Tips from the Pros: Innovative Ways to Engage Online Learners

Last year my dean informed me that I needed to offer our public speaking course online. This was not a course that naturally lent itself to an online format. In fact, I could not think of a course more poorly suited for an online format . . . how would students have a “public” in which to speak?

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Last year my dean informed me that I needed to offer our public speaking course online. This was not a course that naturally lent itself to an online format. In fact, I could not think of a course more poorly suited for an online format . . . how would students have a “public” in which to speak?

This unexpected challenge forced me to create a new vision for my students' online learning experiences. Below are the engagement strategies and tactics that made the online course a success: Engagement via videos One strategy I utilized was weekly “professor videos” that I posted as an announcement. At the beginning of the first week, I use a short video to introduce myself, welcome students, and talk about the significance of the course in relation to the students' lives. In the weeks following, I share crucial learning points, state what major topics will be covered for the week, and review what assignments are due. My students love these updates. I call them “Dr. Carver Updates,” like weekend updates on Saturday Night Live, but they're more informative and less funny (although I try). Free and helpful websites for interactive learning I utilize many websites to improve student engagement, reflection, and learning. One of my favorite websites is http://www.futureme.org. This website is free and allows students to send e-mail messages to their future selves. At the beginning of each semester, I have students outline their goals for the semester and year; then I have them email their goals to themselves via their university email address. When I teach a freshman introductory class, students email themselves their goals for their first semester, freshman year, and for college graduation (there is also a photo option, so I have them take a photo of themselves the first day of their freshman year and email it to themselves to read on their anticipated graduation date, along with their goals). Students report this is a powerful exercise. Additionally, I teach students to set SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. One university resource that explains SMART goals and provides a Goal Agreement Form that may be adapted to your use can be found at https://hr.gwu.edu/goal-setting. A second website I find useful is http://www.wordle.net, which allows you to make visual representations of texts you provide. Wordles may be a helpful learning tool when analyzing texts or even professional codes of ethics because they highlight crucial terms and provide a visual representation of ideas/concepts/theories. Third, I often incorporate interactive exercises by utilizing the resources provided by University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good in Action website, which offers science-based practices for living a meaningful life. For example, when covering research on the study of happiness/positive psychology (e.g., Emmons and McCullough's 2003 study on counting blessings), I have the students do a gratitude exercise I pulled from http://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/three-good-things that asks individuals to create a gratitude journal that involves listing three good things that they are grateful for. I have also asked students to tweet something they are grateful for daily for four weeks. Online icebreakers I try to use fun, creative exercises to build an engaging community learning environment in my courses. One example of an assignment that I use as an icebreaker is to have students watch Amy Cuddy's TED Talk on nonverbal communication, then post a photo of their favorite power pose on a discussion board: http://bit.ly/1he9hAR. This is one of the most powerful TED Talks I have watched; it provides a quick, evidence-based life hack, which is especially important for underserved populations. Asking each student to post a favorite power pose empowers the student to apply this research. It also ensures that they watch the talk, as students who do not show an appropriate power pose have not watched the talk. Another creative student introduction strategy is to utilize iMovie trailers. iMovie trailers are intuitive, short, dramatic features that are scripted and allow each student to personalize his or her introduction to classmates into an exciting, dynamic video. This strategy is also overwhelmingly welcomed by our students, who tend to be extremely introverted. As a professor, I also use iMovie trailers to advertise our elective courses, increase student interest in a particular course (especially if the course topic is unknown), and introduce myself to my students . . . who wouldn't want to introduce themselves as professor/Indiana Jones/superhero? Social media strategies Class Twitter hashtags have been another way to promote engagement, dialogue, and information sharing in my courses. I create a course Twitter hashtag for each of my classes. For example, for my Maryville University course on global communication, I use the hashtag #MUGlobalComm. I use this same formula in all of my class hashtags to make it easy for students to follow. It is important to make sure that your hashtag is not already in use. I have found course hashtags to work better in my graduate courses, where students are already on Twitter. However, it depends on the students, as some undergraduate classes have also welcomed this medium. Pinterest is another social media platform that I routinely utilize in teaching. Pinterest can serve as an informational and entertaining tool to engage students. I use Pinterest for sharing content, inspirational quotations, discussion prompts, comics, examples (both good and bad), writing prompts and tips, and media representations—and to make my students laugh. Honestly, I use pins in almost all of my classes and have created boards for content areas. Some pins can be applied in almost all undergraduate courses, such as some of those found at: http://bit.ly/2l5e3Xj. There are also incredible infographics that I use for content, such as this infographic that explains how to manage negative social media comments: http://bit.ly/2lCs9gt. Pinterest has a broad spectrum of information; I have nursing colleagues who also utilize Pinterest in their classrooms, so this is not just a platform for communication professors. Student-generated videos Students often learn best when they have to “do” the work. We know now that lectures are not an effective strategy to deliver information, so I often contemplate ways that I can flip learning so that the student has to learn the content and then implement a strategy and/or apply the learning in some way. With student-generated videos, I can check in on their learning processes. In the end, I learned that online courses provide the unique opportunity to work backwards (outcome driven) and to think outside the limits of screens. I have found that these are the best questions to ask ourselves as educators: What are our learning outcomes? What creative ways can we achieve those outcomes that best maximize student learning, reflection, and growth? Sometimes challenges in online higher education push us outside of our comfort zones and make us better educators. Leilani Carver is an associate professor of communication at Maryville University of Saint Louis.