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Moving Your Class Online? Tips for Keeping Students Engaged

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So, yes. You can do this.

Will it be as good as a real, in-person class?

Honestly, I’m not sure. My first answer is no, but maybe I just haven’t found the key yet. It seems clear that you can have small group meetings online. I do that now with my colleagues. I still prefer meeting face to face, but everyone is all over the place, so that’s not feasible.

But look. If you’re just “presenting” information and ideas to students, then why not just put it in a video? You wouldn’t have to repeat your lectures every semester; you could just record them once and be done with it. Oh, even better, we’d only need one teacher for all students, someone who can make the one video to rule them all and in the darkness of knowledge bind them.

So maybe this is a good time to rethink how we do face-to-face classes too? I mean, it’s not like this is new information. We’ve known for quite a while that traditional lectures are ineffective. Sure, some students do well with the lecture format, but think of all the ones we leave behind.

Instead, a student-centered learning environment works best. In a class like this, students aren’t just watching someone work out a problem, they’re engaged, doing things: working in groups, collecting real data, analyzing real-world events. Can you do that online? Not easily, but if you choose the project well, I think it might be possible.

How do you give tests online?

OK, so you’re doing online learning now. But what about the tests? I guess there are such things as online exams. I know that some content management systems have a testing mode that locks the browser so students can’t use other websites. Of course, if a student wants to cheat, they can just use their phone on the side, sneaky like.

Maybe the solution is to give a better test. What if you ask questions that can’t be solved with an internet search? Or instead of asking how far a ball travels when shot from a launcher, you could ask the student to come up with their own question. (This is called a goal-less problem.) Or you could give them a solution with a mistake in it, and ask them to find the mistake and fix it.

You could also do my favorite thing, which is to have students create video solutions of problems and then submit the video. This works really well. Basically, you’re putting them in the role of a teacher, and we all know that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it.

Yes, it’s harder to come up with your own questions, and these kinds of tests are more difficult to grade, but they are also more valuable. In fact, this is another area where the creative solutions you come up with now may be things you want to incorporate into your classes when things return to normal.

If this works, will schools keep classes online?

This is the most disconcerting question. If we can make a go of this, should we meet face to face ever again? I’m scared of this. I really like seeing students in person. I like the learning community we build together. I love seeing them struggle with an idea and eventually master it. But if we can do all these things online, I guess we should. Wouldn’t that make learning more accessible to a broader range of students?

I guess the real question we instructors have is this: Will I be replaced? Will I be out of a job? Like I said before, if you’re just telling people stuff, then maybe you should just make a video. If we want real and authentic learning, then we are still going to need instructors.

What is the best learning environment?

Close your eyes and imagine your ideal learning situation. (Oh wait—now you can’t read what I’m writing. Anyway, just.) What does it look like? For me it’s a bunch of people interacting and solving interesting problems. An outsider looking at such a class might not be able to tell who the teacher is. It’s just a group of humans working together and figuring stuff out.

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