5 Myths About Being an Online Learning Expert

Completing an online program doesn’t make you an online learning expert. It doesn’t even necessarily make you deeply informed about the field of online learning, neither does having a certificate or degree in online learning. Each of these can be valuable as one progresses toward expertise, but true expertise requires something else. It requires moving beyond some common myths about online design and teaching. As I’ve attended and presented at conferences, had informal conversations, followed the discourse in social media, and generally tracked how people talk about online learning in popular media, I’ve noticed a some common perspectives and patterns that can, if one is not careful, turn into pitfalls. With that in mind, here are five common myths about online learning practices.

Online Learning Expert Myth #1 – My perspective represents the whole of online learning.

Sometimes having an experience as an online learner can give you greater understanding for what it looks like to design or teach online learning, but remember that your experience is only a small slice of the online learning pie. There are far more possibilities than you have experienced. We know that people will naturally teach how they are taught. To broaden your portfolio of approaches, that takes some intentional searching, studying and learning.

Online Learning Expert Myth #2 – My program or training source’s perspective represents the whole of online learning.

I went through a very well-respected training program for online learning design and leadership many years ago. It was a good experience and I learned several new strategies and approaches. Yet, in the end, it was largely based on the 15-20 most common strategies and approaches to online learning. I’ve met people with master’s degrees and doctorates in distance learning or online learning that have also presented a somewhat narrow view of what it means and looks like to design or facilitate online learning experiences. There is a common vocabulary and perspective, but again, that is still only a small slice. There are thousands of models and approaches, and new ones are emerging all the time.

Online Learning Expert Myth #3 – Best practice is always best practice.

Education is changing. Learners are changing. What was best practice in dentistry in the 1800s is certainly not best practice today. What was best practice in online learning 5 or 10 years ago may not necessarily be best practice today. This is a field that is evolving quickly and that means constantly looking and learning from the new developments. I’m not just talking about the technological developments. I’m also talking about the new models, strategies, approaches and frameworks that are developing from expected and often unexpected sources, which leads me to the next myth.

Online Learning Expert Myth #4 – Experts and luminaries are leading the way and we need to follow them.

There are many well-known figures in the distance and online learning world. We can learn from them, but they are not the only groundbreakers. There are people joining the online learning space every day, some with little or no prior knowledge or experience. Sometimes they have no familiarity with the research literature but they are doing online learning, and some are doing it exceedingly well. People are learning and highly satisfied with what they are learning.

This is common in innovation. People outside the standard discourse or community sometimes bring fresh approaches and perspectives ignored or missed by the “experts.” That is why a commitment to moving the field forward means including and learning from these helpful and passionate newcomers. Some of them may be your boss some day soon. There are many Salman Khan -like people out there who are doing great work and helping us discover new possibilities. Most of them are not know names like Khan, so it takes some persistence and searching to find and learn from them.

Online Learning Expert Myth #5 – There are certain steps or recipes to good online learning. Follow them for the best results.

Steps, guides, tutorials, and online design or teaching recipes have a place. However, they often represent proverbial truth, not some absolute bible to guide your way. This is where some in the filed can become too mechanistic in their sure recipe to cooking up the best online course. I’ve used many of them with great results. At the same time, some of my greatest successes have come from tweaking them or even setting them aside altogether. For the sake of those coming after you, when you do starting building your own recipes, record what you do and how it works so the rest of us can learn from your experimentation.

This ultimately goes back to my common birdhouse analogy. How do you build a birdhouse? If I ask you that, you are likely to list necessary materials like wood, a hammer, nails, a drill, and a saw. That is certainly one way to build a birdhouse, but there are thousands of other ways. I’ve seen people turn an old boot into a functional birdhouse. People do it with gourds, glass, old plastic bottles, and countless other materials. And the important fact is that these others can be as or more functional than the “traditional” birdhouse. This same thing is true when we start talking about designing and teaching online learning. Let’s continue to be open to new and emerging possibilities, not just because they come from some established expert, are found in the right publication, or are endorsed by a given organization. Let’s keep the doors to the future of online learning design and teaching open, learning from anyone and everyone who joins us.

