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The digital assignment: 4 tips to make online courses more engaging

July 11, 2012 by Brook Corwin |

academic technology card game“I hate being educated, but I love to learn.” Joichi Ito, Director of MIT’s Media Lab, had plenty of memorable statements from his keynote during last month’s New Media Consortium Summer Conference. But that quote was the one that seemed to resonate the most among conference attendees tweeting and sharing their observations. And why not? It’s a concise encaptulation of the conference’s central tenant — knowledge and learning are great, but the regimated teaching patterns of the education establishment just get in the way.

The game changer? Digital technology.

I’ve already reflected on the overall themes of the conference. But how do you put those big-picture ideas into practice? Some good ideas were shared during the breakout sessions I attended. Here are a few takeaways, mixed in with my own reflections on using digital communications to improve learning in courses at UNCG Online.

1. Give the learner a choice … or several

Gamification is one of those terms now so overused it has lost all meaning. But there are elements of game design that really do have a place in education. Many of the best were covered in a presentation by Brett Bixler, lead instructional designer at Penn State University. You can read them all here, but in summary, they come down to choices. Give students options on the order of tasks, or even which assignments to complete. There are risks and rewards for each. Students are empowered to explore the material the way they would a virtual world. And since digital content can be flexibly created, accessed, and archived, this non-linear approach is feasible.

2. Save the class time for mentoring, not lecturing

If you’re one of the tens of thousands who have relied on for tutorials on the latest software, you understand the value of step-by-step feedback taught at your own pace. So it’s no surprise that the company’s founder, Lynda Weinman, delivered a presentation all about personalized learning. No two people are alike, so why should they be forced to learn the same way? Put your lecture materials online for students to review when and where they want. Then save the face-to-face time for motivating and mentoring students on the parts where they need help. This is a strategy we took to heart at UNCG Online in designing Contemporary Issues in Social Sciences, a multidisciplinary course that gives students access to a wide variety of digital content within a specified time window for each subject. That frees up time for the instructor to offer targeted feedback and interaction on the key themes and writing assignments.

3. Weave stories and discoveries into the class

Another key principle discussed by Bixler, along with several other NMC presenters, is the magic of discovery. But discovery requires uncertainty, which isn’t something baked into the standard course syllabus. Yet it can be done. Using various social media channels, instructor Helen Keegan created Rufi Franzen, a character students followed on a quest to discover his (ultimately fake) identity. Along the way, they consumed a tremendous amount of course content shared by the mysterious person following the class.  We’ve employed this concept at UNCG Online by weaving story and narrative into many of our courses, giving students incentive to unlock new material. In our Conceptual Astronomy course, for instance, students started the course by uncovering a myterious signal tied to a course narrative. As they advanced in the class, they unlocked progressively clearer versions of the signal. The narrative even had two endings, one good and one bad, depending on how students preformed on assignments.

4. When in doubt, create something.

We can only dream of having the resources of the MIT Media Lab, where students apply knowledge to build new gadgets and tools on a weekly basis. But building things digitally is cheap. Students can create websites, videos, social media accounts,  or data visualizations as part of their assignments. Compared to a traditional research paper, these assignments force students to pull information rather than spit back information pushed onto them. The end result is learning how to learn, a vital skill in a world where innovation and change is the norm. Ito talked about this extensively in his keynote, and several presenters took it a step further by discussing how these hands-on projects can link to the local community and provide a service of spreading information online to residents. What better way to empower students on the impact of knowledge.

As an educator, or a digital communicator, what innovative ways have you found to unlock a love of learning that goes beyond the traditional structure of a face-to-face class? How has technology made it easier to get students engaged?

(Note: this article originally posted on Brook Corwin's Digital Content blog)

Photo caption: The CU Online Card Game, created by the University of Colorado Academic Technology and Extended Learning department, was showcased and distributed at the NMC conference as a way to think creatively about using digital programs to improve education. (photo by Brook Corwin)

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