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Keeping an online class interesting and interactive.

INTRODUCTION

Today's technology allows for a vast variety of interactive techniques and content delivery methods to be used in course design and instruction. Whether the courses are in a traditional brick and mortar classroom or delivered via a learning management system in a distance education setting, instructors have more tools and options to interact and keep the class interesting than they used to. For the purpose of this paper, the focus will be on distance education and the technologies used to improve the online experience. Baehr (2012) states, "E-Learners have become multimodal learners, with the ability to adapt to multiple media forms, environment types, and tools. As a result, developing effective online training requires a complex understanding of how technology, media, and users interact" (p. 175). How is this done? With budget restraints, instructor pushback, and the lack of time given for professional development, it can be difficult for instructors to learn how to use modern content delivery options. For faculty wanting to utilize new methods, the time restriction itself can be quite prohibitive. Baehr (2012) points out that "with regard to preparation time for an online course, instructors may spend as much as 20% more time preparing online courses than they do for the same face-to-face class" (p. 182). This does not take into account that the instructor may have to learn how to use any new technology in course development.

With the increasing use of smartphones, tablets, and other hand held devices, it is important to keep pace with the students' preferred method of content delivery. Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek (2012) state, "The key to success in an online classroom is not which technologies are used, but how they are used and what information is communicated using the technologies" (p. 115). Keeping this in mind, the instructor must wisely choose the technologies he or she wants to utilize in the class.

The course content needs to be delivered in an interesting and interactive way for the students for both learning considerations and to establish an interaction between faculty and students. Tunks (2012) states the challenge of "finding ways to demonstrate instructor presence and subsequently establish a classroom community" (p. 1). This interaction should lead to increased class collaboration and an enhanced learning environment. This paper will discuss three challenges that online instructors face when developing an online course and attempting to keep the course interesting and interactive for the student.

THE INSTRUCTOR

Have you ever taken an online course and asked yourself the question "I wonder if my instructor or professor has ever taken an online course" or "I wonder if my instructor or professor has ever had any training to teach an online course"? How well a student likes any class is largely dependent on the instructor for that class. In a traditional classroom it may be easier for an instructor to have interactive course materials and exercises built into the class lecture for collaboration. It is also easier for the instructor to communicate his or her desires to the class personally, in front of everyone, ensuring that they understand what is being said.

In an online class setting, there can be more challenges. Three examples of challenges that online instructors face in the online classroom include, but are not limited to: technology knowledge, course material creation, and class communication/interaction. So how can an instructor solve these issues while improving the course for a student? Is there a way to improve the effectiveness and quality of the online class while keeping the content presentation interesting and interactive? By addressing the three areas listed above, there should be an opportunity for an instructor to provide a quality course with an interactive atmosphere.

CHALLENGE 1: TECHNOLOGY KNOWLEDGE

The first challenge for online instructors is to know how to use different tools to create content--and that there are many tools at instructors' disposal. Some of these tools are free and some have a significant cost. Instructors can easily be overwhelmed with the different options and have a hard time knowing where to start and which tools will be most effective in their class. If your institution instructional designers, they may be able to help with some suggestions or knowledge on which tools would.

Some of these tools are commonly termed or known as Web 2.0 tools or applications. Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell (2012) define Web 2.0 tools as "available online resources that provide students with many types of learning opportunities beyond simple information access" (p. 315). To further explain Web 2.0 applications, Simonson et al. (2012) note that these are "tools that are highly participatory and promote collaboration, networking, and sharing" (p. 129). Some examples of Web 2.0 technologies noted by Simonson et al. (2012) include: blogging, wikis, podcasting, social bookmarking, social networking, and virtual worlds. If instructors are unsure of the Web 2.0 tools at their disposal, they can easily do an Internet search for Web 2.0 tools. They could also contact the institutions IT department to see if they have any resources available. The next step would be learning how to use this technology. Oftentimes there are great videos on YouTube or other locations that can give enough information to get started.

CHALLENGE 2: CONTENT CREATION METHODS

Content creation, in some degree, works in conjunction with technology knowledge. You have to know or learn how to use that specific technology to start creating the lessons using it. Content creation can easily take a large quantity of time to plan, edit, and produce a single concept of a lesson. However, creating fun and exciting delivery methods for the course content will help promote that same excitement in the learning process for the student. Some examples of creative content delivery methods include Power Point presentations with voiceover, Prezi presentations, Adobe Captivate, Adobe Connect, Audio/ Visual productions, Podcasting, and Sermonettes.