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The Value of Newbies & Naysayers in Online Learning Innovation

I’ll admit it. I can be a snob about some things, which is why I need daily reminders that the novice perspective can sometimes lead to greater innovation than that of person who has years of experience in a domain. For example, I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of online learning since the middle 1990s, so when I read a news article about this “new” development called online learning, I get a little frustrated. Or, when people write about MOOCs as if they are the birth of online learning, I become suspicious about the veracity of their “research.” I get a little irritated when people miss the fact that distance learning is centuries old, that online learning is decades old, and that there is a substantive body of research about both. That is why it is humbling but important for me to remind myself that we really need the newcomers and what might seem like “the uninformed” to imagine the future of blended and online learning.

Consider this conversation that I’ve probably had with more than a hundred people over the years, people who are new to online learning as a student, teacher, or some related role. They bring up critiques or concerns that I’ve settled in my mind a decade ago, but their concerns remind me that they are not settled for them. It isn’t enough for me to say, “Well, that is a great question, but we’ve already looked at that and it isn’t an issue.” Of course it is an issue. If 100+ people bring it up, it doesn’t matter how much I want them to think or feel differently, or to not consider it a worthwhile problem.

Take the use of live video in online courses as an example. How many times have I talked to new faculty or students who tell me how the course can feel less personal, and how we could address this by making the course more centered around live video interactions. I’ve heard countless people tell me that they think online learning will take off once the video conferencing technology reaches a certain level of quality. I’m tempted to point out that there are completely different paradigms for looking at the design of online learning that make little to no use of streaming video. If only they would read the great research about the promise and value of threaded discussions, asynchronous online collaboration tools, and dozens of online teaching strategies that are exceptional at helping students learn as much (or sometimes more) than they might have in a traditional face-to-face course. I can look at the sheer number of comments about how streaming video would make online learning better and more personal, and chalk it up to mass ignorance and being uninformed about the research. Or, I can get really curious about this trend. Why do so many people keep coming back to this? What is it about streaming video that draws so many people to it as an affordance? Maybe it isn’t just trying to apply a face-to-face teaching mindset to the online space. Maybe there is more to this, something that truly does have the potential to amplify both formal and informal online learning. Maybe it would lead to greater adoption and engagement because perceptions can influence reality for the online teacher or learner.

I have learned so much from so-called novices and online learning newbies. I’ve learned just as much from critics. They look at blended and online learning with lenses that are not standard to me. They see what I miss. They feel what I don’t. They ask questions that I rarely or never considered. They propose solutions that sometimes seem absurd to me, but when they try they, they actually work sometimes.

That is why I believe that students and teachers new to online learning, curious outside observers, and entrepreneurs with no background in the field may well be the future of the field. Some of the most promising and disruptive ideas might come from these groups. They don’t self-censor their way to inactivity. They are not simply building incremental changes based on past research and practice because they know very little about those things. They have the advantage of looking at the field with a fresh perspective, uninformed by the educational ruts of past practice and dominant policy. The humility to listen and learn from these people, to partner with them, to invite their candid input and critiques may well be the source of the next great developments of education in a connected world.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 6 of 6)

Great graduate programs challenge and stretch people. They are more than the accumulation of new knowledge. They are not meant to simply be quick, convenient, and an easy way to a pay increase at work. I’ll confess that I’ve met graduate students in my field (education) who treat their graduate study this way. As such, they want to know what they have to do to pass the class, complete the program, and get the degree. Great graduate programs, whether they’re online or face-to-face do not allow that. This doesn’t mean that they are rigid, inflexible or unwilling to honor the distinct situations and abilities of each learner. I’m referring to programs that honor the learners, but that also challenge all of us in the learning community honor the discipline enough to give it our best.

