March 18, 2006

Strategies for Enhancing Student Interactivity in an Online Environment

By Durrington, Vance A; Berryhill, Amy; Swafford, Jeanne

Abstract.

The number of online courses being offered by postsecondary institutions has increased dramatically and consequently an increasing number of faculty are faced with teaching online courses. Students demonstrate more positive attitudes and higher levels of performance when online classes are highly interactive, but many faculty about to embark in online teaching are not aware of the techniques available to increase the level of interactivity in online courses. This article describes how to establish an interactive online learning environment and provides strategies for increasing student interactivity.

Key words: distance education, student interactivity, online courses

During the past decade, distance education has grown from a phenomenon offered by a few institutions to an almost universal option that students expect. Even in the few years since the turn of the century, the availability of distance education opportunities has burgeoned. In 2000-01, the National Center for Educational Statistics (2003) reported that 89-90 percent percent of public twoyear and four-year degree-granting institutions offered distance education courses. Almost half-48 percent-of public fouryear institutions reported they offer degree programs delivered exclusively through distance education. The growth in courses offered using asynchronous Internet-based courses is especially amazing; 88 percent of institutions reported plans to begin offering or increase the number of such courses over the next three years (NCES 2003).

The change in delivery system from traditional face-to-face instruction to an online mode presents challenges to distance education administrators, students, and faculty. Distance education administrators are necessarily concerned about providing sufficient numbers of online courses to meet increasing student demands. Furthermore, research by Durrington and Yu (2003) suggests that administrators are also concerned with the quality of online courses and students' learning experiences. Students are in a quandary because they prefer traditional face-to-face courses with which they are most familiar, yet their life situations make it necessary for them to take online courses (Simonson et al. 2003). Instructors are faced with the task of developing effective instruction in a context with which they are unfamiliar and teaching in a context that students request but do not prefer (Palloff and Pratt 2001).

At first glance, it appears that learning and teaching in traditional and online learning environments have little in common. Research demonstrates, however, that distance learning can be as effective as traditional instruction when the technologies are appropriate for the instructional tasks, instructors provide timely feedback to students, and levels of student interactivity are high (Moore and Thompson 1990; Verduin and Clark 1991). In fact, students demonstrate more positive attitudes and higher levels of performance in online classes when they experience high levels of interaction (McCroskey and Anderson 1976; Ritchie and Newby 1989). Online instruction that provides opportunities in which students build interactive relationships among themselves and with the instructor also helps bridge the physical and psychological gap that occurs in online courses (Chute, Thompson, and Hancock 1999). The research in both traditional and online contexts suggests that student interactivity contributes to positive student learning experiences and is a key to effective instruction. The purpose of this article is to describe how to establish an interactive online learning environment and provide strategies for increasing student interactivity.

Learning Environment

To encourage high student interactivity in an online setting, the learning environment must be supportive, open, and respectful. One of the first things an instructor can do to help create such an environment is to provide a detailed syllabus that clearly defines expectations for the course in general and specific guidelines for each assignment. Although this is critical in any setting, it is especially important for online courses because it provides students with clear instructions, deadlines, and so forth. Such information may help students better manage their time and integrate school responsibilities into their busy lives (Muirhead 2001).

To promote an open, supportive, and respectful online environment, an instructor can create a discussion area where students post their questions and the instructor posts answers-a frequently asked questions (FAQ) area. This area provides a context similar to the question/answer sessions that occur naturally in a face-toface setting.

Timeliness in responding to students' questions will contribute to a learning environment that is supportive and encourages interactivity. At the beginning of a course, it is beneficial to inform students of an average response time (such as 48 hours) to their questions. Even if an instructor is unable to answer students' questions within the specified time, it is a good idea to let them know that their emails have been received and a complete response is forthcoming.

The way the instructor addresses students and the tone of responses also influences the atmosphere of an online learning environment. When responding to queries, something as simple as using students' names helps personalize communication and contributes to a positive learning environment. Explicitly communicating one's tone of voice is also critical. Although students cannot hear the intonation of an instructor's voice or benefit from body language, emoticons or abbreviations can be used to provide similar clues and prevent misunderstandings. For example, to communicate humor, an instructor can use explicit clues such as J, ;-) , just kidding, winking, LOL (laugh out loud), and "This is a joke."

Asynchronous, Instructor-mediated Discussion Strategies

Asynchronous, instructor-mediated discussions support student interactivity and enhance individual performance and satisfaction (Everhart 2000; Hiltz and Wellman 1997). To promote participation, guidelines for minimum contributions should be established. For example, delineate the number of periodic postings that are expected (such as two posts per week) and explain the criteria for quality postings. Providing examples of superficial and substantive responses is also useful. Some students may need more specific instruction to improve their postings. In these cases, email students privately and explain how particular postings can be improved. For example, encourage students to elaborate on postings to make them clearer. Knowles (2003) provides specific guidelines for developing evaluation criteria for asynchronous discussions.

A strategy that encourages more indepth participation is to ask students questions directly related to their postings. Instructors can phrase questions in such a way that all students are encouraged to respond, not just the student who posted the original comment. For example, focus on one point that a student makes and build on it, or offer a contrasting viewpoint. Then challenge students to do further research and share what they find. When instructors respond to students' postings in these ways, it demonstrates that student comments are valued and encourages them to participate. Even a private e-mail that says a posting is appreciated because it demonstrates in-depth thinking or a substantive point, for example, builds a nurturing environment that encourages future participation and enhances the quality and depth of overall discussion.

