How To Create A Dynamic Learning Environment
Antonio Guillem/

How To Build The Best Learning Experience

We are all well aware that 2020 has welcomed many into the world of online learning who had not previously explored it. While some have found this transition relatively smooth, many have been frustrated by a delivery method and communication format that is so different from the traditional classroom. This article addresses higher education using various Learning Management Systems (LMS), but these points can be universally applied to other age groups with appropriate modifications. Whether you are just embarking on this new journey, or if you would like to improve your current process, these 5 tips will help you succeed in forming a dynamic learning environment for your students.

1. Community

One of the most important aspects of any learning environment is community. While instructors are typically focused more on the content of their subject, students are frequently looking around the classroom for friendly faces. In an online format, instructors must work to find creative ways to help develop real relationships with their students, and among the class.

Instructors need to keep things personal by addressing students by their names, especially when they are responding to comments and questions in group discussions. Every course should have a place where introductions can occur, whether this is in a group discussion board or during a synchronous (live) video session. Students should be encouraged to give some details about their lives to help establish connections with other students, perhaps they have a common sport, common profession, or common state in life (married with kids). Instructors can model for the students the kind of introduction that is expected, either in the discussion board or via video.

Instructors can also help to build community through group assignments. Breaking students into groups in discussions, on assignment projects, or in live discussions via video conference will help students to learn to work together and collaborate, which will directly build relationships.

2. Communication

Over-communication can be a real tool when teaching online. Remember that your students would normally have access to you in-person for a number of hours every week. This means that time that might have been available for questions is now structured differently, especially if the course is primarily asynchronous (not-live). Send an introductory message the day the course opens, and post a “welcome video” giving your students some key points from the syllabus and identifying any assignments or assessments that they should be preparing for. Follow up with messages each week, either in your discussion boards or through your LMS messaging system. Remind students frequently that they can reach out to you with questions and that you will be available for them.

Offer a weekly “live office hour” where students can join a video conference and ask questions or discuss the week’s lecture if they would like to. This is especially important if you are not a hybrid teaching class, where there is some synchronous time and some asynchronous material. Be sure that students are aware that you are checking in on the course and on them regularly. Do your best to respond to questions within twenty-four hours. Be sure that you check the discussion boards daily and respond to questions or thank students for their answers if you have posted questions for them.

3. Clarity

Due to the nature of online learning, it is easy for students to overlook important details in an LMS, especially if it is the first time that they are taking an online course or using this specific software. Students are learning how to navigate buttons and find the appropriate videos and files while also trying to take in the information of your course. Therefore, keep things simple and straightforward. If there is something that you can tell them about your expectations, do so up-front.

Rubrics that are built into the LMS are ideal for this style of learning. With a rubric attached to your assignments, your students will be able to see directly how they will be evaluated. This means that you can explain the assignment in your module, but also reiterate the details of what is expected within the rubric itself. You will be happy that you emphasized your standards clearly when your students turn in assignments that reasonably meet your expectations and when you are not responding to multiple emails asking you what style they need to follow for their paper or why they received a low grade on their weekly discussion participation.

Be sure that you also clarify your own boundaries. As an instructor who is now online, students can often feel that you are "as accessible as the internet." You want to be sure that you have set times that you will respond to students, and set times that you are not going to respond, even if they are asking for your help. Being clear at the beginning with students about the kind of behavior, language, style of communication and accessibility that is expected for your course will help everyone to have a better experience overall.

4. Consistency

Strive to be consistent in the way that you present your material in an LMS. As mentioned, students are trying to take in many new skills by learning how to work in your LMS and adjust to online learning outside of the normal study involved in digesting your course material. Therefore, you serve your students by creating a very structured presentation over the term. Organize your LMS so that each aspect is in the same place each week. Use the same rubrics for the same kinds of assignments. Give the same reminders each week, such as, “don’t forget your quiz is due by Friday!” This element of routine will help your students to feel more comfortable as each week goes by and limit stress for them, allowing them to focus on the content of the course.

5. Creativity

In a typical classroom, students draw information from the environment created for them. The walls may communicate key aspects of the instructor’s style and main themes or ideas that will be relevant to the class. Instructors can mimic this environment through various creative elements in the LMS. Use images on your static content, so that students are not only reading over static words. Find videos that are memorable, perhaps sometimes funny or purely illustrative, simply to break up any monotony and to help students make mental notes of main themes in your course. If your course is live at times, use fun backgrounds that are relevant to your course.

Remember that there are many different styles of learning, as well as many varying strengths among a group of students. Some may find videos, audio (such as a podcast), visual static content such as reading materials, group projects, or live sessions as their favorite method of learning through this online platform. While you cannot completely cater to each of these, you can incorporate these different styles throughout the course. This can help different students take leadership roles or stand out among their peers at different points, which helps to prevent only certain students from dominating the course and others falling behind. A truly successful online course is one that helps every student succeed.

As a final point—be compassionate! Bring your compassion to your course, both for your students and for yourself. This is a new frontier for many, and even if this is not new, it certainly is happening during a time when many other things in our lives are new, especially the constant adjustment to the pandemic. Therefore, be patient with your students and with yourself. If this is the first time or second time you have taught your class online, remember that the more you do it, the better it will become. Be encouraged, and remember that we are all in this together!