There are a small number of online diploma mills that market themselves as the least expensive, easiest, most convenient programs around. Sometimes they boast about how quickly you can finish. However, what really matters in a graduate program is a high level of intellectual challenge. People should be stretched to think in new ways, grapple with concepts and ideas that sometimes feel beyond their reach, and that help them reach levels of insight and performance that they never thought possible.

Graduate study is not about general knowledge. It is more specialized. It is about deep learning, exploring a smaller number of topics at a level of depth rarely matched on the undergraduate level. Sometimes it isn’t just about deeper content, but it is also about a higher level of performance or the ability to apply the concepts.

To build this depth, all good graduate programs help students get at the foundations of a subject. That is why they often study the historical, philosophical, and theoretical foundations of the disciplines. It is also why they usually get into the contemporary issues and problems in the discipline, the gray areas and the messier side of the content.

What is distinct about the online graduate program when it comes to challenge? Nothing. This is a universal part of all great graduate programs. However, online learning brings with it other challenges. The design of the course or learning moduels and the technologies used can either help or hinder the desire to helps student dive deep into a discipline. When there is a poor or unnecessarily complex design, that gets in the way of this challenge. When the technology is unreliable or “buggy”, that takes precious mental and emotional energy away from getting lost in the wonderful complexities of the discipline. As a result, great online graduate programs have simple but elegant designs. Technology is reliable and supports deep learning. And students are challenged, invited, and supported as they are stretch, challenged, and guided through fascinating, unchartered, and sometimes tumultuous learning journeys.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 4 of 6)

The design of effective learning is not a secret. There are five simple questions that should be asked and answered. When this is done, the learning experiences tends to be effective. These same questions apply in virtually all forms of formal education, but they are especially important in online learning programs. With that in mind, good online graduate programs constitute courses and/or learning experiences that are designed in view of the following five questions:

1) Who are the learners?

Answering this question is key to all good teaching and learning. What is the background of the learners? What prior knowledge or experience do they bring to the table? What are the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful in the program and how do these match with the intended learners? What is a typical day in the life of the intended learners? What technical skills and attitudes characterize the intended learners? What cultural factors of the learners need to be considered? What expectations, beliefs, values, and convictions do the learners bring to the experience? There are certainly many similar questions that must inform the design of courses and the entire program. In instructional design, we call this the audience analysis.

Skipping this step can result in a wonderful but highly ineffective experience.

2) What do we want them to learn?

This question applies to the development of overall program outcomes, course-level outcomes and/or objectives, as well as objectives for individual lessons/modules/units. It can be answered without the entire program looking like a rigid form of training or mastery learning, and I am not suggesting that a specific format is necessary. Traditional behavioral objectives, essential questions, or substantive targeted goals can all be effective ways to answer this question.

Skip this step and the program or course lacks direction.

3) What is the very best evidence that students have learned what we want them to learn?

I usually suggest that one start with the ideal, and then slowly back down to what is realistic in a given environment. Whatever the case, answering this question requires us to clearly articulate what it will look like when a student has reached the stated goals.

Skip this step and question 2 tends to disappear also. When this happens, we see courses with stated objectives, but then the assignments, quizzes, and other assessments have little or no connection to these objectives. Any of us who have experienced this as learners can attest to how such an experience is frustrating and unhelpful. It leaves learners struggling to figure out how they are supposed to devote their precious time and energy.

By the way, if we take this question seriously, then the main course assessments rarely end up being multiple choice, matching, or other traditional forms of tests. These tests or quizzes may be present, but they simply serve as a source of feedback, a way to help students discover how they are or are not progressing (more about that when I get to question five). Serious answers to question number three usually lead us to the wonderful world of authentic assessments.

4) What resources and/or learning experiences can help students provide this evidence?

