Online Course Activities*
Everyone benefits from a little variety. Take full advantage of the possibilities for differentiated instruction (a fancy way of saying "varied learning") suggested by the online environment. Experiment with new approaches to student learning. Here are some suggestions for creating assignments and activities that are drawn from many different teaching and learning approaches.
Create a Good Balance and Variety of Student Learning Activities
Using a variety of learning activities asks students to employ different strategies for attaining the learning outcomes. This appeals to the different learning styles across the student population. It also introduces students to diverse perspectives and encourages them to "stretch" themselves by trying new approaches.
Use the Power of Small Groups
When appropriate, vary individual reports and papers by having students create one or more of their papers as part of a small group assignment. Small group assignments, when well constructed, can help students understand the team approach to projects which is prevalent in nearly every field today. You may also find that many of your students take to this approach quite well because they are already familiar with it in the workplace. Here is an annotated list of some types of student learning activities that can be successfully carried out online:
An activity at the beginning of a course or small group activity. The main focus is to enable students to get to know each other better. Online courses can begin with an exercise in which participants are asked to introduce themselves in a forum. Consider varying from the general direction for students to introduce themselves. Provide students a topic to respond to. Students may be asked a question that explores their initial understanding of a course topic, or elicits information about prior experience or current situation. For example, students might be asked, "What do you hope to get out of this course?" Or, in a philosophy class focused on contemporary moral issues, students might be asked "Which of the moral issues outlined in the text do you think are of most importance to society today?"
Read, Reflect, and Report
Students can be asked to reflect on, summarize, analyze or synthesize ideas based on their required or optional readings (whether the latter are online or offline) and even on the weekly class activities and discussions themselves. Such reports and summaries can be presented either directly to the instructor or shared with classmates in various ways, including peer reviewed assignments, discussion forums, portfolios, or shared and collectively built documents.
Take a Turn
The instructor may also want to ask each student to take a turn to be responsible for one report or summary delivered to the class. This may come in various forms, as a short written post or video, leading a discussion forum, or taking a turn as the moderator in a webinar space where the student's screen or document may also be viewed. For example, "This week, Sara, John and Barbara will be responsible for summarizing lessons learned from chapters 10, 11 and 12 respectively. Please post your summary in
the week two, readings conference by September 12. Your classmates will have the chance to ask questions or make comments from September 12-15. The three students
and/or the instructor will respond to these questions and comments."
Read/Do and Discuss
Students discuss either with the entire class or in small groups (in the Study Group area) questions and issues raised by the assigned readings, the instructor's commentary or a
particular activity (such as a visit to a website). Whenever possible, the instructor should provide guideline questions or other clear indications of the scope and focus of the
discussions. For example, ask students to "Read and discuss the chapter on modernization in Japan. What were the main stages of development? How were Western political and social ideas adapted to the needs of the Meiji government?"
Case Studies and Scenarios
Case studies and scenarios can transform an abstract discussion into an opportunity to demonstrate concrete problem-solving skills. Instructors can present case studies and ask students to apply analysis to and answer questions based on case studies (as part of a quiz or a paper or a discussion) or they can ask students to identify or devise a plan or solution to a problem presented in a case study. Such assignments may be completed by individual students or students working in teams. Case studies may be relatively simple or quite complex but they are usually very effective when drawn from concrete real-life situations and help students translate principles into practice. For example, a case study in an accounting class might describe the accounting procedures used for a business and ask students to critique and devise a better approach. Scenarios can be more open-ended, asking students to respond to a series of changing factors and ramifications. A scenario may be combined with a role-playing or debate exercise.
Role Playing and Debates
Instructors can ask students to research and take the part of a particular player in a given situation. (Online resources might be used to do this research.) For example, students can be asked to play the role of someone conducting an interview with a client, employee or student. Students may be asked to research the types of questions the law permits
interviewers to ask in a particular situation. A debate is particularly effective in highlighting and bringing to life a current issue in the news and helping students to see
more than one side of an issue. For example, students might be asked to read about proposed changes to certain policies and assigned to defend one side of the issue or the
other. (An effective technique is to ask students to play the side with which they have the least sympathy or agreement!) You can also divide students into small groups and have each group research, present, and defend their assigned position. Finally, role playing and debates are made even more effective when they are followed up by an activity that asks students to reflect on what they have learned from their own involvement in the activity as well as from listening to others in the debate.
Provide the materials and ask students to use them in creative ways to create something--a model, a poster, a poem, or another type of project.
Guest speakers can be introduced to provide alternate perspectives or to give students the benefit of their specific expertise and experience. It is essential that students are prepared in advance of the guest visit so that they can get the most out of the event. Guests will vary in their ability to participate asynchronously within the classroom or to supply information solely via email, so the instructor needs to be prepared to act in the capacity of both producer and director of guest "spots."
Peer-to-Peer and Paired
Sometimes two is the best small group. By pairing up students to critique one another's work according to a specific rubric, students are able to focus on what goes into the
making of a first-class assignment. Pairs of students can also work well together to produce short papers and projects. To reassure students that their individual effort is
appreciated, instructors should ask to see each student's contribution (for example, early drafts) to a combined project or require that all work accomplished be visible in the Study Group conference area. Students can also be graded on how well they evaluate their classmates' work.
Projects and Portfolios
Generally a project or portfolio is a work which occupies the greater part or all of the length of the course. It may be research-based, or involve creation of essays, reports,
PowerPoint presentations, etc. A portfolio should ideally require that students choose and evaluate representative work. Some activities are suggested by the nature of the course subject matter. For example, a course in marketing might have students work as a team on a mock marketing campaign, then present it to the entire class. A course involving environmental issues might ask students to identify, research, and report on problems in their local areas. As you develop your course activities, be sure to work out all the details in terms of pacing, and write adequate instructions for carrying out the activities. Creating a balance between individual assignments submitted only to the instructor and other assignments, both formal and informal, shared with classmates is the key to producing a dynamic and engaging learning environment.
* Adapted from the University of Maryland University College Center for Teaching and Learning, Adelphi, Maryland.