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Engaging Learners with New Strategies and Tools

January 26, 2010

Students’ levels of performance are higher and their levels of performance superior when online courses engage them in interactive actions (Durrington, Berryhill, & Swafford, 2006). The fundamental interactive components fall under content, collaboration, and communication with examples of four tools that illustrate the nature, scope, and value of interactivity.


  1. The first element of interaction is the syllabus that defines the nature and scope of a course. Making it available to students provides them with instructions, schedules, requirements, etc. thus giving them complete control in managing their time and integrating their academic activities with other areas of their lives. Boettcher presents 10 best practices for teaching online. It is critical that rather than focusing on the content, an instructor needs to focus on questions such as: “What is going on inside the students’ head?” “How much of the content is being integrated into their knowledge base?” “How much of the content and the tools are the students using?” “What are the students thinking and how did they arrive at their respective positions.” The nature and scope of the content that a student will encounter in any course starts with the syllabus.
  2. Discussion groups and forums provide participation in a student-led or instructor-led activity. This effective method of engaging in content of a course enhances student-student and instructor-student interaction. The central component that merits attention is the design of effective online discussion questions. Akin and Neal (2007) provide several suggestions regarding the design and rationale for online discussion questions
  3. The sheer wealth of information on the web makes it a powerful tool for students to access information. Lyman and Varian estimated that print, film, and magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002 alone. Five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37, 000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections (see details here). 
  4. Online libraries, databases, and specialized digital repositories afford the online student unlimited content. A few are Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), the world’s largest digital library of education; Questia, an online library, offers its subscribers multiple thousands of journals and books; and the Smithsonian Institution Research Information system (SIRIS)


 Numerous tools provide the facility for collaboration. Robin Good’s collaborative map is one of the more detailed, interactive, and editable maps on the web. 

  1. Problem-based learning activities enhances collaboration by engaging students and instructors in addressing and solving relevant fuzzy and messy issues pertinent to the content of a specific lesson. A site that models an integrated curriculum of collaborative problem-based learning activities has several valuable examples. Portfolio assessment relates problem-based learning to particular frameworks and benchmarks. Go here  to find several ideas and resources.
  2. One of the more popular collaborative tools is wiki pages that are simple to use for friends, colleagues, fellow-students, and business associates. It is essentially free and is easy to use with the distinct advantage of simplicity and effectiveness.
  3.  Writeboard  is free collaborative writing software that one can use to write, edit, track changes, and rollback to previous versions. This software is particularly useful for authors, editors, and publishers, students, instructors and others who may be collaborating on a paper. One of the advantages of this web-based collaborative tool is that it facilitates the comparison of previous versions of a document.
  4. Spicebird  is an open source platform that boasts of an all-in-one suite of communication tools for people who want to collaborate online. Features include email, instant messaging, and an online calendar. It provides easy access to various web services while retaining all the advantages of a desktop application. The application is based on projects like Thunderbird , Lightning,  and Telepathy and adds more functionality and integration among its components.


Social interaction is one of the central activities that will enhance communication. Muirhead suggests interesting activities that result from research studies on interactivity and related applications. 

  1. One of the fundamental tools for communication today is email. By far email boasts of highest numbers of users for e-communiation around the globe; approximately 700 million users . One of the downsides to email is the burden that users bear to maintain communication with the copious number of unsolicited emails received. Email continues to be the number 1 mode of communication among users who compose more than a few lines of information. Blogs give you the venue for expression and twitter facilitates your sharing and discovering what is happening right now, anywhere in the world.
  2. Ning for education is another social networking tool that has grown in popularity. It is the social platform for the world’s interests and passions online where millions congregate to share in the excitement of exploration and expression of common interests, and indulge in new discoveries of distributed pursuits. It provides for network creation and development.
  3. iBreadCrumbs is a social network for researchers to share recorded URLs, track websites, review notes online, and encourage online collaboration research. Similar in function to its DVR counterpart, iBreadCrumbs records all web pages you visit while you research. You can save, review, and share your research with friends and colleagues. The home page states, “iBreadCrumbs allows students, researchers, and professors to organize the world’s data into narrow research ‘breadcrumbs’ or click-streams.” This useful site will prove beneficial to communication and collaboration in research.
  4. Elluminate is a web-conferencing tool with built-in-class web, audio, video, and social networking solutions that help one create a 21st century teaching, learning, and collaboration environment. It is useful for communication, holding meetings, the built-in whiteboard facilitates presentation of information while hearing and seeing the presenter. One may record entire sessions for later review. Elluminate’s home page states that the tool “enables academic institutions to expand reach, reduce costs, maintain competitive advantage, drive technology adoption, and more.” See NC State University’s example of Elluminate’s use.