This may be in the form of recorded lectures, case studies, role plays, examples, illustrations, group discussions, scavenger hunts, webquests, digital stories, multimedia projects, labs, interviews, observations, reflective writing, tutorials, research projects, readings, virtual tours, or a wealth of other powerful and potentially effective learning experiences. However, all of them should help the learners work toward providing the evidence that we noted in question three. If it doesn’t help students progress to a point where they can eventually provide the evidence mentioned in question two, then get rid of it or move it to the margins of the course or program. Otherwise, it is likely to be a distraction or even a hindrance to student learning.

Skip this question and you have a course or program rich with busy work that may have limited value for the learner.

5) How can I ensure that students get frequent and meaningful feedback throughout the learning experience?

Without feedback, how are students going to know if they are progressing toward the goal? Too many poorly designed learning experiences don’t give students feedback until it is too late. Students work for weeks on a paper or project, submit it, get a poor grade, and then are instructed to “move on” with no chance to redo or refine their first attempt. How does that help students meet the stated goals? How does that help them progress? Why not give them feedback throughout the learning experience so that learners get a sense of how they are doing, what requires further attention and practice, as well as where they are excelling?

Skip this question and we get five common results: student frustration increases, student anxiety increases, student satisfaction decreases, student learning decreases, and student retention plummets.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 3 of 6)

Online learning is not simply online…learning. In fact, all good online learning is blended learning. Conduct a quick Google search for “online learning” AND “definition”. You will find statements suggesting that online learning is where content is delivered via the web or some other electronic means. These types of definitions are not adequate. They usually imply that online learning is about one-way delivery of content, possibly also including electronic communication and collaboration among learners. While it is true that these are common aspects of online courses, there is no reason that it needs to be limited to the electronic world. In fact, virtually all good online courses are actually blended learning, a combination of electronic and non-electronic learning experiences. Most definitions of blended learning don’t simply focus on the blending of electronic and non-electronic experiences, but that is one aspect of a potential blended learning experience, and one that is the focus of my reflections.

It is the rare online graduate program that is simply equipping a person for life in the electronic world. Rather, it is about equipping one with knowledge, skills, and abilities that may be used both online and in the physical world. The quality online experience itself must help promote transfer into the physical world. Imagine an online graduate nursing program that did nothing to equip nurses to actually work with patients in the physical world. Or how about an online MBA program that only applied to conducting business online? Or, what if one got an online graduate degree in special education, but it did nothing to equip the teacher to work more effectively with a student in a one-on-one physical environment? None of these would be examples of good online learning. As with all learning, transfer is key. It is of limited use to learn a skill than can’t transfer to a variety of situations. The best graduate programs equip one with skills, knowledge, and abilities that transfer to a wide variety of circumstances and environments.

What do I mean when I state that all good online learning is blended learning? I’ll admit that I’m playing with words a bit, but consider the following potential aspects of an online course experience:

  • Read books,
  • Interview people,
  • Engage in observations,
  • Have informal conversations with colleagues and family about what you are learning,
  • Create class projects that you then use or try out at work or other physical environments,
  • Take e-learning courses with colleagues and have study groups or collaborate at the local coffee shop,
  • Attend professional conferences during one’s program and present with classmates or professors,
  • Go on fields trips or capture audio/images/video to share as part of one’s online classroom (I’ve seen great examples of this in an online environmental education course. Participants around the country took pictures and used them to discuss the various ecosystems.).
  • Participate in summer or weekend residencies that afford students the chance to engage in labs, face-to-face collaboration and discussion, team-building, networking, etc.
  • Attend optional (or required) face-to-face class sessions in some courses or as part of an introductory/culminating experience.
  • Student are required to present work or research at a conference, to a group of colleagues, or another similar environment.

