Creating a Rich Online Learning Experience

A millennial who has transitioned from practitioner to academic outlines seven specific approaches to making online learning richer for both students and teachers.

Creating a Rich Online Learning Experience

As a millennial who has made the transition from the corporate sector to academia, I have seen firsthand how important a role technology plays in business and business education today. Not only have I taken online courses, I also have developed them, so I have a broad perspective on what works in the digital classroom. When other educators ask me how to make the online experience richer for both students and teachers, I suggest these seven approaches:

1. Adapt in-person strategies to online courses.

Some of the most useful traditional teaching tools are case studies and team projects, which help students develop their ability to think clearly and approach a problem from an objective perspective. Another traditional tool, the PowerPoint presentation, helps students learn to communicate ideas effectively, speak in public confidently, and present information coherently. It’s challenging but not impossible to replicate these online.

One of the best ways to bring traditional classroom methods into online courses is to embed third-party platforms into the learning management systems (LMS) platforms, such as Blackboard and Moodle, that the institution already uses. I have found two platforms in particular that are robust, allow for expanded learning opportunities, and are intuitive to use and integrate into classroom environments. One is Connect, an online platform provided by McGraw-Hill; and the other is myBusinessCourse, which is supported by Cambridge Business Publishers. What I look for are tools and features—including pre-recorded lectures, extra homework and study opportunities, and links to additional resources—that can complement what I am providing myself.

In the past, I found it somewhat difficult to conduct group projects online, but technology has also made this traditional teaching tool available to online students. I can use everything from students’ school emails to real-world technology like Skype and Adobe Connect to create student groups and enable communication between remote learners. Online group projects allow students not only to interact with their classmates but also to gain familiarity with the way technology is used in the workplace. I also create online weekly discussion forums where students are graded on the length of their posts and by how much they engage with other students.

2. Link technology in the classroom to technology students are using now—and will use in the future.

Faculty will find that students are more engaged with classroom technology when they use platforms that are practical, applicable, and familiar. For instance, students are already sharing information through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, so why not leverage them for education? Use these platforms to set up student groups, carry on discussions, and disseminate information about assignments.

Once students are out in the professional world, they will use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to communicate with colleagues, professional contacts, and potential employers. They also will find that an ability to use technology to create content and products will be increasingly in demand in the workplace. Companies such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon are dominating markets by creating and distributing content—and the same principles apply to professionals.

A simple and fun way to integrate technology is to use it to help explain complex topics. One way I have done this, both in in-person and online classes, is by using YouTube videos to demonstrate Excel functionality and/or explain economic topics. Once they start looking, faculty will be amazed by the amount of high-quality content that’s available.

3. Experiment with new teaching methods.

What can really set faculty apart in any teaching environment is trying new things, and online tools offer a rich array of options. One technique I am beginning to use more often is to create written outlines of chapter content, then doing recordings that review these outlines. I make voice-only recordings with a service called Kaltura, or video recordings with Jing. The best part about these tools is that faculty only need a computer with a microphone or a headset—no special skills are required!

While it seems like a simple step, an audio component can make the learning process much richer for students, especially in online courses. Students learn differently, and that does not change when the instruction moves from an in-person to an online environment. Text, video, and audio all provide opportunities for engagement and a better overall learning experience for the students.

4. But don’t get carried away.

It can be tempting, and it is not unusual, for instructors to generate reams of additional online content to supplement the basic building blocks of the course. While it might seem impossible for a teacher to provide too much information to students, the risk is overload. Think of the people who post too many pictures on Facebook, send too many images on Snapchat, or tweet too often on Twitter; their messages get lost in the overuse of the medium. It’s important for faculty to strike the right balance when they’re running discussion posts, providing external links to articles and videos, and creating original content.

5. Work for continuous improvement.

I always strive to improve my course content and delivery. Whenever I adopt new technology, I first beta test it with small groups as I look for tools and platforms that are user-friendly and intuitive in nature. I also review my technology every few semesters to make sure it is still the best option.

In addition, I build in ways for students to deliver constructive feedback to me, which I feel is an essential element of any well-thought-out course design. For example, and this is a relatively basic example of integrating feedback into classroom leaning, I either include questions requesting feedback on exams or I open online discussion forums requesting feedback.

One change I made as a result of receiving feedback was to always include a real-world example or demonstration of the content I am covering into the lecture. This helps make it more relevant for the students and shows that what they are learning has real-world implications.

6. Don’t forget to use technology to enrich scholarly activity.

While most of the conversation regarding online education rightly focuses on the way it helps students, faculty also have benefited from the interaction of technology and education, which has allowed them to develop their presence on social media and disseminate their ideas through online venues. For instance, faculty who want to participate in discussions on emerging issues can join conversations on Facebook or Twitter or professional blogs. They can position themselves as subject-matter experts by hosting YouTube channels, posting professionally edited video interviews, and writing articles that are published in online outlets. Who knows when their next video or blog post might even go viral?

7. Just get started.

For faculty who are nervous about taking the first step, I would suggest first embedding a small bit of external content into their LMS or making a simple voice or video recording of one crucial text. In my experience, the more effort and creativity I put into developing content and information that is hands-on and linked to real-world events, the more engaged my students are and the better the feedback I get from them.

The most important message I would impart to faculty is to not lose sight of the primary goal of education: to equip young adults with the knowledge and competencies that will allow them to succeed in life and in the workplace. That’s true whether their classroom is in a building or online.

As far as I’m concerned, the best part about using digital technology in the classroom is that we are really just getting started—who knows what the possibilities will be going forward?

Sean Stein Smith is an assistant professor of professional practice at Rutgers School of Business in Camden, New Jersey.