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.
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.
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.
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.