The choice of discussion topic affects the quality and diversity of response. Strategically choosing a topic that can be discussed from varied perspectives helps generate higher student interactivity. To scaffold these exchanges, the instructor can post articles (or citations for online articles) that represent different viewpoints. This kind of support provides the opportunity for students to link the content of articles to their personal situations, enhance their ability to apply course content to practice, and then to incorporate ideas into a discussion.

Student-moderated Discussion Strategies

Research indicates that exchanges between students are as important, if not more important, to online learning environments as learner-instructor exchanges (Ritchie and Newby 1989; Wegegrif 1998). Another strategy for encouraging learner-to-learner interactions is the use of student-moderated discussions. The instructor may provide the topics for the discussions or students may develop their own course-related topics.

To effectively moderate an online discussion, the student- moderator must define what she or he expects of participants. We require that moderators develop a rubric, an assessment tool that "lists criteria and levels of quality" (Andrade 2005, 27), and post it at the beginning of a discussion. A rubric can serve several purposes. First, it communicates to peers what is required of them in terms of participation. For example, a moderator may expect discussants to make comments about both sides of an issue, refer to a reference or Web resource, and respond to at least two moderator posting\s. second, the moderator can use the rubric to better mediate a discussion's progress. For example, when peers are not participating at the expected level, the moderator can contact them privately and encourage them to add their views, questions, or resources to the discussion, as specified in the expectations. Third, because we want students to understand the moderation process from the beginning (determining the topic of discussion) to the end (self and peer evaluation), we also expect moderators to use the rubric after the discussion to reflect on their moderation skills and student participation. Fourth, moderators evaluate the rubric in terms of how well it worked to promote discussion and reflect on changes they would make for future discussions. Fifth, a rubric informs the instructor what a moderator considers to be important. To support the moderator, the instructor uses the rubric to provide feedback privately, using the student's own standards as a guide. For example, if a moderator expects students to provide a resource to support a point but does not specify that in the discussion prompt, the instructor may e-mail a suggestion to help the moderator accomplish what he or she expected. Conversely, if a moderator skillfully builds on a comment and the discussion is extended as a result, the instructor may congratulate him or her on a job well done. Finally, the rubric helps the instructor evaluate the moderator's effectiveness and determine if the moderator's peer evaluations are consistent with the rubric. An example of a rubric follows.

Although peer interactivity is the goal of student-moderated discussions, sometimes the sheer number of postings can become overwhelming. One way to solve this problem is to divide the class into small discussion groups (such as three to six groups, depending on class size). Rather than moderating a wholeclass discussion, the student becomes the moderator for each small group discussion. Although this strategy does not lighten the load for the moderator, it does make keeping track of the discussions more manageable. In addition, students are more inclined to participate in small group discussions because they are not overwhelmed by the sheer number of postings.

TABLE 1. Rubric for Evaluating Discussant Participation

Problem-based Learning

Another strategy for fostering student interactivity is problem- based learning (PBL). PBL is a learner-centered approach in which small groups are presented with a scenario based on real world problems, and each group develops informed solutions to the problem (Dabbagh and Bannan-Ritland 2005). To acquaint students with PBL, it is important to familiarize them with materials introducing the PBL process. It is also important to give group members a chance to interact, get to know one another, and develop rapport. Finally, providing students with the opportunity to take part in a simple PBL scenario helps them develop strategies for supporting one another and sharing responsibilities for solving problems in future PBL scenarios.

The implementation of PBL in an online environment is challenging for both students and the instructor. The first challenge students encounter is that they cannot meet face-to-face to discuss their scenario. To remedy this, the instructor can provide each small group with its own asynchronous discussion area and synchronous chat room. These spaces provide a place where students can post ideas to discuss later and a place to hold a conversation. Students also often choose to communicate by e-mail and phone when solving PBL scenarios.

Instructors are faced with the challenge of allowing the learning process to develop, without intervening too quickly. In online environments, group solutions tend to take longer than in face-to- face classrooms. When a student brings up a point that might lead the group in the wrong direction, the instructor needs to show restraint, wait, and watch interactions develop. Our experience is that students will monitor and redirect themselves, typically without instructor intervention. Due to the asynchronous nature of many of the discussions, however, self-correction does not happen as quickly as in a face-to-face environment. Although PBL scenarios may be challenging in an online environment, they can be an effective strategy for promoting student interactivity, enhancing students' problem-solving skills, and providing students with a meaningful learning experience.

Conclusion

In this article we have focused on strategies for increasing student interactivity and enhancing learning experiences in an online environment. We discussed the importance of providing a learning environment that is supportive, open, and respectful through the use of a clear and detailed syllabus, creating a FAQ area, responding to student inquiries in a timely manner, and communicating explicitly the tone of responses. Next, we described strategies for enhancing student interactivity through asynchronous, instructor-mediated discussions. Then we described how student- moderated discussions provide students with the opportunity to learn the process of moderating an effective online discussion, lead a discussion, and create an environment in which the exchange of information is encouraged. Finally, we introduced problem-based learning as a strategy for encouraging small group interactivity and problem solving.

In conclusion, teaching in an online environment can be challenging and at times may seem overwhelming. The important thing for instructors to remember is that although an online environment is different from face-to-face instruction, the goal of creating a stimulating, interactive learning environment for students is the same, regardless of the context.

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Vance A. Durrington is an assistant professor, Amy Berryhill is a senior computing consultant, and Jeanne Swafford is an associate professor, all at Mississippi State University.

Copyright 2006 Heldref Publications

Copyright Heldref Publications Winter 2006