In the past, my work as an instructional designer has been split approximately 50-50 between designing and developing educational technology projects and products and supporting teaching and learning scenarios for adult learners in continuing education, mostly in-person. This has dramatically changed as remote is becoming routine for both instructors and participants. A question I frequently hear from faculty is ‘I taught this one-day course in person, and it was highly interactive. Now it’s all in Zoom. How can I make it engaging?’.
Many people who you are used to in-person teaching and learning find it hard to stay focused and follow the communication cues in an online communication setting. The props and prompts that instructors and learners typically orchestrate without effort function a little different online. In a typical class, participants will find their own seat, introduce themselves to each other, move to different parts of the room for group exercises, engage in think-pair-share or table discussions, raise their hand, whisper to their seat neighbor, talk to the instructor during breaks, scribble notes on handouts. The instructor will write the agenda on a flipchart, put down ideas and discussion results on the whiteboard, display slides, pass out hand-outs and worksheets, display a timer, offer clarification to groups and individuals whilst walking around the room, offer post-its and other material for sharing results.
Our goal is to achieve online environments that do not feel ‘less’, leave people energized and create a sense of community.
While we think nothing of it to plan a full-day course for in-person instruction, people typically have reservations of duplicating this format into a 6-8 hours Zoomathon. Instead, instructors naturally gravitate to a flipped classroom format, with pre-recorded videos and a synchronous session. The blend of synchronous and asynchronous components allows participants and instructors to be more engaged during the shorter class time. Projecting into the post-COVID future, this is likely an element that will persist, because if it is done well, it is highly effective.
Giving the participants clearly structured material greatly improves their ability to make sense of the online learning environment, especially when it comes to the pre-recorded parts. We typically aim for breaking up the typical one-hour session into segments of 5 to 15 minutes in length, that are organized into subtopics.
Quiz & Quest
Once the segments are broken up, each one can end with either a quiz, discussion question or an activity. While multiple choice and discussion forums are obvious and popular options, activities can also take participants away from their desk: Write a summary by hand, create a sketchnote, find an example, take a photo, record a statement, design an infographic, complete a self-assessment, tell someone else about the content, interview a colleague, etc.
Purposefully deciding what to teach in the synchronous session and what to pre-record is an important task for the instructor. It should be clear to the participants how the components of the course are connected. An ideal way to do so is by designing activities that serves as a bridge so that the results are used in the synchronous session. Encouraging participants to record and share what they learn, both with digital tools such as flipgrid or padlet and with paper-based note-taking promotes processing the learning material.
Many adult education in-person classes are excellent because of the personality, enthusiasm and energy of the instructor, in addition to their subject expertise and technical knowledge. Likewise, peer-to-peer networking is an important outcome. Giving participants additional time in break out rooms so that they can not only work on task but also get to know each other is a useful mechanism. Being available to the participants between sessions can create opportunities to informally chat with the instructor.