How to create interactive learning in a remote environment

When I was at school, I was particularly interested in learning languages. French was offered through a normal classroom programme; German, however, was not, so I opted to study it by correspondence. This was over 20 years ago when the only technology available in the classroom was a tape recorder. Of course, I noticed a huge difference in how I learned each of the languages. In my French class, with a teacher in front of me and a class full of students, there was a great deal of interaction, and of course, this facilitated the learning process, which a) made the learning more enjoyable and b) made me feel a lot more comfortable in my learning. In my correspondence course, there was no interaction and the only feedback I received arrived several weeks later when I got my marked units back in the post. There was never any direct contact with the teacher or the other students in the class.

Fast forward time and 20 + years later we have so many tools that are available to us to facilitate learning in a remote environment. Given that so much of the world has had to turn to remote learning in the last few weeks, it’s timely to explore some of these tools and how we can use them to facilitate interaction in a remote learning setting.

Firstly, it is important to differentiate between the different types of interaction that occur in an online learning environment. These can be broken down into three categories: Student-student interaction, student-teacher interaction and student-content interaction. Within these categories, we also have synchronous and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication is when two or more people communicate in real-time and asynchronous is when two or more people communicate, but without the requirement for all the recipients to respond immediately. We will look at examples of both of these within the three different categories.

Student – student interaction

This type of interaction occurs between learners and can happen with or without the teacher present. This can lead to students feeling more motivated to learn and also feeling less isolated in the remote environment. Here are some suggestions as to how you might facilitate this:

  • Set up a class Facebook or WhatsApp group where students can communicate with each other at any time. You could post discussion questions in the group to focus on particular aspects of the course content, and you could also use it to facilitate general social interaction that might not be related to the course – for example, you might give the students a challenge to do at home such as a cooking challenge, a kindness challenge, or a photo challenge, and then they could share the results. This will help to boost their morale and enable them to feel less isolated. If you prefer, you could set up two different groups, one for curriculum-based discussion and one for more social discussion. Before setting up this kind of group, it is worth co-constructing some ground rules for using social media in advance. You could include what kind of language is appropriate, how to use emojis and gifs appropriately and if you choose to, the times that you are going to interact live.
  • Schedule a lunchtime video conference. It doesn’t need to be compulsory, but it gives students the option to come along and chat while they eat their lunch.
  • If students are sick or can’t make a class online session, encourage them to message the others or put an emoji in their status so that others know they are away.
Student – teacher interaction

No alt text provided for this imageThis kind of interaction takes place when the teacher delivers information, provides feedback or simply encourages or guides the learning. Here are some suggestions as to how you might optimise this kind of interaction:

  • If you are using a video conferencing platform (Zoom, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams) to run more formal teaching sessions, encourage your students to ask questions and use the various features available through the platform such as chat functions, using emojis to respond to something, and using the hand icons to put up their hand. Pause the presentation regularly to see if students have questions.
  • If possible, seek to give students as much feedback as possible – if you can do this in real-time it is even more meaningful. If you have students working in Google Docs or another equivalent, you can comment on their work in real-time or you can also give them verbal feedback. Some online learning platforms will allow you to see the students’ progress and identify where they are having difficulty as they are working through lessons – use this information to message your students and check if they need some clarification or more support.
  • Try to book in times to meet virtually with your students 1:1 – depending on the number of students you have – this might be once a week or once a fortnight.
  • Schedule office hours which are well-publicised to the students so they know you will be available in an online space if they want to join and ask questions.
  • Send reminders by email, or other online messaging, so that students know when class sessions are coming up.
  • Try and offer plenty of praise to the students to encourage and motivate them.
Student – content interaction

This type of interaction takes place when students obtain information from the learning materials. Here are some suggestions on how to facilitate this interaction:

  • Offer a variety of learning materials through whichever platforms you are using, such as text, audio and video and, even better, if you can, give students the choice.
  •  If you are presenting content, it is great to break it up with quiz questions or discussion questions to reinforce and check for understanding.
  • Make students the presenters – they can each become an expert in a particular area, under your guidance, and then present this back to the class. As part of this, you can ask them to come up with their own interactive activities for the class to complete.
Competitions and games:

One way of bringing all of these types of interactions together and increasing motivation is by setting up competitions and games. Just because you are no longer in the classroom, it doesn’t mean this is not possible. Here are some suggestions on how to do this:

  • Run competitions through an online learning platform such as EP, which students might participate in independently in their own time, or all together, in a video conference session. Message updates on the scoreboard and shoutouts to your students, and you could even offer some prizes as an incentive. You could post these to the students (it would be a great novelty for them to receive this in the mail) or you could award the prizes when you are back at school.
  • You could also run a class quiz where you might have the students in groups or pairs answering quiz questions. This can all be run through a video conferencing room. You can even get the students to write the quiz and be the quiz masters.
  • Brainstorm with your students about how you could adapt some of the games that you play in class to an online environment – some will be easier to adapt than others – but I am sure that the students will have good ideas about how this can be done.
  • Finally, get the students to make up a game to share with the class and then get everyone to play it.

I hope this has provided you with a few suggestions as to how you can create some interaction in the remote learning environment. As always, we would love to hear your ideas and learn from your expertise in this area. I am sure everyone will benefit from sharing our knowledge and experience at this time.

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