Presentation/Slide Show Options

This allows an instructor to give a slide lecture with some voice inflection and meaning. Something similar to a Power Point is a Prezi presentation. It gives more options for navigation. Instead of a slide-by-slide presentation, a Prezi presentation allows the developer to put the "slides" in various positions and places so it appears that you are moving to different areas as you progress through the material. It provides a nice way to "break up" a presentation. Adobe Captivate allows you to import a Power Point and add other components like quizzing within the presentation.

Audio/Visual Options

Another way to get a much more interactive course is to use Adobe Connect. Adobe Connect allows you to have a live lecture with the students logged in to "attend" the lecture. This allows for more interaction if you utilize the live polling options. It also allows for immediate response by the instructor for student questions. These sessions can also be recorded and posted as a link so if any student missed the lecture, he or she could view it later. Adobe Connect does come with a hefty price tag though. Depending on the institution, there may be an alternative product available that can achieve similar results.

Audiovisual production is a very important area in helping a class be more interactive and interesting. Developing good audiovisual material can be very time consuming. Using free programs such as Microsoft Movie Maker, Apple iMovie, Picasa, Audacity, and other programs, you can create and edit audio and video files quickly and pretty easily. Video production does increase the time commitment but also increases the quality of your delivery, if done right. While only a microphone is needed to record the audio, video production requires more of an investment in equipment. A common way to deliver audio/visual productions is via podcasting. Simonson et al. (2012) defines podcasting as "the process of recording and storing audio and/or video content on the Internet for downloading and playback using iPods, MP3 players, computers, and other electronic gear that plays back audio and/ or video files" (p. 130).

Another way to incorporate some audio/visual components is a sermonette. Doug Jones, an instructor at Washburn University for 13 years, creates sermonettes by utilizing the universities audio/visual team. He is able to give a lecture utilizing a green screen while superimposing a sonography case in the background. This enables him to point to and describe what he is looking at thus enabling a student to see both him and what he is teaching. Jones notes, "students really like the sermonettes. They leave multiple positive feedbacks in the student evaluations and the sermonettes tend to lead to great discussions on the discussion board assignments" (D. Jones, personal communication, April 4, 2013).

CHALLENGE 3: CLASS COMMUNICATION/INTERACTION

Great communication is needed in an online course. In a study done by Katherine Hayden (2009) she states:
   In responding to questions about effective
   strategies for online learning, respondents
   emphasized the importance of
   community that is created in online
   courses, with 52% rating community as
   extremely important. They indicated that
   community is effectively built through
   instructor-student relationships as well as
   student-student relationships. (p. 2)


Timely e-mails are nice, but an online class can offer more. Connecting students to students and instructors to students can be done through a variety of ways. Becky Dodge, radiation therapy program director, stated:

Connecting theory with clinical practice also helps in improving student engagement. They are very responsive to discussions that incorporate real-world examples, issues, cases, etc. Students also actively share their own clinical experiences with classmates, which broaden each student's awareness of various treatment techniques and technological advancements. (B. Dodge, personal communication, April 4, 2013)

The following communication methods, if implemented correctly, can help add a personal touch to an online course.

GRADING WITH AUDIO

At a recent iTRAC conference Larry Carver spoke on "Five Easy Pieces that will Make You the Toast of Your Online Class." One suggestion that he made was grading assignments with audio feedback. A lot of instructors will grade using the review function in Microsoft Word. However, Carver has the students submit an Adobe PDF document. Within the Adobe functions is the ability to record and attach an audio clip. This audio allows an instructor to give a "personal" touch to the grading because voice inflection and tone is utilized and it gives the student a sense of connection to his or her instructor rather than some typed words or just a grade with no comment. Carver (2013) said that "his student evaluation scores improved a great deal after he implemented this form of feedback for the students."

DISCUSSION BOARD ASSIGNMENTS

Discussion assignments have an opportunity to be rich and full of great content pulling from the whole classes experience and knowledge base. However, they can also fall into a mundane world of being assigned and graded without much actual interaction from students or the instructor. In a recent presentation, Cathy Heffernan (2013) noted, "One of the most important factors of a good discussion board assignment is to make sure you have a good question." Keeping the question at a level of understanding in regards to the level of education of the student is very important.

One way to spruce up the discussion board is requiring a video or image of what is being discussed. I have found that having students upload an image or short video of pathology that they are studying or have experienced in a clinical setting, has led to increased class participation. The students are more eager to share what they have witnessed in the clinical setting by having a little freedom on what they talk about. Additionally, by not limiting the "topic" to be the same for every student, there is more variety in the student posts thus leading to a great pleasure of grading due to the variety.

Another way to have interactive discussions is to use audio and/or video posts versus typed posts. The learning management system Desire 2 Learn has a video recording option on the discussion boards. Students who are using a device with a webcam or camera can simply answer the discussion board question by recording themselves. This short video allows the class to see their peers, which for an online class, can be a rarity. If a video option is not available, an audio reply or post at least gives another option to complete the assignment in a different way.