This is a short list of physical elements that are present in many great online graduate programs. There are plenty of other examples, but I will conclude with one that we often overlook. I’m likely to get a few eye rolls over this one, indicating annoyance at my far too liberal toying with terms and phrases like physical, electronic, hybrid, and learning; but I’ll continue nonetheless. Learning occurs as a result of our interaction with things outside of ourselves, but there there still quite a bit that takes place inside of us. In fact, the actual learning is taking place in our brains. That is physical. If changes are not taking place in the brain as a result of the e-learning experience, then it is not quality learning. It isn’t even learning.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 2 of 6)

At its best, online learning is an educational conspiracy, challenging the monopoly of traditional face-to-face graduate study. Online learning often gets the scrutiny that is deserved of all learning. Is a one hour lecture to a group of 30+ students truly the most effective way to help students master the stated course objectives? Is it superior or more effective than other methods? Or, is it simply an unquestioned higher education tradition? Online learning, in some cases, serves as a challenge to such traditions. For that reason, it may well be a mechanism to not only increase accessibility to higher education, but to challenge, improve, and transform what takes place in traditional face-to-face graduate programs.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are five other ways that online graduate programs challenge the superiority of traditional face-to-face graduate study:

1. They challenge the notion that one must move or travel large distances in order to obtain a high quality graduate education.

2. They challenge the notion that one must submit to often inflexible schedules of courses and offerings in order to obtain a quality graduate education.

3. In some cases, they challenge the notion of a one-size fits all graduate education (although many of the best face-to-face programs join in this challenge).

4. In other cases, they challenge the premise that graduate courses are best designed and taught by a single person. In many cases, online learning promotes a team-based approach to course design that may include a combination of subject-matter experts, instructional designers, graphic designers, computer programmers, and a variety of other specialists. In fact, the role of instructor is just one of many factors in some good online learning course designs. While not devaluing the role of a good teacher, what makes the role of instructor so sacred? The only essential role in effective learning is the role of learner.

5. They challenge the idea of the closed-door, no questions asked approach to courses. In place of that, many online courses and programs receive ongoing careful scrutiny. Furthermore, all course activities are perfectly recorded and available for post-course review and evaluation. Imagine if every classroom interaction, every instructor comment, every student comment, and every student artifact of learning in a traditional face-to-face course were available for careful review as part of a course improvement process. That is already the case with many online courses. This is not to suggest that all online programs use this data, but when the data is available, there is an option to use it.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 1 of 6)

I am a University administrator and professor of education who has been involved with online learning in one way or another for over twenty years. As part of my ongoing professional development in this area, I review online programs around the world. I am constantly looking for new ways to structure programs so that they provide effective and engaging learning experiences for students. Much of my time is spent working with graduate online programs, so please keep that in context as you read the rest of this post.

Each day my convictions are growing and my vision is becoming clearer. It may come off as cliche or pie-in-the-sky, but I believe in the power of blended and online learning to transform education. However, I am under no delusion that this transformation is always good. In fact, I join others who express concern about some trends:

  • diploma mills,
  • students run through programs like they are a product going through a factory production line,
  • programs with no sense of social presence or student-student / student-instructor relationships,
  • schools building online programs without adequate intellectual capitol or real-work expertise,
  • schools letting dollar signs or student numbers impair their vision and blur their ability to focus on their historic mission,
  • and schools providing online learning experiences that are void to true intellectual mentoring.

Out of all of the the items in this list of concerns, the last is my focus right now.

I believe that excellent and intentional mentoring is near the center of a great graduate educational experience. This is true whether it is a hybrid program, fully online, or a full-time residential experience. This explains why graduate students in some of the “top” graduate schools in the world come out of programs with mediocre teachers, but they have still learned a ton, and they often go on to have a huge impact on society. Teaching has never been the only or even the central attribute of the best graduate programs. The community, the culture of that community, and the mentoring relationships in that community (often in the form of assistantships, research projects, etc.) also help make(s) these programs great.. That is the first step toward my manifesto of online learning.. Excellent graduate online programs must be more than a series of courses (no matter how well they are designed).

They entail an immersive learning community that extends the span of the program. They have a culture that drips of the core values and mission of the University. They have faculty/mentors who are passionately and continually investing in the lives of the students. And they engage students in individual and community scholarship. These are the attributes of an excellent online graduate program.

