5 Activity-based Learning Principles for the Digital Classroom

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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the country were forced to accelerate their online or hybrid lesson delivery. For professors, this means a major teaching pivot. Lessons can become dry and uninteresting quickly. It’s difficult to keep students engaged when they’re staring at a screen instead of a lectern or a professor in front of a white board, and their classmates are only visible as thumbnail photos in Zoom meetings.

Instructors can look at the need to re-configure courses for online delivery as an opportunity to infuse their classrooms with activity-based principles. ABLConnect, an online database of active learning efforts in post-secondary classrooms, curated by the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, offers five activity-based learning principles professors can bring into their digital classrooms. Some can be easily adapted to digital delivery, while others might require more legwork. 

1. Act as a guide rather than a lecturer.

No one wants to stare at a talking head for hours every week. Break class time into short, digestible segments. Between each segment, provide students with activities such as polling questions or clicker questions that students can answer with their own smartphone or device, for instance. Other ideas for between-segment breaks are a virtual speaker who can talk about the subject matter, or a blitz thesis, where the professor provides an on-topic quote and students take five minutes to formulate an argument for or against the thesis. Not only does segmenting the class time help students engaged and learning, but also breaks up the class time so professors aren’t simply lecturing to an empty room or video camera.

2. Maintain open communication with students.

Students very widely in their learning styles, and due to the pandemic, many are limited to learning online only. Students will undoubtedly have issues that may not have come up in a typical classroom setting. Because professors are generally teaching to a Web cam, they have no way of picking up the visual clues from students that signal boredom, confusion or frustration. In this time of online learning, instructors have to step up their communication game. Be honest, transparent and open about lesson plans, encourage and be receptive to direct calls and emails and monitor chats and discussion boards to gain some additional insight on how well students are learning. Suggested activities include inviting students to design and lead class discussions, asking students to email the instructor a question or idea related to the topic, and beginning the class with a thought prompt on the material students will cover that day.

3. Encourage student interactions.

When students learn only online, they miss out on learning from their peers, and from the social benefits as well. You can implement some strategies to facilitate interaction and get students to exercise their communications skills during and even outside of class sessions. Build in class time to let students interact with one another. You can use Zoon breakout rooms to divide larger classes into smaller groups or ask students to respond to peer questions on discussion boards. You can also use collaborative editing tools like google docs to help students work cooperatively, even when they’re isolated. Assign partners or buddies for class projects. An activity that sparks communication and collaboration calls for breaking up the class into groups that exchange papers or other assignments and offering feedback on the work.

4. Be flexible and creative.

With the shift to online learning, tensions can run high. Try to inject some humor into lessons. Course progression may be different than it would be in a typical classroom. Be as flexible as you can with your assignment timetable. This is a great time to try out a new teaching tool you haven’t yet been able to use. One approach is to use gaming techniques that encourage competition like Jeopardy to engage students and test knowledge.  

5. Explore interactive online tools.

ABLConnect recommends a variety of online tools. Interactive teaching resources include Zoom, Panopto, Google Hangouts and Skype, pre-recording teaching resources include Zoom, Tegrity, Panopto, Keynote/Google Slides/PowerPoint. Online discussion board include Canvas and Google Docs. And you can use Zoom’s built in functions for online polling tools, or Poll Everywhere. The best source of the resources available to you is your school’s library.