In this blog post I reflect on what I have learned about creating engaging online activities for synchronous  learning. For those who might not be that familiar with the concept of synchronous learning, it means that students are required to log in and participate in class at a specific time each week as compared to asynchronous online learning which allows students to view instructional materials each week at any time they choose.
According to Kay (2022) ideal online actions need to address social and cognitive presence, meaning that social construction of knowledge through meaningful collaboration typically leads to productive cognitive engagement. Addittionally, the host of the online sessions, need to select such activities best aligning with learning outcomes and the student’s development level. To create a successful engagement process in an online teaching and learning environment Kay (2022) also suggest Fullan and Longworthy’s (2013) deep learning approach which can help in designing activities that promote character, communication, creativity and critical thinking. In this post, I will focus on the key elements Kay (2022) suggest for a succesful engagement in online learning environments as I found them relevant and practical enough to be implemented in various fields of teaching.
  1. Make your session AUTHENTIC – connect it the contents of real-world situations/problems. Organizing students into breakout rooms to address a relevant, engaging, real-world problem can stimulate thought, focus and cognitive engagement (Kay 2022). Students could be encouraged to discuss about a case study, design a learning tool, evaluate some program, compare two approaches or contrasting opinions, debating messy social issues, or creating a web page (Kay 2022).
  2. Use BREAKOUT ROOMS to create smaller groups (ideally 4 persons) for discussions. Large groups do not work that well in online contexts: participants tend to turn off their cameras and are reluctant to participate in discussions more often than not.
  3. Use COLLABORATION as a learning strategy, it works surprising well in online synchronous environments.
  4. To maximize the benefits of working in small-groups, make sure your small-groups are PRODUCTIVE. Smaller groups should be asked to produce an artifact; mindmap, mural board or a one slide presentation. Have a clear goal, otherwise discussions tend to deteriorate to off-topic conversations.
  5. TIMING is a a very critical part of a succesful online course. Plan small breaks every 10 min; present information, shift audiences attention by asking them a chat question, presenting a poll, or testing their knowledge.
  6. CLARITY is extra important. One needs to be super clear in providing instructions for breakout activity. It is challenging to go over confusion when students have shifted into groups.
  7. Offer CHOICES for students as much as possible in terms of completing tasks, presentation modes, etc. This works best with open-ened and “messy” tasks.
  8. CREATIVITY leads to great results. It seems that activities requiring exploration and creativity lead to the most impressive and engaging results: Challenge student’s to brainstorm.
  9. Be INTERACTIVE. Passive presentation of information is not an effective strategy to promote learning: apply interaction between instructor and learners as student’s need to engage with concepts and procedures and construct meaning to truly understand and learn.
  10. POLL about the topics and concepts you discuss. Surveying student opinion or understanding of concepts. Two-step-polling is a particularly effective activity.

Finally, according to Kay (2022) the most successful online classes use a variety of the above presented activities, including short presentations, polls, chat discussion, breakout discussions, and large group discussions.

Reflecting on these, I feel like I’ve done so many mistakes in my previous online teaching. It feels like I have tried to fit a square shaped block to a rounded whole by brining face-to-face teaching practices to an online environment. To give some creadit to myself, I did not have an easy task transforming a fully face-to-face course into a fully online course in 2020 after Covid19 restrictions made it impossible to arrange a face-to-face teaching. I had zero experience about online teaching and pedagogics. Taking these facts into account, I would say I did not do soooo bad, but I neither did very well. It is easy to laugh afterwards, but I remember back then I was terrified. From the 10 guiding principles by Kay (2020) introduced here, I might have used one and that is the authenticity, which was an initial part of the course already when it was arranged as a face-to-face format. But well, know I know better and I think with all that I have learned from ONL231 course I could actually plan one heck of a good online GIS course, but that remains to be seen.


Fullan & Longworthy 2013:

Kay, R. 2022. Creating Engaging Online Synchronous Activities in Kay, R., H. & Hunter, W. J. (Eds.). (2022). Thriving online: A guide for busy educators. Ontario TechUniversity

Photo credit to Chris Montgomery, Unsplash

Enhanching engagement in an online teaching environment