Learning about Active Learning Online

Regular readers know that I teach a lot online. I’ve been teaching online for the better part of the last fifteen years and have designed and taught online classes for most of that time. I co-authored a book on blended learning in the sciences and even acted as an external reviewer for a college who was starting a fully online program. I’ve also researched online teachers’ efficacy for teaching in online environments. Put a little differently, online learning is sort of my jam.

I’m not saying all of this to document my resume or to pat myself on the back or anything. More than that, I’m laying the foundation for the dissonance I’ve been experiencing lately. While I’ve taught online for years, most of that experience has been through asynchronous means. Sure, each semester, I’d teach a few synchronous classes, especially as part of my hybrid and blended courses. But now, I’m teaching several synchronous classes every week and that’s given me the opportunity to explore different strategies and learn more about the synchronous learning environment. Since I’m a big believer in the power of active learning in my face-to-face classrooms, I’ve been working to replicate those strategies in my synchronous space. As a college instructor, I’m a proponent of Chickering and Gamson, who write:

“Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

So, that has been my goal for my synchronous classes for the last nine or ten weeks. And here’s what I’ve learned about active learning online.

Synchronous spaces require extended wait time.
In my face-to-face classes, I found that the traditional 3-5 seconds of wait time was enough to prompt student response. Maybe with really challenging questions, I’d wait a little longer. But in my synchronous classes, I find I need to wait a lot longer to elicit a response. In some classes, I find myself waiting ten or more seconds before students will respond. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. In one class, I’ve even started using Wheel of Names to call on students randomly. It’s not ideal but it helps to keep students engaged in the active learning process.

Synchronous classes change how I group students.
For most of my face-to-face classes, I found that a group of 3-4 students was the ideal size for most tasks. A group that size promotes interaction and diverse thought while also diminishing the chances for students who are unwilling (or unprepared) to contribute. In my synchronous classes, I’m finding that five students is more optimal. With the technical challenges that some of my students are facing, smaller groups increase the likelihood that a student will be partnered with one or two students who can’t (or won’t) contribute. Which would really defeat the purpose of active learning if the student is in a three-person group.

Some active learning strategies don’t translate well to synchronous spaces.
I’ve given up using think-pair-shares in my synchronous classes this semester. While this was one of mt favorite ways to promote discussion in my face-to-face classes, it is cumbersome and ineffective in Zoom. The group size is too small (see above) and it takes too much time to orchestrate. But I’ve found other strategies work really well. For example, I’ve had a lot of success with jigsaw activities where different groups of students are assigned different readings before class. During class, I place students in breakout rooms where they first discuss the reading with other students who were assigned the same material. After a few minutes of discussion, I rearrange the breakout groups to partner students with peers who were assigned other readings. By design, jigsaws promote more interdependence which can help motivate students to prepare and be more engaged participants in class.

I’ve also found “popcorn” style discussions are pretty effective. In a popcorn activity, I call on a student to respond to a prompt.  After responding, that student calls on another who responds before calling on another student. And so on.  Since students are calling on their peers by name, it’s a great way to get more people involved and helps to foster community in class. Beyond active learning activities, “popcorns” are great ways to engage students in ice breaker discussions at the start of class.

In a synchronous space, students need to create artifacts collaboratively.
In a typical face-to-face class, I’d break the class into different student groups, give them a cognitive task to complete and tell them to be ready to respond when the return. Sometimes, I’d give the student groups markers and a poster board to create an artifact to share with the rest of the class. But in my synchronous classes, I’m finding I need to have them collaborate on a digital artifact with almost every group discussion. Most times, I create a Google Slide deck and assign each breakout group to a different slide to gather their ideas. Besides giving the students a space to gather their ideas, it also allows me to monitor each group’s progress. I can view the slides in “grid view” and see the work that each group is doing. I can then jump into breakout rooms that seem to be struggling with the task.

Two-way communication is critical.
In a typical face-to-face group discussion, I’d stop the groups midway through their conversations to ask about their progress and to see if they had questions. That’s really challenging in Zoom. I can broadcast a message to individual groups but they can’t respond back. They can “ask for help” but, unless I’m in their breakout rooms, they can’t talk with me. To correct this, I’ve set up a Back Channel chat which allows for constant back and forth conversation while the students are in breakout rooms. The tool also allows me to poll the groups and share files.

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