George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

Teaching Strategies of Award-Winning Online Instructors

A recent study gleaned five insights on virtual instruction by examining the techniques shared in common by top-rated online instructors.

April 17, 2020
An illustration of a student in a sea of digital learning possibilities
Daniel Hertzberg / theiSpot

The spring of 2020 has brought a sudden shift for many classrooms into an online setting. Teachers are trying to adjust their instruction rapidly, and many are doing remote teaching for the first time. Experience matters, and it can be frustrating trying to help our students in this new way with everything else happening right now.

Fortunately, a recent study by Swapna Kumar, Florence Martin, Albert Ritzhaupt, and Kiran Budhrani in the open-access journal Online Learning shares the stories of a group of eight award-winning online instructors with a combined 109 years of experience teaching online courses. The study authors interviewed university-level instructors about their approaches to online instruction. These approaches apply to K–12 students as well, because the instructors emphasize things like relevant course materials, a flexible approach to student work, and the importance of reflection in learning—all things we need in elementary and secondary education, too.

The interviews provided the authors with five insights into how the instructors approached their award-winning class designs.

1. Authentic and Relevant Course Material

There is a wealth of online content to link to and reference, but including authentic primary materials is a great way to anchor learning. Authentic sources, real examples, and cases taken from our history or the natural world provide the rich context and nuance that hypothetical designs or made-up examples often lack.

Asking students to analyze and interpret primary materials and timely content can boost their critical thinking and engagement. The teachers interviewed in the study gave some examples:

  • “Snippets of recordings from a radio show aired weekly that was related to course topics, and which students were required to discuss in an online forum.” A history teacher, for example, could share this list of 10 major historical broadcasts.
  • “Videos from courtrooms and recorded interviews with prosecutors about specific aspects of legal cases.” Students can listen to the live arguments in many U.S. Supreme Court cases, including the Bush v. Gore suit related to the 2000 election, on Oyez.
  • “Recorded podcasts with experts on the course topics to model their thinking and provide authentic material to the students.” A podcast that interviews science experts, like Ologies with Alie Ward, is one option.

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2. A Variety of Multimedia Resources

Speaking of external media, it’s also important to provide material in a variety of formats. Providing video, audio, reading, and interactive content can make a course more engaging. It also improves the accessibility of a course: Students who may struggle with a particular medium—students with a reading barrier such as dyslexia or a video barrier such as hearing or attention problems—are at a major disadvantage if that medium is the only way to engage with material.

Some good examples of mixed-media approaches might be:

  • Provide a radio broadcast, newspaper clips, and an interactive map for students in a history lesson. Students can then identify themes present throughout all the materials.
  • Ask students to write a summary of a theme in a piece of literature based on an excerpt from the book, a TV interview the author gave on the book, and a series of web or print comics that reference the book.

3. Student Creation of Content—Individually and Collaboratively

Students can show their engagement with the rich instructional materials described above by creating similarly rich products. The things students create should include opportunities to work together and to express themselves individually. The instructors in the study describe several examples:

  • “Students created digital stories using technologies such as Photo Story or PowerPoint after choosing a topic of their choice that related to their subject-matter expertise and that connected course content to their lives.”
  • “Students were required to read critical articles or text and create short (2–3 minute) presentations as podcasts.” Here’s information on helping students create a podcast.
  • “Students had an online debate about benefits and drawbacks” of a course topic. Debates can be synchronous (using Zoom or other video conferencing software) or asynchronous (using VoiceThread or even just a discussion board).

4. Student Reflection on Learning

Reflection and metacognition are essential to learning in any setting, and in an online setting teachers must be intentional about helping students reflect. The study authors emphasize that the reflection activities of their teachers went beyond assessing understanding—such activities interwove quizzes, discussion posts, podcasts, and papers with prompts to help students reflect on their learning.

5. Explanation of Purpose

Students should also look forward in order to understand how their coming work will build upon what they’ve already done. Teachers may not want to share all the details of their lesson plans, but every student should have a sense of how they are trying to grow. The interlinking of our course material can be lost in the online format, so the connections between activities should be stated (and restated) so students can see how they all fit together.

The Takeaway

“You can’t just take your material you’ve provided in class and put it online,” as one teacher in the study said. We must adapt our instruction for the online format, choosing our content carefully and then building rich activities that keep students engaged while they’re working on their own.

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  • Online Learning
  • Teaching Strategies