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Developing Online Learning Activities for Blended Courses

a translucent mechanical drawingActive learning in the classroom can increase student engagement and promote learning. The online environment can also be used to create active learning opportunities for students that help them engage with challenging concepts or that provide self-assessment of self-reflection opportunities. Blended courses, those with online and face-to-face components, provide an opportunity to integrate the learning that is done online and in the classroom so that students can see clear connections between what they are doing in both environments. Introducing an online activity in class and then providing feedback to the activity in class after the activity is completed can help “close the loop” of learning for students. The questions outlined below can help you think about the objectives of an online activity, the most appropriate technology for building it and how students will receive feedback and be assessed on their learning and work.

Online learning activities include: synchronous and asynchronous online discussions, online self-assessments, blogs, wikis, virtual field trips, virtual labs, case studies, simulations, problem solving, concept mapping, and interactive learning objects. Learning objects and reusable learning activities can be found in online repositories such as Merlot or through the instructor resources repository in our current learning management system (log into LEARN and go to the link in the repositories section of your course listing page). Activities can be relatively straightforward tasks that an individual can complete in a short amount of time, or more complex activities that can include collaboration between students and have a longer timeframe. All activities should promote meaningful engagement with course concepts and not become “busy work” for the students.  

Ask yourself:

What is the objective or intended learning outcome of this activity?

Most course outlines or syllabi have a set of course objectives or intended learning outcomes for a course; using these same principles, articulate one specific objective or intended learning outcome for the activity.  See the Centre for Teaching Excellence teaching tip “Writing Learning Outcomes”.

How long should the learning take?

This will depend on the objective or intended learning outcome of the activity. The interaction and learning time can be short, for example a 5 minute self assessment for students to monitor their understanding of a concept, or longer, such as a series of practice problems that are linked to a java applets or web-based interactive simulations that could take up to an hour.

Will the activity be individual, collaborative or both?

Although we tend to imagine students working alone at their computers, student often tackle their online activities in pairs or trios; two or three heads can be better than one! Peer–to–peer interactions and dialogue about challenging concepts and problem solving can increase their engagement and help learning, so it can be helpful to design activities with this in mind and to encourage students to collaborate on such activities.

Which media and technologies should be used?

Keep it simple. The overwhelming range of tools and media options available can make it challenging to choose how to best design and deliver an online activity. Use the objective or intended learning outcome of the activity as a starting point to decide which visual and audio components will be most effective. Our learning management system provides many tools that can be the starting point of a learning activity (quizzes, discussion forums, wikis) and scaffolded learning opportunities can be created that provide access to a sequence of activities of increasing complexity or difficulty in a controlled timeframe or through a series of learner actions. Tools and resources that are external to our learning management system can be used to develop online learning activities, but may not provide opportunities to back-up student work. If grades are given for the activity or student participation is to be tracked and reviewed for participation grades, external tools may not have the stability and longevity that institutional resources provide.

How will the learners get feedback on what they have learned?

“Close the loop” of learning by providing feedback to the activity. Effective feedback can direct and guide a student and help them understand if they have achieved understanding. When providing individual feedback is impractical, model answers or links to helpful resources can be provided automatically and immediately online and can be based on their performance in the activity. Effective feedback to activities can also be given to the whole class during class time where the online activity can be a springboard to deeper in-class learning or connected to new concepts.

How will the learning be assessed?

We typically provide summative assessment to students by grading them on tasks and their grade, or mark, reflects how well they have preformed on the task. Formative assessment, on the other hand, can help students recognize misconceptions and guide them to better understanding and thus better performance on future assessments. Both formative and summative assessment can be part of a learning activity depending on the objective or intended learning outcome of the task.

How will I motivate students to participate in the activity? 

If an activity is perceived as valuable to students and properly integrated into a course, students will be more motivated to do the activity.  Participation marks or a small grade allocation for engaging in an online learning activity can also increase students’ motivation. Students are more likely to participate in low stakes activities if they are going to be integrated into their experiences in the classroom, tutorial or lab. Providing real world, authentic tasks that are relevant to students’ lives or future professional lives that are challenging, but achievable, can also increase motivation.

How will learners communicate with each other and ask the instructor questions?

Providing opportunities for students to ask questions about the learning activity in class or through online frequently asked questions discussion boards can help create a supportive environment for learning to take place.

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