How to Make Your Online Courses More Interactive

We’re exploring how to make online classes more interactive in order to improve participation and student engagement.

female student sitting on grassy lawn on laptop

Contrary to the common belief that modern technology promotes distance and hinders relationships, the right technology can actually elevate our experience, foster connection, and cultivate community. This is critical for online courses. In fact, tools that support regular and substantive interaction have shown to power community building, connection, and better engagement in online courses. And studies continue to show that those elements of a course directly impact retention, motivation, and confidence in academic performance. Here, we’ll explore how to make online classes more interactive, focusing on the two key areas of community and collaboration, in order to improve participation and student engagement.

“Just as we’ve designed our online courses purposefully, we want to deliver those courses using technology built for this purpose. Our online student engagement depends on being able to foster an equitable and inclusive classroom experience, outside the classroom. That’s why we use digital learning tools that integrate with the LMS for our online courses” Traci Rushing Instructional Designer at Southern Arkansas University Tech
Traci Rushing Headshot

Step 1: Build a Community for Your Online Learners

Classroom and online courses can differ drastically in the level of interaction between students and instructors. Distance education and online courses present distinct barriers to traditional student engagement and participation, amplified by the actual distance between the learners, their peers, and the instructor.

As a result, students can experience a growing sense of isolation, which often inhibits participation. To keep students engaged in online learning, institutions are creating connection and cultivating a stronger sense of community in their online courses — making students feel more inclined to contribute.

How to do it: Make it easier to talk about hard topics

Copiah-Lincoln Community College has found success in using emotion-based and real-world applicable discussion prompts in their online discussion tools.

“We put great care into building our discussion prompts for online courses. For example, we’ll use prompts that reference current events and social justice issues to solicit response from students. We found emotion-based responses came out naturally in the discussions,” said Dr. Amanda Hood, Director of eLearning for Copiah-Lincoln.

“This approach to an online discussion board gives students the chance to articulate their opinions, understand competing perspectives, and compose thoughtful responses — similar to a classroom setting. It’s also good practice for figuring out how to resolve conflict and for the interactions they’ll have in the future.”

How to do it: Be inclusive of different styles of expression

For better engagement, it’s also important to be inclusive of the different ways students communicate and learner styles.

West Virginia University saw an increase in organic interaction among students in their online courses when it became easier to communicate right from within their online discussion platform.

“Students can submit written responses, create snippets of audio, or make and send videos right from within our online collaboration and discussion tools. We’re excited about this easy-to-use method for instructors and students to engage with the content and each other,” said Beth Bailey, WVU Instructional Designer.

WVU Instructional Designer Michele Korgeski echoes these sentiments. Harmonize has not only impacted student-to-student interaction, but it has also opened the door for students to interact with their instructors and vice versa.

“Students and instructors can seamlessly carry on rich conversations about any course topic. In the past, this type of interaction was hard to find and often viewed as another graded requirement. With Harmonize, we’re finding there’s less hesitation to respond to someone with video or audio comments. This is resulting in more meaningful and engaging discussions between students and instructors.”

The options for how and in what medium to respond is allowing students to express themselves in their own ways, helping instructors move from transactional to more meaningful exchanges.

How to do it: Prioritize communication

Because instruction is delivered asynchronously, and material can be accessed by students at any time, online courses are typically built with one-way, transactional communication in mind — which is unhelpful if we’re looking to spur interactions.

If you want to increase student participation and create better community, consider employing more engaging activities for online classes that drive conversation and use different channels of communication.

“We have our instructors use course Q&A, polls, and enable chat portals for our students.  It’s giving online learners a chance to be seen and heard. It’s also a more inclusive approach to communication, which is creating an online experience more equitable to the classroom experience,” says Andrew Lieb, Collegewide Chair at Eastern Florida State College Online.

Erin Richardson from Meridian Community College agrees that polls have had high impact on student engagement. “We have received such positive feedback from students who said they feel more engaged in the course when we used polls. They have a voice and a say in the course decisions that will affect their experience.”

Step 2: Enable Student Collaboration

During collaboration, students receive attention from their peers, which is thought to increase the level of engagement and participation in the learning process. Collaborative learning strategies also enhance students’ academic outcomes.

In a meta-analysis of 1,000+ empirical studies, evidence showed that peer-assisted methods outperformed traditional methods, with small-group collaboration increasing students’ ability to transfer their learning to new contexts. Use these tips to power student collaboration online.

