Next-generation online learning differs from last generation e-learning in six distinct ways. First, it is scalable. New instructional support models—including coaches and peer mentors— allow online courses that are not MOOCs to effectively reach many more students in the past.
Second, it is personalized. It offers multiple learning pathways tailored to student learning styles, needs, and interests. Just-in-time remediation and enrichment are embedded and content reflects students’ learning goals.
Third, it is outcomes-oriented. Mastery of explicit learning objectives, including content and skills, represents its aim.
Fourth, it is data-driven. Learning analytics provide students, instructors, coaches, and advisers with dashboards that signal student progress and problems in real time.
Fifth, it is social and interactive. Building on the notion of learning as a social process, next-generation online courses encourage student involvement in communities of practice and in personal learning networks, where they have opportunities to collaborate, test ideas, and motivate and assist one another.
Six, and perhaps most importantly, it is activity oriented. Next-generation online learning involves challenges, inquiry, and problem solving. Students, individually and in small groups, have opportunities to learn by doing. Depending on the nature of the course, they might engage in hypothesis formulation and testing, data analysis, or constructing and applying rubrics. Simulations, in particular, give students opportunities to mimic professional practice and exercise real-world skills.
Here are a series of techniques that you might use to build essential student skills, promote social interaction, and encourage active learning in an online environment.
Breaking students into small groups or cohorts, assigning collaborative “team-based” projects, and encouraging students to participate in hangouts or to provide advice to classmates in helpouts can serve to create a sense of connection far beyond that found in the typical discussion forum.
To generate substantive discussions in an online setting, provide students with problems to solve, a provocative topic to debate, or roles to play; ask the students to brainstorm around a problem; or poll the students prior to launching the discussion. Also, formulate prompts that encourage higher order thinking skills. These include: analytical questions, which seek to answer “why” and “how”; prediction questions, involving “what if” problems; and evaluative questions, which ask students to defend a proposition or justify a point of view.
To promote reflection and critical self-assessment, ask the students to summarize and share the take-aways in a particular lesson or module and describe the points they found most confusing. A project notebook can also encourage metacognition. In this notebook, the students can describe how they defined a research question; the process they go through as they worked on the project, including their research design, data collection, model building, and hypothesis testing; and express the problems they encountered in the course of the project and their solutions, both those that proved successful and those that did not.
Nurturing Students’ Presentation Skills
To familiarize students with 21st century presentation skills, have them create a multimedia presentation, such as an audio tour or a digital story or a virtual field trip, which can be viewed and evaluated by classmates.
Fostering Students’ Research Skills
To build students’ research skills, consider having them undertake a webquest, in which they not only seek information needed to solve a problem or answer a question, but also critically evaluate the online resources that they have viewed.
Cultivating Students’ Writing Skills
Academic success requires writing, irrespective of one’s discipline. Writing is the way that academics communicate, inform, and argue. Even in scaled online environments, it is possible to encourage students to write more frequently, clearly, and compellingly. Here are a number of techniques that can improve students’ academic writing skills. You might then ask a small number of classmates to assess the writings according to a carefully formulated rubric.
1. Making writing visible to someone other than an instructor encourages students to pay closer attention to grammar, style, and argumentations. Ask students to contribute an entry to a blog or wiki.
2. To make students more conscience of what they are reading, ask them to maintain a reading journal in which they might summarize arguments; identify main ideas; and detail their response.
3. To help students learn how to write concisely, ask them to write a reading abstract or article summary or a thesis statement.
4. To hone students’ assessment skills, ask them to write a brief evaluation of an article’s strengths and weaknesses. Consider asking them to react to specific elements of a reading: the quality of the data, the validity of the research design, or the effectiveness of the argument.
5. Have student express a point of view on a contentious issue.
6. Ask students to write a discussion starter, an engaging introduction to key issues or questions raised by a reading or a class topic.
7. After introducing a concept in class, ask students to identify a theoretical or practical problem that the concept might help solve.
8. Ask students to write about a problem derived, for example, from a newspaper or journal article, and propose a solution.
9. As a pre-test warm-up, ask the students to generate questions for an upcoming test or quiz and draft sample answers to essay questions.
10. Ask students to evaluate a thesis, concept, or methodology, examining its strengths as well as its weaknesses.
11. Have students undertake an analysis of an event. Ask them to reflect on what happened, why it happened, and the event’s implications, as well as how the outcome might have differed if certain conditions were altered.
12. Ask students to write a literature review in which they succinctly summarize and assess the material that they consulted.
13. Have the students conduct an interview or take an oral history. First, the students need to list the questions that they propose to ask, and ask small teams of students to evaluate the questions. Then, have the students complete the interview, which is also to be reviewed by a group of classmates.
14. Ask the students to write in formats that mimic professional writing. These might include a policy brief, an environmental impact statement, or a press release.
Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.