8 Ideas Designed to Engage Students In Active Learning Online

I’ve spent the last four months working with teachers all over the country (virtually, of course) as they navigate the uncharted waters of online and blended learning. The majority of teachers I have spoken with did not enjoy their initial experiences with distance learning. A big issue for many teachers was a general lack of student engagement online. I cannot say I am surprised given the lack of clarity about expectations for participation online, the “no harm” grading policies adopted by many districts during school closures, and issues around equity and access.

This fall, students will likely be learning, at least in part, online. Given that reality, I wanted to share a collection of strategies designed to engage students in active learning online.

1. Sort It Out

This is a digital spin on a traditional concept mapping exercise. Sort it Out challenges students to think about how key concepts in a unit, lesson, or chapter relate to one another. Students can work independently or in pairs on a Google Drawing to complete this digital concept mapping activity. The directions ask that they combine text and visual media to show the relationship between concepts.

Teachers can ask students to complete these online asynchronously then share them during face-to-face sessions (blended) or in video conferencing sessions (online).

2. Online Fishbowl

The classic fishbowl activity splits the class into two groups. While one group engages in a discussion or attempts to solve a problem, the second group observes and captures their observations, questions, and comments. If teachers are hosting small group virtual sessions, this strategy can be adapted for a virtual conferencing session. Prior to the video conference, the teacher will split the students into two groups–group A and group B. I’d suggest sharing your screen and having the students’ names clearly listed in a two-column chart.

Once students know what group they are in, the teacher presents group A with a discussion question or a problem to solve and sets the timer (e.g., 5 minutes). The students in group A will unmute and engage in a discussion or talk through the problem. While they engage with one another, group B will watch and observe. Their job will be to post their observations in the chat window or on a shared Google Document.

When the timer goes off, the teacher can invite members of group B to unmute and share their thoughts. What did they notice as they observed their peers? What questions do they have? What suggestions would they make? After group B has had the opportunity to comment, the groups switch roles and group B engages in a discussion or problem solving task while group A observes.

3. Expert Group Investigations

Teachers are going to have less time for direct instruction if they are working with students on a hybrid schedule or if they are entirely online. This is an opportunity to have students become the experts responsible for conducting research and curating online sources. Instead of using precious class time to tell kids everything we know about a topic, why not put them into expert groups and let them lead the learning?

Teachers can group 4-5 students on a shared Google Slide presentation and ask them to spend some of their online learning time investigating a specific topic or concept with the goal of becoming the experts on that topic or concept. They will need to work collaboratively to pull their information together in a cogent and visually compelling presentation that mixes text and visual media.

Teachers can ask students to present during their face-to-face time (blended) or during a video conferencing session (online).

4. Collaborative Annotations

Teachers can make annotating a piece of reading, which is typically an individual endeavor, and make it more engaging by simply grouping students on a shared document to annotate collaboratively. Teachers can insert a two-column chart into a Google Document then copy and paste text in the left-hand column. Students can highlight keywords and phrases in the text and capture their annotations in the right-hand column.

As they work they can use the chat feature inside of the document to discuss the reading if they are working synchronously or insert comments with questions for the other members of the group to answer asynchronously. This adds a social component to the learning task, which can help students who are working on the assignment at home feel connected to their peers.

5. Google Map Adventures

Finding fun ways for students to surface their learning is critical for increasing engagement online. The more creative the assignments, the more likely students are to lean into the learning. Google Maps is a versatile tool that can be leveraged for learning in all subject areas. Students can chart the path of a story on a map, they can connect the historical information they are learning to the geographic location where events took place, and students can use maps to design creative mathematical challenges. The possibilities are limitless!

Students can create their own maps or collaborate on shared maps, drop pins with text and media in specific locations, and share their maps as evidence of their learning. Click here to learn more about My Maps.

6. Spotify Playlist

Encourage your students to get creative with their review. At the end of a chapter or unit, challenge pairs of students to work collaboratively on a shared Google Document to identify the main ideas, concepts, and/or themes from the chapter or unit. Then ask them to create a Spotify playlist. The goal is to use music, something most kids enjoy, to inspire them to think more deeply about the ideas, concepts, or themes covered in a text or unit.

7. Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts are a fun way to encourage students to research and explore. If teachers are struggling to “get through” content given limited face-to-face time, they can create an online or offline scavenger hunt.

Scavenger hunts can encourage students to do a close read of a text or conduct informal research to answer questions when they are learning remotely. This strategy makes it possible for teachers to identify relevant information that students will need to know while making the experience of finding that information engaging and fun. Teachers can use Google Documents or Google Slides to create their scavenger hunt activities, making the tasks individual or collaborative.

8. Online Discussions

Online discussions are a staple of any online course. They create a space for students to connect online, explore issues related to the course, ask questions, and make meaning in collaboration with their peers. Teachers looking for strategies designed to engage students and drive higher-order thinking should make online discussions a regular part of their classes.

If teachers are working with young students who do not have strong keyboarding skills, they can use FlipGrid videos to engage students in video-based discussions. Padlet is another option that allows students to post their ideas on a virtual wall and comment on each other’s posts. For teachers working with older students, the Google Classroom question feature or the discussion functionality in a learning management system will work well to engage students in text-based asynchronous discussions.

If teachers give students time to think about a question, craft a response, read the responses posted by their peers, and reply to their classmates, in-class conversations are more likely to be substantive and start at a much deeper level.

