Sandhya Maranna

Uni’s back: Five ways to build useful online learning

The pandemic hastened the transition to online delivery. While several studies have looked into strategies for developing higher-order thinking in students, the widespread and prevalent use of online learning is limited to lower-order strategies.

We wanted to promote what worked for both educators and students while creating sustainable online communities. We undertook a scoping study at the University of South Australia to look at ways of building meaningful online learning communities while helping students to develop higher-order thinking skills. After a process of review and refinement, we considered the findings of 121 studies from 2000 to 2022 to narrow down what matters. The overarching framework for our scoping review is the community of inquiry.

Online environments are enhancing access to education globally but simultaneously risk depersonalising student learning at a time when connectedness is most needed.  The opportunity created by the pandemic should be seized for prioritizing sustainable content delivery that influences critical thinking, equips graduates for jobs and fosters collaboration. This process can be challenging even for experienced educators.  Providing clear guidance to educators is key to the development of online learning communities that connect teachers and students and deal with the challenges ahead. 

Our research is a one-stop-shop for high-quality online teaching practices, for novices and experienced educators alike, in any discipline, any country, looking for something more (than mere online implementation) to engage, challenge and connect with their students. Educators can see the full paper here, which will direct them to a range of resources that they can utilize in their online teaching practice.  

After distilling the key concepts from the studies, we recommend five evidence-based strategies for building sustainable and meaningful online learning communities in higher education.  

1. Students should be taught how to learn effectively in the online mode

It is vital that students are taught how to study properly in an online environment. It is important to consider that they are not aware of the unique learning presented in an online course, especially while they commence in a new institution, program, or course. Strong foundations in early parts of study are important. Work examples and modeling expectations can set students up with skills for creating new knowledge.  

2. Educators must embed learning tasks that foster self-regulation and higher-order skills in students 

Educators should enable intentional learning and embed problem solving tasks that require self-regulation and higher order thinking. Educators should further be aware of strategies unique to online mode that can foster self-regulation in students. For example, not all the educators should necessarily actively contribute to the text-based discussion. Instead, having provided the initial trigger for a topic, educators can design the activity to be student-led. Collaborative teamwork, such as problem-solving activities are known to foster self-regulation. Student characteristics further influence their own self-regulation capabilities.

3. Course design should include authentic tasks for students to apply new knowledge to real-life scenarios

Along with overall course design, individual tasks such as discussion with peers must be designed to be purposeful and intentional to generate the desired learning outcomes. For example, questioning students on how they would apply what they learned from a task to their own profession could initiate an authentic critical thinking process.  Our research proposes several such strategies that can be useful for educators.

4. Educators must be offered ample professional development activities to build their skills in online pedagogy 

The challenges for educators who have been predominantly involved in face-to-face teaching and unfamiliar with online pedagogies are that it requires them to shift to a facilitator role and develop the skills to design and implement appropriate tasks that enable students to achieve outcomes. One of the key implications for teaching practice clearly includes supporting educators in adapting to online pedagogical approaches. Educators must be offered ample opportunities for professional development in online teaching strategies alongside institutional support for adapting and using emerging technology. There are several frameworks not included in our review, which can also be beneficial to educators.

5. Institutions should encourage translation of educational research to practice 

Institutional support through funding educational research may help to address the gap in translating research to practice to a certain extent. This funding can provide critical impetus to the educators involved. Additional institutional support that focuses on developing and sustaining an innovative pedagogical mindset to enhance teaching and learning practices in online delivery is also essential. 

Following these five evidenced based strategies will provide students and educators with the skills to successfully negotiate the online classroom.  

Sandhya Maranna is a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia and senior specialist sonographer with SA Health. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree investigating cognitive transfer in online learning. Her innovations in online curriculum have led to high-quality impact on student learning. She was the recipient of the 2021 AAUT National teaching citation for outstanding contribution to student learning and the 2021 OLC award for innovation in online learning and teaching excellence