A key to creating and maintaining engaging online classes is to structure in “social learning” as often as possible. Set a speaking-listening-interaction task, establish the rules and procedures (such as “Use English only”, “Try to give long turns – 2 or more sentences”, “Fill in the table with key words”), and provide ample time for students to work in break out groups.
Here’s an example from a unit in Contemporary Topics on product design.
One idea of “social learning” is that students have a chance to activate and share their ideas before there is any new input.
Speaking Task 1: Connect to the Topic
10 minutes/breakout group
Activate your Ideas.
Work with a partner. Ask these questions. Write your partners’ answers.
What is one of your favorite products?
How often do you use it?
What do you like about its design? How do you feel when you use it?
What is one product that has a bad design? What don’t you like about the design?
Ask an original question about favorite products or product design: ___________?
Ask clarification questions: What do you mean? / I’m not familiar with that – what is it?
Ask expansion questions: Can you tell me more? / I’d like to know more about that. What else can you tell me?
Questions proceed from personal to abstract. They are phrased to act as prompts for open-ended personal conversation about the unit topic. The last item prompts students to ask their own question.
Interaction Tips remind students to probe each other for more information, not just answer the questions briefly and fill in the table.
Rotate a set of 8-10 core Interaction Tips so that students are reminded of the tips periodically.
Another key idea about “social learning” is we try to gauge students’ interest and curiosity before we start to “test comprehension.” Too often, students’ affective responses (what they find interesting or unusual, what they are confused about) gets overlooked and teachers proceed quickly to analyzing and checking comprehension.
Here’s an example activity from Contemporary Topics, done after students have listened to/watched the lecture the first time – and before they are asked to answer comprehension questions.
Speaking Task 2: Check your understanding
10 minutes/break out group
Respond to the ideas in the lecture.
Work with a partner. Ask these questions. Write notes for the answers.
Which parts were interesting to you?
What was new for you?
Which parts didn’t you understand?
Ask an original question about the lecture: (example: What did you think about…?)
The instructional concept here is “layering understanding” vs. “testing understanding”. For an online class, we need to add some opportunity for students to discuss the meaning before we expect them to understand everything and before we begin checking comprehension. This inserted activity will help make the online class more interactive and less “receptive”. It also will prevent demotivation — Students can get tired of the content if they are asked too many comprehension questions.
By incorporating speaking tasks like these in online interactive classes, students can make a shift to more active learning. They begin to take responsibility for making the class a learning experience, one that depends on their contributions. As students begin to feel that they are contributing to the class, and that the teacher and their fellow students appreciate their activity, they begin to shift toward “social learning” and away from passive learning and minimal participation.