This summer is the perfect time to explore and plan. I hope these strategies will inspire teachers to think creatively about how they can engage students in meaningful learning activities online. If you have an activity that you have used to engage students online, please take a moment to post a comment and share it!

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Blending Online and Offline Learning: Exploring Hybrid Schedules

School districts are grappling with how to resume school safely in the fall. I’ve followed international news about how schools in Europe and Aisa are reopening slowly. Schools are implementing a range of hybrid schedules to reduce the number of students in a classroom at one time. Schools are experimenting with a variety of alternative schedules.

I am concerned about the number of schools in the United States that have not articulated a clear plan for reopening. I realize schools are facing immense pressure from all sides. I do not envy school leadership and the tough decisions they have to make. That said, whatever shape the school schedule takes teachers will be expected to “make it work.” Without a clear picture of what fall will look like, many teachers are feeling anxious, scared, and paralyzed. If they are going to use the summer to plan and prepare for fall, they need a clear picture of what to expect.

What I want to avoid is a situation where teachers are presented with an alternative schedule in August and given a handful of professional development days to figure out how to adjust a semester’s worth of curriculum for a hybrid schedule. Teachers will likely be expected to engage students at least part time online, which may also require that teachers spend time this summer engaged in professional learning focused on online pedagogy and technology training.

The two schedules below may hold promise for schools looking to welcome students back in the fall while prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff. I realize that every alternative schedule has drawbacks and will not please everyone, but schools need to decide on a strategy and move forward.

Schedule 1 has the student population divided into two groups: Group A and Group B. This way, 50% of the total student population is on campus at any one time allowing for social distancing. Group A and Group B would spend half of their day on campus attending the face-to-face portion of their classes. One group would begin the day at school attending classes from 8-11 AM, and the second group would participate in face-to-face classes from 12-3 PM. When students are not physically on campus attending class, they would be engaged in self-paced online learning either from home or in a supervised location away from home. This schedule reserves Wednesdays for teacher preparation and deep cleaning.

Even though this schedule has students on campus attending class four of five days each week, it is unlikely that secondary students could take the same number of courses on this schedule. Schools may need to get creative when it comes to their course catalog. Some schools are extending the length of classes on this modified schedule to limit student movement and condense a year’s worth of curriculum into a semester.

Another option is to supplement the blended learning courses that combine face-to-face and online learning with entirely online courses. In the past, schools have offered online courses to help students pursue credit recovery or take advanced coursework not available on campus. For example, my daughter is enrolled in one online advanced math course next year because there are not enough students at the school in need of this course to offer it in a traditional format. Schools could provide students with the option to supplement their face-to-face learning with an online course (or courses) that they could work on during the Wednesday “non-student” day. Schools could partner with an online institution to offer these supplementary courses or train teachers who are immune-compromised to teach these courses from home.

Schedule 2 also divides the school population into two groups: Group A and Group B. Group A attends face-to-face classes from 8-3 PM on Monday and Tuesday and learns online Wednesday-Friday. Group B engages in online learning Monday-Wednesday and attends face-to-face classes on Thursday and Friday. This schedule would limit the total number of people on campus on a given day, but it would be more challenging for families in terms of childcare because students are attending school two days and learning online for three days each week.

The aspect of both of these schedules that I appreciate from an educator’s perspective is the non-student Wednesday. This day provides teachers with time to design the online learning portions of their classes and offer virtual office hours for students who need additional support. Regardless of the hybrid schedule that a school selects, teachers will likely need to invest significant time reimagining their courses. Leadership must build this time into the teachers’ workday. Teachers will also benefit from continued opportunities to collaborate and learn to improve their blended learning courses.

If your school has adopted a hybrid schedule they plan to pilot in the fall, please take a moment to share the plan here so we can crowdsource a collection of alternative schedules.

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The Balance with Catlin Tucker: Featuring Dr. Maria Hersey

Dr. Maria Hersey is a global educator with extensive experience in educational leadership, international education, social-emotional learning (SEL), curriculum design, and global- mindedness. Currently, Dr. Hersey is the Principal Advisor for Global Education Advisors. Her previous experience includes serving as the Director of Education and Training for The Hawn Foundation where she managed the evidence-based, social-emotional learning program, MindUP™.

In this episode, Dr. Hersey and I talk about the importance of self-care for both teachers and students. Dr. Hersey shares her experience working with teachers and students on the topic of social and emotional learning. She makes the point that teachers need to take care of themselves if they are going to have the energy to show up emotionally and mentally for students.

After the events of this spring, teachers need to spend time this summer resting, relaxing, and replenishing. It can be challenging to carve out time for self-care, and some teachers may not be sure where to begin. Dr. Hersey and I collaborated on a set of health and wellness boards for parents/elementary students, teenagers, and teachers that we hope will help.

At the end of the podcast, we encourage teachers to dedicate time each day for one week to engage in a mindful activity. The goal is to create some time for yourself and observe the impact that it has on your mental and emotional state. Below is the well-being board we designed for teachers.

If you have a favorite self-care routine that you would recommend, please take a moment to post a comment and share it!

You can connect with Dr. Hersey on Twitter or check out her work on the Global Education Advisors website.

Thank you to StudySync for producing and sponsoring this podcast! StudySync is committed to helping teachers find balance in their lives by providing them with a robust multimedia ELA platform that simplifies lesson planning, automatically differentiates tasks for learners at different skill levels and language proficiencies, and blends online and offline engagement to help students develop as thinkers, readers, writers, and speakers.

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