Thoughts about leveraging today’s web-based learning solutions…

Faculty who use Learning Management Systems (LMS) to assist with the delivery of courses in online, hybrid or even ground-based courses have a variety of tools from which they can strategically devise interactions with students to promote learning. Originally, these LMS were designed to facilitate transition from ground-based to online teaching without having to learn complicated or archaic programming or coding languages. And today, despite many advances, these tools and technologies have either been underutilized or the benefits have been misunderstood.

It is always surprising to me when I discover yet another faculty member who uses the LMS to teach courses in which students read independently and demonstrate their knowledge through multiple-choice exams without interaction of any kind between the instructor and the student, or between students. Despite efforts at providing quality professional development programs, online resources, and consultation services, some faculty have resisted the change that is a requirement of online teaching; stimulating learning through interaction.

Interaction is the bridge that brings everyone together in an online learning environment. And, technology resources such as online threaded discussions, chat rooms, video conferencing, document sharing and a variety of effective web-based technologies facilitate interaction and stimulate engagement and participation in an online course.  Most LMSs will have some or all of these technologies available, however, if they are not a part of your LMS, you can provide links to these tools online.

The rapid development of web-based tools (sometimes referred to as Web 2.0 Tools) has offered up an ever-changing menu of resources that, when added to the existing set of tools currently available in LMSs, can provide the instructor with an even richer palette from which to select the appropriate strategy or interactive experience.

What makes the online resource even more enticing than the LMS is that the user has more control over the environment. The instructor no longer has to rely on professional development courses to become proficient in the use of expensive and overly complicated software or LMS tools. Many of the web-based solutions are simply easier to use because they focus on one thing, and one thing only – the task at hand, without a lot of “extras”.

Here are some of my recommendations for “add on” tools to enrich your online teaching experience:

Connecting Visually Online – (WebEx/Skype)

Both of these programs offer solutions that allow an instructor to engage visually with their students. In the case of WebEx, you can also share documents, videos, and your computer applications; anything you have on your computer. Add to that the ability to illustrate, draw and share a whiteboard environment. Skype offers screen sharing with its free service, but unlike WebEx, all users must have Skype accounts. With WebEx, only the host user (most likely the instructor) needs to have an account. Both web-based tools offer excellent connectivity, real-time chat environments and video compression making them excellent choices for establishing interactivity with and among your students.

Creating Knowledge and Brainstorming – (MindMeister)

Having a way to challenge student thinking while visualizing their contributions in real time is something that MindMeister does very well. This easy to use application allows an instructor to generate a topic for discussion and invite students to participate in the development of the topic. Users may establish a free account if you like, or you can share content with them through a public channel. The free version of MindMeister works great. Students can create their own mind maps (concept maps) and share them with others. Instructors can watch as ideas are created and begin to populate the screen.  This tool provides an excellent platform for generating ideas and developing thoughts. In addition, the newest version of MindMeister can be used for delivering interactive presentations to students very much like other presentation programs (Prezi, for example).

Effective and Interactive Lectures/Presentations – (NearPod)

NearPod is a web-based tool that offers the instructor a superior format for designing and delivering interactive lectures and presentations. With this tool, the instructor can embed questions into their presentations, receive real-time feedback on responses, and analyze or share the results to make time-critical decisions about how well the content is being received and understood by students. The tool set includes a variety of questions formats, the ability to use draw tools to express and respond, image libraries, video, linking to websites, and more. The complete package (also including content created by other educators) allows instructor to import their PDF or PPT presentations, videos, and images to start creating interactive content that can be shared in real-time or viewed independently by students. Nearpod can’t be beat for its simple design and ease of use.

Presentations and Document Sharing – (GoogleDocs/SlideShare)

Many course presentations/lectures are constructed using PowerPoint or other presentation software. And, some instructors even require students to create their own presentations. An excellent web-based solution for building “powerpoint-like” presentations is GoogleDocs. In fact, the entire user interface resembles PowerPoint. With this application, students can create powerful and professional presentations that they share via email, download or via sharing services like SlideShare. SlideShare is similar to YouTube by design. The user can post their presentation online for others to view and share, but maintains control of the presentation. Some faculty use SlideShare as a way for students to share and peer evaluate each other’s work. The process of creation to sharing to evaluation is very simple and straightforward using these tools.

Quick Information/Announcements – (Twitter/Remind101)

Twitter is a web-based application that facilitates the sending of small chunks of information (140 characters max.). Students can receive this information quickly and act on it. For instance, an instructor could “tweet” (send a twitter message) from their smart phone reminding students that there is a quiz or guest speaker for the next class session. Students can reply with short questions and perhaps read a response from any of the other students in the class. If used with consistency, tweeting can be a very easy, and very engaging way to interact with your students. Remind101 is an online tool that lets the instructor send instant messages (SMS) to students. However, unlike other services, Remind101 does not allow the recipient the ability to respond. This service is one-way which makes it safe and easy to use for most instructional situations. An instructor can send out reminders, tips, suggestions, or anything they like to students who receive these messages as text messages on their mobile devices.

Creating Knowledge – (WikiSpaces)

Wikipedia is an online repository of information about everything you can imagine. But what if we could make this repository smaller and much more refined? That would be the purpose behind using WikiSpaces. WikiSpaces helps an instructor create a “wiki” environment. An instructor could use a wiki to develop a lexicon of information and knowledge about the subject being studied in the course. Practices, terms, case studies, etc., could be collected and organized into the wiki. Students could participate in the collection and editing of the articles that result. The peer participation and opportunities for individual and group expression are enormous. An added benefit is that the wiki can continue to grow indefinitely over the years the course is taught creating a rich archive.

Web-based media tools and applications such as those discussed here require very little management and are set up in minutes, often without the help of the LMS technology support staff. Faculty, and/or students can take advantage of web-based tools to communicate, share, collaborate and learn while fostering creativity and developing user-generated content.

The LMS is good for education, but it should not be considered the “total” solution to delivering courses effectively to students. Instead, consider the LMS your building block from which you will add your own personal tools. What you need to add are resources to make your course exceptional.

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