WEEKLY E-MAILS WITH AUDIO/VIDEO

Michael Simonson of Nova Southeastern University utilizes a "Monday Morning Memo" process in which an e-mail is sent every Monday reviewing what is to be expected with the upcoming week. Another Nova Southeastern University professor utilized a similar communication method but along with the text, it also included an audio clip. These methods could also be done via a short video. The main point however, remains that it is a consistent method of communication to ensure a component of class interaction between the instructor and the student ensuring the "presence" of the instructor.

INTERACTIVE RESPONSE SYSTEMS

In a traditional program, interactive response systems can be easily utilized since students are present for the class. So how could you use a system such as this in distance education? Turning Technologies is a company that has developed the technology to do so. Their program is called Response Ware and can be used on web-enabled mobile devices. This system can be used solely for distance education or if it is a blended course, it works in conjunction with the Response Card clickers that are utilized in a traditional program.

Zachary Frank primarily uses the Turning Technologies system in his physical therapy assistant classes, which is face to face. However, Frank (2013) stated, "they now have the technology to use this polling technology for distance education." For Frank (2013), the greatest benefit of utilizing this system is:
   It allows for students who are shy or not
   as outgoing to participate in class. Many
   times, a student may know the answer,
   but are intimidated by the thought of
   being wrong. By being able to answer a
   question without the pressure of being
   wrong in front to the class, it enables me
   to determine if everyone in the class
   understands what is being taught or not.


Frank thought that he would use this technology in an online class if it were available.

WIKIS

Wikis are another Web 2.0 tool that can be used for group collaboration. Simonson et al. (2012) define a Wiki as: "an excellent tool for collaborative online writing assignments and group activities compiling information in a single online resource" (p. 129). A wiki can utilize digital materials such as graphics and if any part is accidently erased, it can be reverted back to a prior state. There are many sites where you can start a wiki for free as well.

CONCLUSION

There are many options to keep an online class both interesting and interactive for a student. The three main areas discussed were technology knowledge, content creation methods, and class communication/ interaction. The first two topics mainly deal with the instructor and his or her ability to know what technology is available, how to use that technology, and how to create content using that technology. While the end product can be very exciting, the time required to learn and develop that content may be quite extensive. The third topic of class communication/interaction is a combination of student-to-student and student-to-instructor communication and interaction. This is vital for the "livelihood" of the class. Interaction between all parties allows for a richer learning environment where everyone feels more involved and invested in the class.

There are several methods to get the class involved. Web 2.0 options to help with communication and also with content delivery to help facilitate interaction between students. Some common Web 2.0 tools include wikis, podcasts, and blogging. Other ways to collaborate included using Adobe Connect and interactive response systems. To give a more personalized touch to a class, try grading using some audio attachments, video discussion boards, and sermonette type presentations.

The biggest roadblock to all the discussed material may be the lack of knowledge and time restrictions to develop the necessary components for the classroom. However, with a little work and commitment to improving your online course, many of these tools are easily doable and most likely will improve your distance education class. Remember, keep it interesting and interactive and the students and instructors will both have a more positive experience with a rich and fulfilling class.

REFERENCES

Baehr, C. (2012, June). Incorporating user appropriation, media richness, and collaborative knowledge sharing into blended e learning training tutorial. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 55(2), 175-184.

Carver, L. (2013, March). Five easy pieces that will make you the toast of your online class. iTRAC 2013. Lecture conducted from National Center for Aviation Training, Wichita, KS.

Frank, Z. (2013, March). Using an interactive response system to improve assessment and increase student involvement. School of Applied Studies Spring Proseminar. Lecture conducted from Washburn University Topeka, KS.

Hayden, K. (2009, August). Best of the best in online instruction effective strategies for designing online activities. Paper presented at the 25th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning, Madison, WI.

Heffernan, C. (2013, March). Let's discuss online discussions. iTRAC 2013. Lecture conducted from National Center for Aviation Training, Wichita, KS.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and Learning at a Distance-Foundations of Distance Education (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Smaldino, S. E., Lowther, D. L., & Russell, J. D. (2012). Instructional Technology and Media for Learning (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson

Tunks, K. W. (2012). An introduction and guide to enhancing online instruction with web 2.0 tools. Journal of Educators Online, 9(2).

Keith Farwell, Washburn University, 1700 SW College Ave., Topeka, KS 66621. Telephone: (785) 670-2293. E-mail: keith.farwell@washburn.edu
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Author:Farwell, Keith
Publication:Distance Learning
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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