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Five strategies to launch your teaching into cyberspace

A learning technology coordinator reveals how to keep students engaged and encourage them to participate in the cyber classroom


Throughout the millennia, we have developed increasingly sophisticated tools to facilitate human interaction and expand the knowledge and wisdom of our culture. New electronic technologies for navigating our physical, social and intellectual spaces are no exception: they are having a significant influence on the way we work, think and play. Noted Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan believed that the patterned effects of our technologies hold greater importance than the content of the medium itself.

For our students, technology is ubiquitous: the Net Generation is, according to the University of Manitoba’s George Siemens, “digitally literate, constantly connected, socially-driven, engaged, and visually-driven”.

How do we create a learning environment that will be engaging and still provide a critical intellectual foundation for our students whose future is a world we can barely imagine? The questions are many; the choices are infinite. These five strategies can serve as stepping-stones for your first venture into your own cyber-classroom.

1. Jump-start your technology learning curve

Most Canadian universities provide learning management systems that can be used to supplement face-to-face instruction or deliver complete courses using the web.

Typically, instructors begin using learning management systems to simplify the administrative tasks associated with teaching; only with experience do we begin to develop new insights and creative ways of using technology to enhance student learning (Morgan, 2003). To avoid being overwhelmed by the technology, a useful strategy is to start small:

  • Identify one administrative function that will be improved using technology. This could involve posting some of your course content online such as your syllabus, course schedule, or reading materials; or you may want to learn how to enter and distribute student grades electronically.
  • Identify one instructional goal you would like to accomplish using technology and design an activity in the form of a case study, online debate, journal, presentation or project. Then consult with your campus learning technology specialist who can help you identify an appropriate tool to support your teaching strategy.

2. Embrace the paradigm shift

Moving your teaching from the lecture theatre to the web requires a significant transformation in both thinking and practice; so significant that we might even think of it as a paradigm shift. Unlike the lecture theatre, the virtual classroom is highly interactive: multitasking is the norm, the communication flow is many-to-many and it’s not uncommon to engage in multiple conversations at the same time. Instructors sometimes experience this as a shift in power or a loss of control, but the shift is really about using the virtual classroom to focus on a more interactive, student-centred style of learning.

In the virtual classroom you will have several new “e-roles” to manage: you will serve as the intellectual guide; you will attend to the administrative, procedural and organizational demands of the course; you will be called on for guidance and support; and, perhaps most importantly, you will provide the social glue that holds the group together. By integrating assignments and activities that are student-centred you can provide a scholarly environment that encourages students to assume greater responsibility for their own learning.

What does not change in the virtual classroom is that you are still the instructor, and the students will still look to you for leadership and guidance.

3. Design active learning assignments to engage your students

The virtual classroom provides a unique social setting to actively engage students in authentic, collaborative learning experiences. And the research is very clear: effective learning occurs when students write and discuss and are actively engaged in solving problems.

Here are three things to consider when designing assignments and learning activities for the online component of your course:

  • Build positive interdependence by designing group assignments so that (1) students are responsible for individual learning tasks and (2) the evaluation includes both individual and group rewards. In other words, design assignments in which the group will sink or swim together.
  • Involve students in developing assignments by providing them with a structured framework. Ask them to develop a proposal that outlines goals, methods, individual task assignments, timelines and outcomes. To ensure the assignments align with your own instructional goals, have the students submit proposals as part of the project. This gives you an opportunity to provide suggestions and corrective feedback before they start.
  • Some research suggests that students will adapt their writing to authentic audiences. If your students are to be active learners, it’s important to identify an appropriate audience for each “performance” activity. You can expand the audience for a particular assignment by having the students share their work and invite feedback through a peer-review process.

4. Integrate student-created content

Alvin Toffler stated that: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” If the early web was about browsing, reading, home pages and HTML, then the web of the 21st century is about word of mouth, authorship, participation, tagging and user-created content: “It’s all about the audience, and the ‘audience’ is no longer merely listening.” (Horizon Report, 2007). To boomers, tagging is all about graffiti, but for millennials who have grown up in a world of cell phones, digital cameras and text messaging, tagging is a way to share content in online communities like Flickr and YouTube. Web 2.0 technologies allow everyone to be an author and filmmaker. Instead of content that is delivered, received and reflected back to the instructor, millennials prefer to collaborate and create their own content.

The call for student-created content is also echoed in research on effective teaching: Chickering and Gamson (1987) identified active learning as one of the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education; the Boyer Commission (1998) argued that research-based learning should become the standard; the National Survey of Student Engagement identifies “active and collaborative learning” as one of the five indicators of effective educational practice; and the Horizon Report (2007) specifically identifies user-created content as one of six areas that will have “significant impact on college and university campuses within the next five years.”

Whether we call it a case study, active learning, field work, peer instruction, service learning, inquiry or problem-based learning, student-created content is a serious intellectual inquiry that begins with observation and asking good questions, and results in students actively participating in the construction of their own learning.

5. Use assessments that cause thinking

When we think of assessment we usually think of achievement measures: students write an exam and earn a grade. Good practice involves using multiple forms of assessment.

  • Give feedback. An example of formative assessment, feedback is particularly relevant to interactive learning environments where students communicate and work together collaboratively. It can have a greater impact on achievement than grades alone. Feedback can come from instructors, peers, colleagues and reflective learning activities. We might even think of feedback as conversation or discussion.
  • Seed discussions with great questions. Asking good questions encourages students to think more deeply and keeps them engaged. You can pose hypothetical questions and ask students to provide examples or further evidence to support their arguments; or you can ask questions that invite students to synthesize what has been said. You will find some useful resources about asking good questions in the archived posts of the Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list.
  • Use rubrics (not grades) to enhance online discussions. Many learning management systems provide tools for grading online discussions but this practice flies in the face of current research. Instead, you can develop rubrics that provide criteria specific to your discipline to enhance the quality of the discussion: with small classes you can involve students in developing the rubric; with large classes, students can use the rubric for self-evaluation as part of a participation grade.

The last word

In comparing classroom learning with computer conferencing, sociologist Roxanne Hiltz said: “I’ve got two pieces of bad news about that experimental English comp course where students used computer conferencing. First, over the course of the semester, the experimental group showed no progress in abilities to compose an essay. The second piece of bad news is that the control group, taught by traditional methods, showed no progress either.”

What we’ve since learned is that we haven’t been asking the right question. It’s not a question of whether students learn better with one technology or another, or whether they learn better in a classroom or online. What matters most are educational strategies for using technology.

Bobbi Kerlin is a learning technology coordinator at Queen’s University.

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