As professors leave campus and turn off their Zoom cameras for the summer, they are already beginning to think ahead to next semester. As they do, they are likely experimenting with a number of tools to help them as they work on creating engaging online courses whether teaching online full-time or in some hybrid format.
Here we take a look at three go-to teaching tools that professors are finding useful for engaging students in virtual environments. These virtual teaching tools, they say, help maintain attention, boost student engagement and impact learning outcomes.
1) Professors Teaching Online Need to Continually Adapt: Tools Like Zoom Can Help
Meeting software tools like Zoom top the list of go-to tools for creating engaging online courses for college students.
“The use of online meeting software like Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Teams has allowed for easy collaborations that would not have occurred prior to COVID-19,” says Zahid Mustafa, founder and president of We Succeed, a virtual tutoring platform. “Professors are now able to co-teach classes with colleagues from other institutions, making classes more dynamic.”
Mustafa says: “If the pandemic has taught professors anything, it is the imperative need to continuously adapt in order to meet the growing classroom environment standards.” Mustafa, 23, and a recent participant in the college experience says: “The reality is that academia is a staid industry that is resistant to change.” He believes that online instruction should be embraced as a complement to traditional in-person classes.
“Remote learning offers an opportunity to expand educational access and at the same time reduce costs,” Mustafa says. “The past year has generated a tremendous amount of data about online classes.”
The knowledge that administrators, teachers, students and others have gained over the past year can be used to improve the virtual learning environment and student engagement, which will make it a viable option long after coronavirus concerns have diminished.
Education tools like Zoom are integral for getting the best out of any virtual or blended learning environment. These softwares also lend themselves to creating game-like experiences that researchers have found to not only engage students in online courses but to help them learn more effectively.
2) Gamification for Engaging Students in Online Courses
Andrew Lo is a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and Principal Investigator at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. He has researched the topic of how to improve online teaching techniques and learning outcomes for students. His research points to gamification as a potentially “revolutionary” way for educators to better engage students in online environments.
In a news release, Lo says: “Thanks to evolution, our attention and focus are greatly enhanced when another living creature is physically close by, purely for survival purposes. And it turns out the gaming industry has figured out how to replicate this engagement in an online setting.” Some techniques that Lo has borrowed from the gaming industry for his own online courses include:
- Using a countdown timer on the course splash page starting at about 30 minutes before his synchronous classes begin.
- Playing upbeat music in the final few minutes before classes start to boost energy levels.
- Using a combination of the many functions available in Zoom like “raise hand,” pools, breakout rooms and chat to keep students engaged.
- Switching things up every 15 minutes or so to help maintain energy levels and engagement.
“Gamification could be revolutionary for education, and a godsend for students with more visual and collaborative learning styles,” Lo says.
Simulations are another virtual teaching tool that professors are using effectively to engage and teach students across a wide range of subject areas.
3) Online Simulations Can Augment Virtual Teaching Tools
While simulations have been around for some time and used in live classroom settings long before technology emerged, developments like virtual reality (VR) have allowed for greater innovation and more practical applications for the use of simulations in education. During the pandemic, in particular, simulations proved to be a great way to capture—and maintain—student attention and engagement.
As Andrew Bauld writes for the Harvard Graduate School of education: “The power of VR lies in providing users the chance to do something hands-on that might not be possible in the real or the remote world. That means students studying climate change can virtually dive a coral reef to see the effects of ocean acidification up close, or it can give scientists the ability to analyze molecules in 3D at the nano level.”
“Students love simulations and it can provide a new arc of opportunities for learning and discovering topics students may be interested in that they wouldn’t have known otherwise,” says Mustafa.
He points to Statecraft Simulations as an example. The simulation is used to help students gain insights into politics. In addition, he notes that some faculty used tools like Webex, Slack and Google to run simulations during the COVID pandemic. “Students can write the scenario and run the technology, which offers a powerful learning opportunity.”
Over the summer, instructors—especially professors teaching online—have the opportunity to reflect on their own experiences engaging students in online courses, to learn from the experiences of others, and experiment with some of these top go-to virtual teaching tools. Whether colleges are implementing blended learning applications, entirely virtual courses, or even solely in-person classrooms, these virtual teaching tools can offer a variety of new and altered realities to engage and teach students now and into the future.