Akin, L. & Neal, D. (2007, June). CREST + Model: Writing effective online discussion questions. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2). Retrieved on January, 25, 2010 from

Durrington, V. A., Berryhill, A., & Swafford, J. (2006). Strategies for enhancing student interactivity in an online environment. College Teaching, 54(1), 190-193.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    January 30, 2010 7:17 am


    I think problem-based learning or project-based learning is becoming more popular because it gives learners of all ages an opportunity to creatively show what they know. According to Donnelly (2009), problem-based learning can create active critical thinkers, who engage in transformative learning experiences. As a middle school teacher, I assign various projects throughout the year that require my students to explain what they know about integers, transformations, and geometric constructions and how they will use and remember this information in the future. In collaborative groups, my students also complete challenging tasks that incorporate real-world examples and multiple problem-solving skills. Therefore, I use problem-based learning because it enhances student interactivity, problem-solving skills, and provides students with meaningful learning experiences (Durrington, Berrhill, and Swafford, 2006, p. 192).

    I have never heard of some of the technological tools that you mentioned (, Spicebird, and Ning). sounds like an excellent resource for anyone completing a doctoral thesis or writing a book on research. I also checked out a topic on Ning that was very interesting to me, which was how teachers were trying to use ning with middle school students. This social network could help teachers from making the same mistakes and together they will be able to share and overcome technology barriers. We live in a great time of opportunity because we have information at our fingertips and collaboration tools to help us make sense of it together.

    Donnelly, R. (2009, November 17). The nexus of problem-based learning and learning technology: Does it enable transformative practices? Learning teaching and technology center Dublin Institute of Technology Dublin: Ireland Retrieved from

    Durrington, V. A., Berryhill, A., & Swafford, J. (2006). Strategies for enhancing student interactivity in an online environment. College Teaching, 54(1), 190−193.


  2. Kimberly C Davis permalink
    January 30, 2010 8:04 pm

    I pulled out my handy dandy notepad to write down some of the technological tools that you mentioned in your post!!!! I have not heard of some of those and I am certain that they can be used inside of my classroom as I plan for the next school year. I do agree that electronic mail is the most highly used technology around. My students at school uses Epals which is a the social network optimized for K-12 learning. They are only allowed to send messages to me and all other messages that they “try” to send out have to come through me first. I have even set up where the students can send their work to me which makes the more responsible and gives the exposure to a semi dose of distant learning. We also use blogs inside of the classroom and I have had good feedback and classroom participation from the use of blogs. It has helped me communicate more with the students and give them prompter feedback than I have in the past. Blogs allow for students to reflect upon the learning that took place in class sessions, present their work and express ideas and concerns (Churchill, 2008). However, even though I love blogs and the students do to, in what ways does a blog environment supplement classroom teaching and lead to an improved learning experience, in your opinion?

    Churchhill, D. (2009). Educational applications of Web 2.0: Using blogs to support teaching and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology , 179-183.

  3. February 24, 2010 7:42 pm

    Performance-based tasks are becoming very popular. These tasks give student the opportunity to express their creativity and individuality. Performance tasks are also good for teachers to see what students know and don’t know. These tasks take standards and put them together. It’s a great way for students to start off with the big picture then get down to the smaller skills and concepts.

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