Learning by Doing

Amy Rottman and Salena Rabidoux suggest three examples of effective online applied learning.

 

May 31, 2017
 

Applied learning is a practical approach that is supported by research to increase student motivation, foster student-centered instruction, and provide real world application. It is also an opportunity for high-impact learning, where students explore content and directly apply new knowledge.  

There are many synonyms that refer to applied learning, such as experiential learning, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning; however, for the purposes of this article, we refer to the idea of students applying learned content through critical thinking and reflection to demonstrate content knowledge as applied learning.

Critical thinking and reflection are intertwined within every applied learning experience. Critical thinking requires students to view multiple perspectives of content. Reflection enhances their ability to fully engage in the process of constructing meaning. The combination of both critical thinking and reflection fosters higher order thinking skills, problem solving, and the formulation of inferences.  

Implementing critical thinking and reflection in an online environment is as simple as having students analyze a case study or asking open-ended questions that are phrased with explain, compare, why, and how to prompt divergent thinking. Online instructors can begin integrating applied learning experiences using the following techniques:

1.  Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning offers a collaborative environment where students work together to achieve a common goal. Collaboration enhances individual accountability, increases interpersonal skills, and promotes interdependence. Cooperative learning has a natural structure where students can foster one another's academic growth, which can lead to higher mastery of content than instructor led training alone.  

Online instructors can integrate Professional Learning Communities (PLC) as a technique to create cooperative learning experiences. A PLC is a group of individuals that meet regularly to share expertise, achieve common goals, and offer peer supported guidance. A PLC is distinguished from a group work assignment as it is a semester-long grouping that is comprised of 3-5 individuals.

PLCs interactions do not necessarily need to be graded as their main goal is to have students critically examine content in a collaborative environment that intertwines reflective practice, communication, and teamwork.

One strategy for enhancing the PLC experience is to assign roles for each individual.  Assigned roles reinforce the cooperative learning experience because they require collaboration and reach into the realm of simulations. Examples of roles are:  

Facilitator -- serves as the team leader. Coordinates efforts with the instructor as needed when the entire PLC needs additional support. Serves as the key contact for the PLC group.  
Interpreter - serves as a clarifier for the PLC group members. Offers re-teaching of key concepts and content covered within each modules.  

Reminder -- serves as an “event planner;” reminds all group members about assignment deadlines and assignment criteria.

Mentor -- serves as an assignment consultant.  Summarizes assignment requirements, offers to review work before submission, and offers professional critiques relevant to the course.

Communicator -- serves as the note-taker during team meetings.  Responsibilities include writing meeting summaries, posting meeting notes in a shared space, and keeping track of time during meetings.

Depending on the length of the course, PLC roles can be rotated or remain the same throughout the course. Instructors who utilize PLCs find that they help with the management of the course because updates and big questions occur through the facilitator. Also, the facilitator offers a streamlined process in clarifying content updates and supporting student needs. Instructors have found students extend the PLC community into subsequent courses as well.  

2. Service Learning

Service learning enacts a civic responsibility with meaningful application of content knowledge. It is a technique that engages instruction with the surrounding community, corporations, local business and/or non-profits. Service learning requires students to plan and prepare the service, act upon the partnerships’ need, and reflect on the outcomes of their actions in conjunction with the course content.

Service learning reinforces content knowledge through real-world application, and in online courses, it can have a broader reach for community support because students are often geographically scattered.  Instructors can integrate assignments connected to learning objectives for volunteer opportunities within the students’ local communities.  

Before implementing a service learning project, instructors must first scaffold content and/or skills connected to course goals. Then they can venture into service learning opportunities. After content delivery, partnerships are established either through instructor or student led connections.

Once the partnership is established, students conduct a needs assessment to best support the partner’s vision and/or mission.  Based upon the results of the needs assessment, students develop a plan of action that is approved by both the instructor and the partner before implementation.  

Critical reflection should occur throughout the service learning opportunity as well as during the conclusion of the action phase. Documentation and reflection of the service learning process and outcome are necessary components because they offer a culminating view of the content connection to a real-world application. Documentation and reflection can be delivered by students through the creation of a digital story or virtual presentation.

3. Simulations

A simulation is an imitation of a situation or a process. Simulations offer a role-playing perspective to the content in a digital venue that supports learning objectives and engages students in real world application prior to fieldwork Instructors can create digital simulations; however, many faculty members believe that to be laborious.

There are simple ways to integrate effective simulations without recreating the wheel. One strategy for creating a manageable simulation is by structuring discussion boards that utilize case studies where students simulate a person or situation is one approach to this applied learning technique.  For example, nursing students are individually assigned a specific illness and each student then has to share symptoms they are experiencing. Then their classmates have to diagnose accordingly.    

Instructors can also use pre-created simulations to enhance the learning experience that can be found through researching online resources. Below are several examples of pre-created simulations:

Cooperative learning, service learning, and simulations are only a few techniques for embedding applied learning opportunities in online courses. Each applied learning technique offers a heightened learning experience for students; however, other applied learning techniques can be just as effective. No matter which applied learning technique you use, applied learning fosters critical thinking, reflective practices, and supports transfer of new knowledge in real-world situations.

Online students, too, learn by doing!

Bio

Salena Rabidoux is teaching program coordinator and instructional designer at the University North Carolina at Wilmington. Amy Rottmann is assistant professor of education at Lenoir-Rhyne University. 

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