How to do it: Use Peer Reviews, 1:1 Communication & Milestones

Southern Arkansas University Tech uses the learner-centered strategy of peer critiques in online courses, and couples it with opportunities for students to provide feedback anonymously and also work 1-on-1 with each other through virtual chat portals. The idea is to help students strengthen their evaluative skills, practice articulating constructive feedback, and become receptive to feedback.

For example, in an online speech course, students are required to write a narrative outline & speech and submit it for peer critique. Through prompts set by milestones, students are required to provide at least three comments on a number of students’ speeches.

“The feedback students were providing became at least 10 times better, and the number of comments per speech more than doubled. We found that anonymous critiques elicit more constructive feedback, which is helping our students better iterate their work before final submissions and grades,” said Rushing.

Students at SAU Tech also participate in 1-on-1 or small-group collaboration projects. That collaboration is powered through chat portals. The key here is the look and feel.

“We make it look and feel like text messaging — a familiar medium to students — but rather than taking the students out of the course to a mobile texting app, the portal is connected to the course to keep the students engaged in the relevant material.”

“At Tidewater Community College, we’re intentional about enabling collaboration in our online courses. We set in place milestones or checkpoints throughout the course at particular times that require collaborative activities, peer reviews, and comments on other students’ discussion inputs,” Instructional Designer Heather Brown shared.

This approach provides clear instruction and expectation for students who don’t have the advantage of in-class collaboration guidance. It also continues to honor the asynchronous communication needs of most online learners.

“Using milestones to guide our online students through collaborative learning activities is keeping our students engaged and on track, while simultaneously working to create a stronger sense of classroom community. We see our students becoming more responsive to each other, which is creating connection,” said Brown.

How: Find tools with built-in social engagement

Any technology an institution employs to facilitate online courses must be easy for both faculty and students to use. Tools with user-friendly designs are naturally easier to learn how to use; they also allow instructors and students to complete tasks quickly and offer an intuitive navigation — to even a first-time user. When designed this way, digital learning tools are easier to learn, and that’s critical for better online interactions.

Plus, tools with a user experience that mimic real-life experiences have the highest usability — think features like tagging, video, in-app and email notifications, and social media-like interfaces. If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with in their personal lives (i.e. social media), they are more likely to explore it.

As an example, Harmonize’s online discussion platform provides a social media-like experience, with content creation, sharing, and reaction capabilities — making it both recognizable and easy to use, for students which leads to increased activity and engagement. Harmonize steps interaction a step further and enables students and instructors alike to provide feedback within images, videos, and other documents — including PDFs — through online annotation tools. These social annotation tools enable an added level of collaboration and interaction online.

Eastern Florida State College Online takes advantage of instructor-student tagging. “Like social media, the tag lets a student know I’m there and that I will respond with feedback. We also tag on discussion boards, and it’s a way to get students’ attention and demonstrate that their contributions are valued. Our online students feel like someone’s really there for them,” said Lieb.

Interactive Tools for Online Learning

The key to making online classes more interactive — and encouraging student participation — is creating a strong sense of community and enabling collaboration. This requires delivering online courses in a way that offers a similar experience as face-to-face classroom learning. To bring online classes closer in feel to the on-campus experience:

  • Make it easier to discuss relevant and challenging topics
  • Meet students where they are by being inclusive of different learning styles
  • Use a video annotation tool and a document and image annotation tool to incorporate more social interaction through feedback
  • Create multiple avenues for interaction using polls, Q&A, chat, video, discussion boards
  • Facilitate frequent collaboration through peer reviews, 1:1 or group work, and milestones
  • Use tools that are easy and familiar in look and feel

To achieve any of these things, it’s important to use the right interactive online learning apps — ones that:

  • Power collaboration with instructors and among students
  • Create multi-directional synchronous and asynchronous communication pathways during coursework to build community
  • Foster inclusive opportunities by removing barriers, enabling flexibility, and expanding access

From communication, collaboration and social engagement, to instructor and peer support on assignments, to feeling a sense of community in online courses, expectations around online learning are evolving. Institutions with strong student engagement in online courses are the ones finding ways to make online classes more interactive — and that means rethinking their use of technology.

Harmonize is a suite of interactive tools for online learning that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging learning experience. Harmonize is everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement in online discussions and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

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