Online course platforms enable faculty to design learning experiences using a range of new interactive tools that go beyond passively viewing recorded video lectures. These tools help to intensify student engagement with new course material as they encounter it and they enable students to individually master course material or collaborate on assignments in groups with other students.
The core content for an online course often consists of a series of videorecorded lectures that work together as a coherent set. The duration of each lecture can vary (ranging from 45 to 60 minutes), and the series can be relatively modest in scale (6 lectures over 6 weeks) or much larger (24 lectures over 12 weeks). The lectures can be recorded in a variety of formats and enhanced with slides, graphs and other images. In encountering course material through video lectures, students are able to adaptively rewind and playback challenging material to achieve a coherent understanding.
Online lectures are typically divided into short segments (ranging 315 minutes) that are either interspersed or followed by embedded interactive quizzes (often multiple choice questions or mathematical problems) that enable students to actively process new material as they encounter it. These exercises also provide students with instant feedback on their own understanding and often increases their engagement. Faculty members are also able to see how students perform in these interactive exercises and identify which portions of the lectures are most challenging and merit further explanation or discussion.
Assignments and Exams
Online course platforms involve a variety of assignments and forms for assessment, including midterm and final exams. Machine graded assignments such as multiple choice, programming, and problem solving are available in subjects that have right and wrong answers, while courses in the more interpretative disciplines use online tools for peer graded exercises that have the benefit of further engaging students in learning as they evaluate the work of others using a rubric created by the instructor.
Collaboration and Communications
A number of online platforms enable students to join small groups for sustained discussion during a course and they provide group workspaces where members can collaborate on group assignments. Often, galleries of student work can make an online learning community visible to itself and motivate engaged learning. Conferencing tools such as Google Hangout, faculty members are able to conduct live, seminarstyle discussions with small groups of preselected students (typically 68) living all over the world. These discussions can be recorded and posted on the course site for viewing by other students in the course. Online platforms also include discussion forums on each course site for ongoing discussion of the material. Students typically generate their own forums, often in many languages, where they ask and answer questions and engage other students in open debate and conversation. In open online courses, faculty members are not required to monitor or direct the student forums, but many have used them to engage the students in further discussion. Faculty members are also able to send email messages and announcements to all students.
Analysis and Feedback
Online platforms provide ample and immediate information on student learning, especially through responses to quizzes and assignments. Instructors can use this data to keep track of the progress of individual students, and reach out to the those who might need extra support. More broadly, faculty can use learning data to identify the topics that are challenging for students and organize class time and lectures accordingly. Learning analytics also help identify assessments that are either too easy, too challenging or simply confusing, thereby giving instructors valuable information on how to revise and improve their learning material, including the assessments themselves.