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Overcoming Role Rut in Online Course Design: The Alternate Roles Approach

Despite the growing influence of web 2.0 technologies and social media in online learning, there is still a persistent challenge for the educator who is charged with designing online learning. The challenge is to avoid simply replicating what one does in the face-to-face classroom. When one runs into trouble making the transfer, it is sadly too common for the online course to lose out, easily turning into reading texts and writing papers with few other elements. From an instructional design perspective, I see another challenge in both face-to-face and online courses. This challenge is what I call the “role rut.” The role of student and teacher becomes so embedded in our thinking that we often fail to consider a variety of potentially powerful and engaging designs.

With these two challenges in mind, I now turn to the nature of digital culture. In the digital world, roles and identities are constantly shifting as we move from site to personal blog to news blog to video sharing site to search engines. In a single day in the digital world, I may be a student, teacher, researcher, blogger, consumer, mentor, lurker, video producer, team member, and friend. Of course, this same thing is true in the face-to-face world, but these roles are even more fluid online. One can quickly try on a myriad of roles. With this dynamic in mind, I see promising possibilities with an alternate roles approach to designing learning experiences. It is not new or profound, but it does offer a strategy for escaping the ordinary, a way of getting out of those role ruts that are commonplace in online and face-to-face education. The alternate roles approach is a simple thought experiment or challenge: try to design a course, unit or learning activity without using or thinking about the traditional roles: teacher, instructor, learner, student, facilitator, or participant. Instead, design the learning environment with two or more alternate roles. Consider the following possibilities: mentor, boss, coach, guide, expert, consultant, travel guide, assistant, supporter, advocate, leader, mayor, employer, director, manager, owner, administrator, advisor, editor, assessor, professional, team member, player, novice, explorer, tourist, supporter, advocate, member, citizen, investigator, research assistant, researcher, consultant, employee, actor, director, manager, steward, owner, designer, creator, patient, client, offender, defender, author, apprentice, activist, or member.

This is more than role-playing. Role-playing tends to be a single activity in an otherwise traditional teacher/student environment. Instead, this is an exercise in simulation learning, still starting with learning objectives (What do I want them to learn?) but then quickly bracketing the teacher/student roles in lieu of alternate roles. Experimenting with this exercise has been a delightful experience, affording me a fresh and exciting way to think about instructional design in the digital world.

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10 Ways to Integrate the Offline World into Your Online Course

Do fully online courses exist? Or, are good online courses ever fully online? I know the first seems like a strange question, because we all know that such things exist, at least as we usually think of online courses. And the second question seems like a challenge to the concept of online courses, but it is not. Instead, this is my way of suggesting strategies for highly personal and potentially high-impact online courses by leveraging an aspect of online course design that is sometimes forgotten, namely the offline world. With that in mind, following are tips for integrating the offline world in your online courses.

1. Start with the Learner

This may seem insignificant at first, but I find it critical to remember that the single most important part of your online course is never online, the student. After all, one of the fundamental rules of good instructional design and teaching is “know your learner.” The student who will take your online course lives in a physical world, surrounding by physical people and things. Consider that world when you design your course. Provide suggestions to the students on how to create or find spaces that are conducive to studying, reflecting, and learning in the course. Ask students to look at their life schedule and share upfront when they are blocking off time to work on the course amid their other responsibilities and life challenges (That also lets you know good times to contact them). As an ice-breaker, have students share a few pictures from the world around them…and them in that world. It provides context, personalizes the experience, and it is a fresh ice-breaker and way to get to know each other a bit better. Early in the course, have students reflect on the physical world around them. How can that world help them in this course and what distractions will they need to manage? And on a more fundamental level, start the course by making sure students have the necessary physical hardware expected in the class (computer, headphones and mic (if necessary), tool for creating images and video, etc.).

