Five Ways to Foster Creativity in Your Online Classroom

The online classroom can be a space that supports and showcases student creativity. The learning management system can become a place where students expand their learning beyond traditional online means. With a host of free tools available on the Internet, online students have the ability to demonstrate their creative side as part of the class interactions and assessments. Wondering where to get started? Here are a few suggestions to help you be successful.

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When I talk to instructors who are new to teaching online, many complain about the sterile nature of their online courses. While they interact with their students and support their learning, they often miss some of the creativity that students bring to a face-to-face classroom. In face-to-face environments, they argue, students can more easily demonstrate their creativity by participating in role-playing, leading class discussions, or giving presentations, for example. But these instructors see the online classroom as a different space. Because most of the interactions in the online realm are text-based, the instructors don't always see the same creativity on display. In their online classes, instructors will assign readings and have their students post to discussion boards. The instructors may also lead synchronous lessons to help students learn concepts. At the end of the module, the instructors will assess student learning by having students submit papers to the course dropbox or take an online exam. After completing one module, the instructor and students progress to the next module, where this cycle of instruction, interaction, and assessment is often repeated. Employing such a repetitious learning cycle, it's no wonder that my colleagues who are new to online teaching don't see the vibrancy of the online classroom. The reality, however, is that the online classroom can be a space that supports and showcases student creativity. The learning management system can become a place where students expand their learning beyond traditional online means. With a host of free tools available on the Internet, online students have the ability to demonstrate their creative side as part of the class interactions and assessments. Wondering where to get started? Here are a few suggestions to help you be successful.
  1. View your classroom as a commons area. Some online instructors see the content section of their course as the most valuable component of instruction. While it's important for students to have easy access to quality course materials and learning objects, the communication areas of an online course are where students will feel the most supported. In these sections, the instructor can interact with students and build a social presence that fosters learning. Threaded discussions are critical places for students to demonstrate their understanding of course content and to collectively make meaning of the subject matter. But online communication tools can do more than just foster discourse. Students can also use these spaces to share their creative works. For instance, as an introductory activity in my online class, I have students use an online tool such as MyBrainShark or Animoto to create short videos in order to introduce themselves to their classmates. The videos get shared in a discussion board and inevitably spark conversations. I also use the assignment as a pretest where I ask students to share what they know about the course. Used in this manner, the discussion board becomes a virtual gallery where students get to “see” their classmates and also get to showcase their creativity.
  2. Leave your assignments open-ended. While it's important to explicitly outline your expectations for students, consider leaving the actual mode of expression more open-ended. Is it important that students write a five-page paper to demonstrate they've learned a topic? Could they create a video outlining their understanding instead? Could they use the course content to animate an academic discussion on the topic? Providing students with options will increase their buy-in for an assignment and allow them to show more of their creative talents. It's also good pedagogically. The National Center on Universal Design for Learning (www.udlcenter.org) recommends giving students multiple means of expression and action in classroom environments. While UDL principles have been traditionally applied to face-to-face classrooms, the concepts are equally relevant to online spaces as well.
  3. Think about creativity differently. While some people view creativity as an elusive construct that is hard to define, there's actually a body of research that helps bring clarity to the concept. J.P. Guilford (1977) identified four characteristics of creative thinking: fluency, flexibility, elaboration, and originality. Fluency describes a person's ability to generate a large number of ideas, solutions, or responses. Flexibility examines someone's ability to look at a situation from a different point of view. Elaboration encompasses a person's ability to modify or expand an existing idea. Originality, often seen as the essence of creativity, is the ability to generate a unique idea, product, or solution.While Guilford's framework helps describe the concept of creativity in much more operational terms, the model also offers opportunities for the online classroom. Instead of giving an online quiz on a topic, why not have students see the content from a different point? A chemistry instructor could have students explain an oxidation reaction from the point of view of an electron, for instance. A history instructor could choose to focus on the elaboration aspects of creativity and have students outline a debate that argues both sides of a controversial topic. With an animation application such as GoAnimate (goanimate.com), the students could demonstrate their understanding of the course concepts and showcase their creativity as well.
  4. View assessments more broadly. In the online classroom, instructors sometimes focus too heavily on objective assessments such as quizzes and exams. While these are relatively easy to design, schedule, and grade, these assessments offer few opportunities for students' creative expression. By expanding the assessments to include student-produced videos, presentations, animations, and artistic works, instructors can foster student creativity while they are evaluating student understanding.
  5. Don't be distracted by the shiny. One challenge with using online creative tools for assessments and interaction in online classrooms is the influence student-produced media can have on instructors' evaluation of classroom learning. While a video created by a student may look appealing or technically challenging, the learning demonstrated through the work may be sparse. Don't let a highly polished project influence the assessment of student learning. In some cases, it may be beneficial to include a rubric that clearly identifies aspects of the assignment that will be assessed. This can help focus students on the specific content they need to demonstrate in their creative work.
While traditional use of the online classroom offers a variety of means of instruction, interaction, and assessment, seeing the space as an environment where students can display their creativity can help build student interest and engage them more in the learning process. It can also help the online classroom evolve into a more vibrant, creative space. Oliver (Ollie) Dreon, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. On February 18, he will lead the Magna Online Seminar Six Practical Strategies to Improve Your Online Course. For information about this seminar, see https://www.magnapubs.com/product/online-seminars/archived/six-practical-strategies-to-improve-your-online-course.