Online Learning 2.0: Turn Your Students into Teachers

Teaching as learning

It’s been said that teaching is the best way to learn, and I believe it. When I had to teach a topic on the periphery of my knowledge, I needed to learn it better than I would if I was interested only in my own research. I needed to get underneath the material, filling in gaps in my knowledge that I might otherwise leave, in case I was asked about it by my students.

Education has traditionally gone from teacher to student. This is partly a leftover from the age when the university was a vault of information not available elsewhere. Teachers were truly walking repositories of knowledge.

But all that has changed. Now, nearly everything I teach is available elsewhere. More important, information can be preserved digitally. This means that students can become teachers by producing permanent course content for other students. This also means that students can produce course content for future classes, engaging in a conversation across generations of learners.

Student teaching modules turn around the traditional education model of the teacher having an understanding in his or her head, conveying that understanding to students, and measuring them on how well their understanding matches his or her own. Instead of encouraging students to “give back to the teacher what the teacher wants,” students must truly understand the material in order to synthesize it into a coherent teaching module. Student teaching modules force a level of understanding beyond what is needed to skate by on an exam.

Plus, because the teaching module is presented to classmates, rather than just the instructor, the student has a greater incentive to do well. We all elevate our act when we must perform before others. The paper that is seen only by the instructor carries little incentive to do well beyond a grade.

The power of online education is that the modules can now be preserved in a format that can be used with future students. Traditional online classes scrub out the student-generated content for the next group so that only the instructor’s contributions remain. Why is this so? A fundamental tenet of higher education is that knowledge is built on the work of former scholars. No professor writes without reference to what others have done. Yet this is precisely what we are expecting of our students when the work of prior students is wiped away for each new class.

Finally, we live in a world where digital communication is becoming a force in civic society. Understanding how to communicate in these new formats is becoming nearly as important to civic engagement and citizenship (dare I say more important?) as understanding how to write a college term paper.

Assignment format

I put students from my Medical Ethics course into groups of four and assign each group a medical ethics issue to teach to others via a digital learning module. I use this assignment in an upper-level course because the students have more experience with higher education teaching than do students in lower-level courses.

The project is assigned in the first week and due in the last week to give the groups plenty of time to organize, research, and create their module. While this is a face-to-face course, the method can be used in either online or face-to-face courses because the content is digital. I have the students post their modules to the class wiki, which grows from class to class.

Here are the basic assignment requirements:

  • The module must take around 45 minutes to an hour for someone to go through.
  • The module must include an assessment of learning.
  • The module must include a list of good resources for further exploration.

To ensure that projects are moving forward, I require that students meet certain milestones during the semester. For instance, they need to have a first organizing meeting within two weeks, they need to have their module outlined by six weeks, etc. I also assign one group member to periodically report on group progress.

Once the material is put together and loaded on the wiki, I assign every member of the class one module that is not their own to go through. They must post a brief commentary on the module, answering questions such as Did you understand it? How did you do on the assessment? and Do you have further questions?

The groups then present a short overview of their modules to the entire class at the end of the semester. While students already have access to the modules, I like to have students present a summary of what they did to allow them to show pride in what they created. This summary is done during a regular lecture in my face-to-face courses, and via Google+ Huddles, or by video in an online course.


Students need some fairly specific guidance on format and expectations for this assignment, as it’s somewhat far afield from what they are used to. Though we tend to assume that our students are experts at all things digital, their understanding is actually deep and narrow. While they might be able to text and negotiate video game environments at warp speed, they are not familiar with loading content onto a wiki. So I created screencasts on how to load the wiki to teach them the technology. I also go through potential resources for content delivery and assessment.

Students are free to pick the software that they want to use for the assignment. One of my favorite content hosting sites is VoiceThread ( It’s easy to use and allows others to post comments directly to the content. Most students will use this site, although some will use voice-over PowerPoint and even animation sites such as Voki ( and Xtranormal ( I like how the assignment allows them to be creative in their uses of resources.

When it comes to assessment, most students use a simple quizzing system such as the Jeopardy game from Dianne Jones’ Parade of Games in PowerPoint site (, or multiple-choice tests that can be built on dozens of sites.

Take a look at the examples in this video, and consider how you might make students into teachers in your own classes

John Orlando has spent 15 years in online education, mostly learning by trial and error. He helped develop and lead online learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University and has taught faculty how to teach online as well as to use technology in their face-to-face teaching.

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