this diversity, it may be best to assure that your class is mobile-friendly. That is, the learners will be best served if they can access class materials and assignments on a mobile phone. Considerations include ensuring that the LMS is configured to support mobile learning and assignments can be completed on a phone or tablet.

One more approach may be to implement an adaptive learning module. In this case, students would move through the module, step by step, demonstrating mastery of identifiable concepts, principles or skills before they can move forward to the next step. Not all learning management systems are equally prepared to support adaptive learning, but in a smaller module, most will allow the instructor to manually create a string of assessments leading to mini-modules specific to the assessment results. These can then be structured in an adaptive release format. Ultimately, adaptive learning will lead us to truly personalized learning, customized for each learner.

With the challenges of COVID-19 come opportunities. How are you taking advantage of the opportunity to look anew at the methods and modes of delivery of classes? Have you modified your online or blended learning for this fall to afford active learning and greater engagement of your students? Are you fully considering the wide variety of conditions in which your students will be learning? Are you encouraging your colleagues to take this opportunity to move beyond the “camera in the classroom” approach to experiment with simulations and competency-based modules?