Bottle of hand sanitizer and a couple surgical masks on a wooden table
HealthJanuary 21, 2021

How to make the online learning experience more meaningful

By: Heather Swift, MSN, RN
When traditional in-seat colleges and universities were abruptly told to plan for hybrid or complete online teaching due to Covid-19, a sense of panic and disappointment was felt in every professor’s office in every institution.

Social distancing and masks quickly moved to solitude and isolation for students and instructors alike. Distance learning is the coined term in academia and oh how fitting it is right now. Whether distance learning was new to the educator and/or student or an area of expertise it is always appropriate to reevaluate our methods of student engagement to ensure a meaningful experience.

The belief held by many is that distance learning is not intimate or up to par within seat instruction. This was proved by the push back from students at the height of the pandemic with requests for reimbursement from tuition fees. My goal is to provide real-life examples of what has worked for me to ensure that distance learning can be as intimate and meaningful as you, as the educator, and the student would like it to be.

My experience has been as a full-time professor of nursing both in an in-seat traditional program and an online RN-BSN program.

Require active learning

Active learning is an absolute must in distance learning. Simply stated, active learning is putting an emphasis on the student actually doing something-whether physical or cognitive to allow for the application of the concept. It is much more than passive learning, and the student must take responsibility for their learning while the instructor sets the student up with the opportunities. An instructor cannot merely put a voiceover PowerPoint on the platform and call it a day. If a video over the content is to be uploaded, it shouldn’t be more than eight to 10 minutes in length.

Active learning can be in the form of small group work in break out rooms, experience a situation-virtually or in person, prepare an overview of a concept, build a patient from disease process up, lead a discussion board post, and/or solve a series of unfortunate patient outcomes through an RCA with diagrams. Challenges do exist in the online realm, but the hurdle is no more challenging than in seat instruction.

With active learning activities also comes chunking content. Chunking content is breaking the concepts down into smaller more manageable pieces and in return, it is more memorable for the students. Think of it this way, chunking content is having one scoop of ice cream instead of the whole carton. We, as educators—myself included, can easily participate in infobesity; providing too much information on the topic by teaching everything in the textbook and reviewing all our real-life examples. It simply is not needed and not remembered by the student.

Example of an active learning activity in an online classroom:

  1. The concept is mental illness’, specifically schizophrenia with auditory hallucinations.
  2. Segment of a chapter in the textbook assigned (do not assign full chapters).
  3. Students are to listen to a four-minute video experiencing auditory hallucinations while attempting to complete a weekly to-do list.
  4. Students then are to post in the discussion board forum a self-reflection on their experience “walking in a schizophrenia patient’s shoes”, the experience will entail conscious and unconscious biases and how it affects the care provided to a patient.
  5. Students are then required to react to a minimum of two of their classmates.

This is just a simple example of chunking content with an active learning activity, that in my experience proved highly beneficial for the students in understanding the stigmas associated and examining their own bias’s conscious or not. There are lots of ways to promote active learning in the online classroom. When in this realm of teaching—voluntary or involuntarily—we are required to promote learning and encourage critical thinking and application of concepts.

Explain the whys

It is imperative for the instructor to explain the why behind an assignment. Students deserve to know the rationale, goal and method of competency expected. Once a student understands this, they are much more likely to complete the assignment thoroughly and with a more active participation.

I begin one of my online courses with an introductory forum that I ask the students what their favorite office supply is and why. This allows me to indirectly learn their learning styles and plan my class activities around the majority of styles in the course, but still offering something for all students. For example, if 80% of the students list a highlighter or colored pens to color-code their notes; I can comfortably assume the majority of students are kinesthetic learners and need to tailor my course to meet their needs.

Be more than an email address

Make yourself known upfront. The instructor should not be behind the scenes. Put a face to your name in the beginning. Have virtual office hours, and, if reasonable, in person if requested. Be flexible by grading on competency and not always by compliance with due dates. Hold yourself accountable just like the students, answer the discussion board posts and encourage the discussions to keep going by posing a different angle or opinion.

Students should also be aware of their progress throughout the duration of the course. Just because there is no actual face to face accountability doesn’t mean an instructor can’t hold a student accountable and promote enthusiasm in the course. Students deserve to know the instructor and not feel that the course is a self-study when it is not. Like every scenario in life, our students feel more connected to instructors who engage in the discussion boards, recognize when they haven’t “come to class”, provide timely feedback, offer encouragement and push them to succeed.

Ask questions too

Ask your students what is working well and what is not. Ask if they are understanding the content, if they need a different delivery method, and if the office hours are achievable for the majority-create anonymous surveys/polls to gain some of this information, as not every student will want to be honest if you question them directly and you do not want to know which student said what either. Do not wait until the end of course evaluations, if you have the opportunity to ask at the midway point do it! If you can make changes without jeopardizing the posted syllabus do it! It will achieve a better learning experience for the students.

Everyone matters

The most important piece of online education is the instructor. Students expect and deserve meaningful learning experiences. They also deserve to know that someone is on the other side paying attention to them. They want an instructor who listens, supports, encourages and provides updates frequently-as if they were face to face. To be successful in the online platform an instructor must provide active, meaningful learning activities and promote learner to learner and learner to instructor relationships.

Heather Swift, MSN, RN
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
Lippincott® Nursing Education
Preparing today’s students to become tomorrow’s nurses
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