2. Build for Offline Breaks and the Use of Physical Movement

Don’t design massively long video lectures or content without planning for breaks. Break the videos into segments and verbally suggest that students take breaks. In your instructions for activities and exercises, be explicit and intentional about tips for when to take a break and why. You can include tips like, “It might be good to take a quick break, go on walk, or do something else for a bit before you move on to this next part.” Check out some of the research about the value of movement and learning, note-taking, memory and breaks, and engaging all the senses. Think about how you can leverage these in your online course. For example, think about an interactive recorded lecture online where you give the student activities within the lecture (things to say out loud, movements that serve as anchors for remembering items, a scavenger hunt…like go find an item in your room or house that you could use as an analogy or illustration to explain this idea to someone else…). These activities can increase engagement, increase understanding and sometimes add a level of fun and playfulness. Try this Teacher Toolbox for Physical Activity Breaks for a few ideas.

3. Interviews

Consider how you can give students assignments to conduct simple and informal or deep and formal interviews to enhance their learning in the class. They can interview people in their family and community. This can be a great way to have students build a personal learning network in the physical world, learn from experts, better understand how what they are learning applies in real-world contexts, and it adds a rich type of face-to-face interaction to the online course design.

4. Observations

Create assignments that require students to observe the natural world, people, or groups of people. Then have them report back what they learned and experienced. This can be an individual writing assignment, an ongoing learning journal, a follow-up real-time chat with you as the instructor, or a contribution to an asynchronous online discussion. These can add a rich and practical element to courses in many subject areas. Don’t be too quick to suggest that it doesn’t work for your content area. Almost everything we teach has implications in the physical world. Find those implications and use them to help the students make meaningful connections.

5. Service Learning

Service learning integrates meaningful community service into a curriculum, and adds substantive reflection and debriefing. How can students use what they are learning in the course to serve someone in a small or simple way? It doesn’t need to be a commitment that takes hours or days. It might even be micro-acts. How could you add 5-minute service learning activities that relate to what you are teaching? This adds engagement, leverages the human connection, and models how this content can help you love the neighbors (literal and figurative) in this world.

6. Show and Tell from the Offline World

I mentioned this onet in #2, but have students make analogies and connections between what they are learning and what they see in the physical world around them. This drives their thinking to higher levels (analysis, evaluation, even creation), and it makes for fun and interesting sharing in the online discussions. The students are forced to think deeply about what they are learning, and their examples can help others in the class better understand concepts.

7. Experiments

This is done in some online science classes by actually including a lab-in-a-box or kitchen science experiments. However, it can work in almost any content area. What are social, personal, or physical experiments they could try to better understand a concept or to learn something new? I’ve successfully used what I call life experiments for some time. I have students test out a concept or idea by creating some sort of relevant social experiment, reporting their findings, and reflecting on what they can learn from the findings. This works very well for social science classes, but with a little creativity, you can come up with wonderfully engaging life experiments for almost any class. Some of these can even be designed as games they try to play with someone or a group.

8. Images and Video Footage

Each learner in an online class may come from a different physical location, so why not leverage that diversity in the class? Have students capture relevant pictures and video footage from their unique world, connecting that with specific lessons and concepts that are being learned. Over time, the students collectively generate a rich repository of visual and multimedia content for the class.

9. Peer Feedback

Build into assignments the requirement to run their work or ideas past one or more people in the physical world. They don’t need to find someone to carefully edit their work, maybe just give five minutes of time to talk through a few of the ideas and share their impression.

10. Connect Offline

Sometimes you have online students who are local, or students in the class who live close to one another. A quick meeting at a coffee shop, library or the school can be a rich enhancement. Or, in the absence of this, you can use any number of synchronous tools with video to add a visual and real-time element to a course. Phone chats work as well. These are not entirely offline, but they do add some of the affordances of communication in physical spaces. Also, encourage students who live near one another to try one or two study sessions. In my experience, this adds a wonderfully personal element to their online learning experience.

What do you think? Are you ready to integrate the offline world into your online class? Consider trying a few of these and see how they work. It will help to conduct your own short survey or questionnaire to get feedback on how students experience these physical enhancements. Or, having students keep a learning journal will give you keen insights into how the offline design features are impacting the student experience.

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