While most of us can see the benefits of including engaging activities in our e-learning courses, specific strategies often escape us. As a result, many on-line courses lack the very activities that can result in deep learning.

Using the unique capabilities of Web technologies, online courses can facilitate learning that is exciting, interactive, purposeful, and beneficial. Although developing interactive e-learning activities does not have to be difficult or time consuming, before you select an activity for your online course, you should consider the following (Watkins, in press): 

a) Are the students in the course experienced e-learners?

b) Am I experienced with facilitating interactive e-learning?

c) What technologies are available for facilitating the course’s activities?

d) Do the students have the technical skills to use these technologies effectively?

e) What pre-activity exercises would help prepare students?

f) How much time do I want to use for the activity?

g) How much time do students set aside for participation in the course?

h) What learning objectives do I want to achieve through an activity?

i) What other goals do I want to achieve through an activity?

After considering these important issues, you can now brainstorm the types of activities that will best achieve your learning goals. It is often helpful to reflect on activities you have used in traditional classroom courses to achieve similar goals, and to recall some of the positive educational experiences you had as a student.

Below are six e-learning activities that may be helpful in sparking some creative ideas (from Watkins, 2005). With some modification, each could be done in a traditional course as well.

1. LET ME INTRODUCE: Based on an activity that is commonly used in traditional courses, this online adaptation has students interview other students and post online introductions of their partners. This activity is a great ice-breaker at the beginning of a course and you can later have students re-use the introductions when they form teams for group projects.

Steps: (a) Pair students with partners, (b) provide sample interview questions, and (c) have students interview each other and post introductions to a shared discussion board.

2. WEBSITES ABOUT MYSELF: Taking advantage of unique resources available to online students, this activity is a wonderful ice breaker and lets students introduce themselves by identifying Websites that illustrate their interests and backgrounds. When students have posted favorite Websites, you can then encourage them to discuss similar and different interests with their peers.

Steps: (a) Have students identify three Websites illustrating their interests and explain why they selected each Website, (b) have students post these Websites and explanations to a shared discussion board, and (c) have students explore one posted website from a classmate and provide the classmate with feedback (plus, minus, interesting) about the website.

3. PLAYING ROLES IN GROUPS: By assigning group members to roles within group discussions (for example, discussion leader, idea proposer, cheerleader, devil’s advocate, questioner, nay sayer, example giver, clarifier, tension reliever, encourager, note taker, online resource finder, or conflict negotiator), you can use this activity to add diversity and depth to course discussions.

Steps: (a) Assign students to teams of three or more, (b) assign a role to each student, (c) have students play their role in group discussions, and (d) have students reflect on the positive or negative contribution of assigned roles to the discussion.

4. IN THE NEWS: This activity capitalizes on the number of newspaper and magazine articles available online to bring discussions of current events into online courses. Either as an individual or group activity, encouraging students to utilize online news articles can engage them to discuss currents events related to the subject matter of most any course.

Steps: (a) Identify online resources related to course topics, (b) assign online news Websites to individuals or teams, (c) have students read and reflect on their assigned news stories, and (d) have students discuss the news stories on a shared discussion board.

5. COURSE BLOGS: Much like course journals, an online blog (short for “web log”) can be used as an effective e-learning activity that encourages students to work together in reflecting on course experiences. By engaging students in a group exercise where they each contribute to a single online blog that explores their positive and negative course experiences, you can create an online learning community.

Steps: (a) Ask students to reflect privately on their positive and negative course experiences, (b) provide a shared discussion board for students to post their reflections, and (c) have students review and respond to the postings of other students.

6. LESSONS LEARNED THE HARD WAY: This activity encourages students to reflect on and share their previous experiences in using online technologies to generate a catalog of e-learning study skills that can be applied in their current courses.  From lessons learned through sending emails to the wrong person to ideas for structuring file folders on their computer, encouraging students to share the e-learning study skills they have developed can be useful at most any point in an online course.

Steps: (a) Create a shared discussion board for the activity, (b) have students reflect on experiences they have had in an e-course, and (c) have students post the lesson they learned (i.e., tips, suggestions, ideas) from each experience.

To ensure the successful implementation of these, or other, e-learning activities you will want to consider the following (Watkins, in press):

a) What tasks you will have to complete prior to starting the activity (for example, emailing instructions, forming groups, establishing chat rooms).

b) What tasks students will have to do in preparing for the activity (for example, reading course materials, downloading software, identifying partners).

c) The logistical steps that will necessary for both you and the students to participate effectively in the activity (for example, when you will post the instructions, how often will students participate, and what will happen if a partner does not participate?).

d) How you will assess the participation of students in the activity and how much extra time will that take you (for example, will the number of postings to the discussion board be important, will you review the content of all discussion postings, and will students summarize their interactions?).

By adapting activities from the traditional classroom and adding imaginative ideas that take advantage of the unique online technologies, you can create e-learning courses that will excite and engage students. And, by including a variety of interactive e-learning experiences, you should be able to improve retention rates, increase learner participation, achieve your learning objectives, develop online learning communities, and ensure that your online courses engage learners, regardless of the course topic.

Related References:

Watkins, R. (2005). 75 E-learning Activities: Making online courses more interactive. San Francisco, CA:Wiley/Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Watkins, R. and Corry, M. (2005). E-learning Companion: A student’s guide to online success. New York:Houghton Mifflin.

Watkins, R. (in press). “Developing Interactive E-learning Activities.” Performance Improvement Journal. 44(5).

–Ryan Watkins, Faculty, Educational Technology Leadership, George Washington University, DC

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