Communication and interaction are essential to boost students' academic performance in online courses

Aalto University Summer School taught its entire curriculum online this summer. Staff and faculty now share their take on online learning.
Woman looks at laptop, pad and notebook

In the midst of a global pandemic we see an educational disruption unlike any before. New pedagogical approaches are emerging as we see higher education moving online. A strong focus on pedagogy on top of technological solutions helps educators navigate through re-planning courses.

Online learning highlights the importance of clear communication and well-facilitated interaction. Aalto University Summer School went over some student feedback from their online curriculum from summer 2020. This resulted in three key takeaways for organizing and teaching interactive challenge-based online courses. Challenge-based learning is a pedagogical approach used to bring integrated work-life experiences into courses. Students work in project teams solving real-life challenges provided by partner organizations.

Determine your online pedagogical mix

The basis of teaching remains the same, although the medium has changed from a physical setting to an online space. Content, pedagogy and assessment should form the basis of planning your online course. Explore different course types to meet the needs of your students. In addition to a course based on lecture series, consider adding depth into learning using cases or real-life challenges.

Alternate between forms of teaching interaction. Online environments create new opportunities for students to interact with the lecturer, among students and the course materials. Intentional use of online technologies can create immersive learning experiences, but remember that excessive use of different technologies can be burdensome for students. Create both synchronous and asynchronous student collaboration with tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Drive, Miro, etc.

Head of Summer School Laura Sivula has learned that fostering meaningful interaction between students helps boost their academic performance.

'When it comes to challenge-based learning, students thrive when they can tackle the challenging assignments in an open and supportive atmosphere. Focus on your pedagogy and not the medium. Online teaching tools are becoming increasingly immersive and easy to use, but the course has very little backbone if not enough planning for online learning has been done,' Sivula says.

Facilitate an online team contract

When a team does not meet face-to-face at all during a project, it may be even more difficult than usual to lay ground rules for teamwork. Working on a challenging project, on a tight schedule can be burdening. Facilitating online team contracts is a way to help students strive. Program Manager Laura Kitinoja is happy how committed students were to their contracts. She facilitated online learning in a challenge-based intensive course during July 2020 with 60 students signing up for the course from Vancouver to Auckland.

'Whilst teamwork is always a challenge, some pain points are easily magnified online. Luckily we were able to help students thrive and improve their international teamwork skills,' Kitinoja says.

All students completed an assignment analyzing their teamwork. The teams that followed their contract and kept reminding themselves of what they had agreed enjoyed the international online teamwork experience a lot.

'There are bound to be conflicts when groups of ambitious people with different personalities and motives work together. Many students felt that having a team contract to work from gave them courage to address issues more up front, improving not only the quality of their work but the overall team spirit,' Kitinoja praises.

A good team contract for a shorter course could include rules on decision-making in the team, means and level of communication, how tasks are divided as well as common values and goals for the team. Even if the course only has little teamwork aspects, it is important to discuss some principles to have everyone on the same page. In international and multidisciplinary settings, students often come from very different academic cultures or have different objectives for the courses.

Engage directly with students and open a dialogue

Hosting an online intensive course for an international audience poses quite a few challenges. When students and faculty join the course from very different time zones, it is key to have a constant, open dialogue with students on the course. This includes clear schedules, consistent use of learning technology, and comprehensive feedback.

'Even before the pandemic, we set out to improve our orientation material, assignment instructions and evaluation criteria. Whilst this is always an integral part of course development, the extra effort really paid off this time. When the world around us is unstable, clear communication and active interaction helps alleviate stress,' Laura Kitinoja adds.

In addition to formal course sessions students had the opportunity to engage in both topic-driven and social-driven conversations outside lecture hours. Program Coordinator Niko Ylä-Poikelus sees a great deal of potential in creating a virtual exchange experience.

'Many students didn’t expect that an international exchange can work online, too. We tried regardless, and got a great deal of positive feedback from those who were able to participate,' Ylä-Poikelus says.

During the summer online courses regular online café sessions were offered as easy opportunities to ask questions, share everyday thoughts and get a much-needed boost from interaction when working from home. Discussions around Finnish culture, working in Finland and the student culture helped students to form a better understanding of Finland and Aalto University.

Tips: Help students engage with online courses dynamically

  1. Classroom rules: Managing expectations is especially important during online courses. In an online setting it is more challenging for the teacher and students equally to identify the norms in the classroom, unless they are explicitly communicated in the beginning of the course. Communicate clear expectations for participation in the course (e.g. use of video and microphone, group work, independent work, schedule and breaks, how to participate in discussion). A successful online course requires similar commitments as a physical course.

  2. Audio and video quality: Good audio and video quality is crucial for a successful online session. Make sure that you as an instructor have a quiet space with a good wi-fi connection. If you feel uncomfortable teaching from home or there are too many distractions, consider using an online teaching studio for both synchronous and asynchronous sessions.

  3. Time zones: Especially when teaching international students who reside around the world, be mindful of time zones and take them into consideration when designing the course structure and schedule. If the students come from many different time zones, consider this in the makeup of teams if students are working collaboratively on projects.

  4. Breakout sessions: Use different modes of teaching during your online sessions. Divide students into smaller groups to discuss topics or to work together on an assignment or project. Students can remain in the same group for the duration of the course, or students can be categorised into different groups which rotate depending on the nature of the assignment or discussion. This is a great way to also facilitate networking and help students to get to know each other.

  5. Free your hands from technology to focus on teaching: Teaching online sessions can be nerve wracking if the lecturer needs to take care of both teaching and technology. Especially with larger student groups it is a good idea to have a teaching assistant taking care of any technical issues and help with assigning students to breakout sessions. If you are inviting visiting lecturers to your course, check with them how familiar they are with the teaching technology used and help them plan their online session.

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