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Design an engaging virtual learning experience in 5 steps

By Aracelis Janelle Scharon
July 21, 2014
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What does an engaging learning experience look like? You probably know it when you see it. Most likely, you'll find teachers, students and sometimes coaches interacting, sharing a-ha moments, and taking away useful information and ideas. This is not easy to achieve in a face-to-face environment, and it's often even more challenging when you take it online. The good news is, there are some basic pedagogical and design concepts you can use to immediately increase the engagement factor of your online learning experiences.

Don't start with the technology

Technology is, of course, critical to any virtual learning experience. But when you make it the starting point, instead of using it as a tool to achieve your learning objectives, it often misses the mark. For instance, many online learning facilitators add features like chat and annotation with the intention of deepening class discussions only to end up forcing student participation. Or you might build a community discussion forum into your course in hopes that meaningful conversations will blossom over time. When they don't, you are at a loss. How else can you get teachers and students engaging and interacting?

The truth is, it's easy to slip into a virtual experience dominated by the facilitator or instructor, and it's common for planned activities to become short lived and uninspired. If you want to avoid these pitfalls and create a virtual experience that gets students active and involved, you must ground your lesson planning in a strong design that balances engagement, learning, facilitation and the ISTE Standards.

The virtual learning experience design cycle

I developed a step-by-step design cycle that I have used to create effective and engaging virtual learning experiences over the past four years. The key to its success? Instead of focusing on the technology, this cycle's starting point is the pedagogy, using the ISTE Standards as a guide.

It draws from these ISTE Standards for Teachers and Coaches:

ISTE Standards for Teachers 1d: Model collaborative knowledge construction by engaging in learning with students, colleagues and others in face-to-face and virtual environments.

ISTE Standards for Teachers 5b: Exhibit leadership by demonstrating a vision of technology infusion, participating in shared decision making and community building, and developing the leadership and technology skills of others.

ISTE Standards for Coaches 3c: Coach teachers in, and model use of, online and blended learning, digital content, and collaborative learning networks to support and extend student learning as well as expand opportunities and choices for online professional development for teachers and administrators.

ISTE Standards for Coaches 4d: Coach teachers in and model design and implementation of technology-enhanced learning experiences emphasizing creativity, higher-order thinking skills and processes, and mental habits of mind (e.g., critical thinking, metacognition and self-regulation).

With these ideals in mind, you can take the following five steps to create an effective and engaging virtual learning experience for any subject:

1. Explore the problem.

Begin with the problem you want the learning experience to solve. In other words, what is your objective?

For example, if you are an ed tech coach, you might want to offer science teachers a professional development experience where they can learn, collaborate and apply new skills. Your vision for achieving this could involve offering teachers a professional learning community where they can gather each month, watch videos and collaborate with other teachers on their lesson plans.

If you are a science teacher who wants to help your students learn how to analyze research data, you might decide that a shared online space will give your students a chance to engage in multiple ways, including presentation and discourse, with research data.

Next, brainstorm ways you could solve your problem and achieve your vision, over both the short and long term, using the tools available in an e-learning experience.

For the coach's professional learning course, one idea would be to ask participants to watch video of themselves and other educators teaching, then discuss ways they might improve, based on the skills they have learned in the course.

The science teacher could give her students practice collaborating by asking them to solve a real-world problem, such as finding ways to repurpose an abandoned city field near their school, then ask them to collaboratively research, analyze their data, and present their findings and solutions to their peers.

2. Set concrete goals.

After you have established your objective and vision for your virtual learning experience, it's time to set some SMART goals that will help you achieve it.

Think about how you will measure the success of your virtual learning experience. For example, as a coach, you should decide how you will know if your participants are developing skills and collaborating during their monthly video collaborative sessions. You could set a specific goal for the number of video lessons shared during a set time period as well as the number of feedback comments received.    

3. Develop an overarching plan.

Once you have a vision and a few quantifiable goals, you can start drafting your grand plan. First, envision the learning arc for the participants. Will the learning experience be defined by one virtual event, or will it build over time through a combination of learning experiences?

Then you can define the role of the coach, teacher and student and drill down into how the participants will engage during each activity as well as which tools they will use.

In the coaching example, you might decide to give teachers enrolled in your professional learning experience a regular asynchronous collaborative space, such as a Google group, as well as virtual options for connecting in real time, such as Skype or Google Hangout, so they can continue to develop their relationships and collaborative learning over time.

In the teaching example, you might decide to give your students access to a secure collaborative space like Edmodo to post and comment on assignments and projects. The students can use the space to continue to build on discussions, arguments and analysis as they design and evaluate their solutions to the real-world problem.

4. Plan activities using a learner-centered approach.

At this point in the design cycle, you have an opportunity to stop and think about what is really going to be meaningful for your participants. What activities will provide challenge, relevance and interest?

Establish a structure and routines that will make sense to your participants. Decide how you and your participants will interact, and anticipate problems that might arise.

Next, choose content that is aligned with your vision and that will drive learning. Make sure that your materials and resources are both relevant to your topic and useful to your audience. For example, if you want students to engage in discussion, choose content they will find interesting as well as challenging.

Begin thinking about which technology options are available and best suited to help you achieve your vision and goals. If you want to engage participants in discussion, are you limited to a text-based discussion forum, or will your topic lend itself better to a tool with a visual element, such as a virtual whiteboard?

Finally, plan each virtual activity using the structure, content and tools you have chosen.

5. Revisit, evaluate and revise.

In the final step of the virtual design process, take the time to evaluate your virtual learning experience design. Put it to the pressure test by asking three questions:

 How does the virtual learning experience help your learners solve the problem you stated in the first step, and how does it help them achieve your vision and goals?
 In what ways are the virtual learning and coaching experiences meaningful to the teacher or students?
 How are teachers or students using the virtual experience to share, apply and deepen their knowledge?

Your answers to these questions will help keep your online learning experience relevant and meaningful. For example, you might find that the set of science resources you were planning to share with teachers does not align with your vision for how they can deepen their knowledge. Or you may discover that the activities you wanted to set up for your students lack challenge and context when presented in an online environment. This is your chance to go back to the drawing board to refine each element of your virtual learning experience to achieve your vision.

When you have a robust virtual design, you give your learners the chance to have a meaningful learning experience that models and enables effective collaboration, knowledge sharing and construction, and critical thinking. Get them engaged, and the learning will follow.

Janelle ScharonA. Janelle Scharon is a designer and developer of virtual learning and coaching for new teachers and support staff at a nonprofit education organization. She currently oversees design and research of online teaching communities to create digital experiences for teachers who are working to improve education equity.