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

By Sandhya Maranna

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

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4 thoughts on “Uni’s back: Five ways to build useful online learning

  1. Entire advanced degrees have been delivered online for decades around the world, so to suggest that online learning has been limited to lower-order strategies is incorrect.

    There is a well established way to provide learning which works: by training teachers. The same applies with e-learning: simply train the teachers in how to do it, using proven techniques.

    None of this should be surprising. Imagine if you asked university lecturers to use an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). Most would take a long time to work it out, and some would get it wrong, placing live at risk. This would not be considered strange, nor would a long term study be needed into why. The problem, would be obvious: they have never been taught to use an AED. The solution would also be obvious: teach them. They same applies to e-learning. This is something lecturers should have learned as part of their basic teacher training, before COVID-19. That they were not is unfortunate, and placed their lives, those of their students, at risk, as well as the viability of their institution. However, the situation can be corrected, hopefully before the next emergency which needs it.

  2. Peter Robinson says:

    Greetings Tom.
    I agree in broad terms with you as to the the fact that poorly educated teachers in the art of online learning are a great risk to the futures of those they facilitate the learning of.
    Importantly, as educational technology innovation drives forward, there is a need for the facilitators of learning or, as some say, ‘teachers’, to continually be trained not simply at the beginning of their entry to the profession.
    Whilst you are right to draw a parallel in the use of technology such as an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) to save lives, sadly Australian universities don’t have the same investment in the machinery of online learning, such as adaptive learning technology tools such as Smart Sparrow. Thus, an AED saves lives when deployed correctly, we lack the educational technology investment to actually enrich the online learning lives of our students.

  3. Peter Robinson says:

    For each of the five strategies that will deliver excellence in online learning experiences, an investment is required. A significant one at that.
    From my empirical analysis of the financial management practices of Australian universities over the past 15 years, they have focused on building infrastructure of the built form, rather than in terms of educational technology.
    The required investment in educational technologies and online content was not made and, as a result, the COVID-19 pandemic left nearly every Australian university with expensive real estate that could not be fully utilised, if at all. A great majority of university students did not enjoy their online learning experience as many academics struggled with flipping their face-to-face teaching strategies and style to that to be delivered online.
    Given the scale of investment required and the commonality of curricula and teaching resources (e.g., textbooks) across most large academic programs (e.g., in Commerce degrees and specialisations such as accounting and finance), universities ought to commit their best human resources and money for the development of ‘best-in-class’ online educational technology. For example, it escapes me that the members of the Group of 8 or the Australian Technology Network have not sought to work collaboratively on the development of such online learning technology and content.
    Whilst it is true that each Australian university seeks to be different, there is such commonality within many disciplines that a focus on common threshold concepts and applications is not at all like drawing a distinction between chalk and cheese. Of course, each university could add their own branding to such collaboratively developed online learning resources at a relatively insignificant cost if they really want to be seen to be offering their own product.

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