Designing Interactive Online Course Activities

Using Web 2.0 tools to engage online learners

09/03/2009  |  KATHERINE HAYDEN, ED.D.
teaching technology
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In the past two decades, there have been sweeping changes in the use of technology as a means of course delivery in colleges and universities. Whole programs of study are now offered entirely online. It has been difficult for much of the professoriate to accept or stay up with rapidly developing changes in teaching and learning with technology. Social and educational demands are prompting institutions to provide students with e-learning opportunities.

Free Online Tools

With the ever-evolving expansion of e-learning through online environments, the online course designer must understand and apply best practices and models for quality experiences. New online management tools that expand instructional design elements should be considered. There is a wealth of “free” online tools to support e-learners and supplement the standard course design tools. These tools support interactive and engaging experiences for students. Exploration of a variety of Web based tools can lead to engagement for online learners, especially those who have been called “digital learners.”

Chat Environment

One online chat environment that can be used for online discussions is Tapped In®. This tool provides an “online workplace of an international community of education professionals.” According to their Web site, this e-environment supports “K-12 teachers, librarians, administrators, and professional development staff, as well as university faculty, students, and researchers [who] gather here to learn, collaborate, share, and support one another” (www.tappedin.org). With “free” membership to Tapped In, comes a virtual office, online volunteer support, virtual tours and support documents. Many students immediately see the value in using this e-environment to support their learning and may continue use after taking a course that utilizes this communication tool. The Tapped In virtual offices allow users to post documents and links as well as take advantage of weekly discussions that support educators on many topics including Web 2.0, instruction, special interest group meetings, and other professional education topics. In fact, Tapped In has a new K-12 environment specifically designed for students of the educators who visit the community. By completing a request, teachers can acquire a K-12 classroom and use it with their students both for class, and for virtual office hours.

Another online tool that first became available prior to the emergence of Web 2.0, is called Filamentality (www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/fil/). This tool allows publication of a quick Hotlist, Scrapbook, Treasure Hunt or WebQuest, hosted by AT&T on the Web for free! Many teachers use this tool as their first exploration for technology integration, especially Internet based. These interactive Web 1.0 tools soon led to more collaborative tools that began to emerge a few years ago. Suddenly, sites began to spring up everywhere with a “free spirit” offering of drag and drop tools offering collaborative, interactive opportunities for all who had access to the Web for “free.”

Web 2.0 Tools

As Web 2.0 tools began to emerge on the Web, the concept of the “read write Web” cam into existence with drag and drop tools that offered a focus on collaboration. They amplified the features of Tapped In by adding a new level of interactive possibilities. The simple text chat available in Tapped In was transformed through Web 2.0 features to enable virtual reality experiences in Second Life®, a “3D virtual world imagined and created by its Residents” (www.secondlife.com). The International Society for Technology in Education offers professional development and dialog opportunities weekly on their Second Life Island. Participants are provided with an avatar that walks freely about this virtual world with endless possibilities, including flying from one island to another.

Web 2.0 tools provide a nearly limitless variety of options for online course design. You can build the Web address for any tool mentioned in this paper by adding www before the name of the tool and .com at the end. Another approach is to type the name on the address bar and your browser will do the rest. (The Firefox browser is the best choice for using Web 2.0. There can be issues with other browsers.) You can use Web 2.0 tools to find Web 2.0 tools! One only has to search in the social bookmarking site “del.icio.us” to find a community of user selected top choices (use the tag “Web2.0” ). Existing courses can be redesigned by adding a collaborative online word processor called “Google Docs.” The entire suite of Google collaborative e-tools can be used to supplement online courses, providing an array of interactive opportunities for learners. Another suite of applications is available on Zoho (www.zoho.com) providing an excellent free online database tool. An online form of journaling, called Weblogs has become so popular that this blog format has become part of some Learning Management Systems such as WebCT® and Moodle®. When designing a module for a course, and you find the need for a tool, do a search and find a free e-tool to build into the activity. For instance, to allow a user to quickly post a photo to the “roster” tool in WebCT, a photo editor is available at Picnik without even joining the site. For many courses, the use of YouTube can provide the ability to post a video, or identify a video to teach a skill with a software program. Now students can easily share videos with important audiences; their families, friends and colleagues. For concept mapping, there are several choices I found effective, including Gliffy and Bubbl.us. In fact, there is a site called “9 Great Ways to Make Mind Maps and Flow Charts Online” that explores the possibilities. These are just a few examples of Web 2.0 tools can be used in online courses to empower learners.

Interactivity and Engagement

Web 2.0 tools have opened a whole new world for online teaching and learning. Students are excited to learn about and explore the free tools and then apply them to other classes and for personal needs. Many students quickly adopt to using these e-tools in their personal as well as work related life. In sharing photos using Flickr or a slideshow on Scrapblog, the tools provide the opportunity to support many aspects of student life. When looking for the best choice for a quick Web page, there are many options close at hand. Google Pages is a great tool for this purpose. Another option is to use a wiki and post all the elements of a page, even allowing others to edit if desired. Another Web 2.0 tool that can add interactivity to online course is a site called Voicethread, offering a solution for free or low cost (more features) audio and video storytelling by multiple users. Each user can add an audio, tell a story, leave comments, and/or upload files to the site.

The e-tools mentioned in this article are only a few of the ones out there that will support courses by offering a wealth of resources to support collaboration and sharing. With Web 2.0, students become authors publishing their products to a broader audience. Online instructors and course designers are encouraged to open their course to a broad array of tools to support e-learning. To learn more, join the social network on Classroom 2.0 (www.classroom20.com). This site offers the power of social networking sites such as My Space and Facebook, but, with a professional approach. Educators share what they are using and what they find most effective in the 2.0 arena. This community gives an opportunity to explore “social networking” and understand how it works. It’s now your turn to get started!

Katherine Hayden, Ed. D. is Associate Professor of Educational Technology at California State University San Marcos.
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