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This content was published: August 11, 2014. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

The power of choice in the online classroom

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Woman studying math online

Woman studying math online. Image courtesy of US Dept. of Education. https://flic.kr/p/fCYCVe

Self-directed learning has been a long-time best practice in the field of andragogy. But what does it look like in an online classroom? And how can it be used to improve an online course?

When I first began teaching online, it was very clear that what was missing from my course was accountability. I also had this sense that students had far more questions than they were asking. I started researching ways to help students be more engaged and accountable. I’ve heard the mantra “students don’t do optional” a few too many times. Yet as much as I might not like to admit it, it’s generally true. I knew that whatever I added would need to be required, but I hesitated to add anything that would feel like busy-work. Our students are already really busy. And most of them work. The last thing they need is busy-work.

What I came across in my reading was a list of best practices that would benefit some students, but clearly just be busy-work for other students. Discussions and email exchanges can be great, as long as they’re genuine and focused. Utilizing on-campus resources is great, as long as one has access. Working with an online tutor is also great, but it’s not for everyone. Doing extra homework can really solidify concepts, or bore a student to mathdeath. All of these can be really beneficial for students, but none seemed appropriate to require of every student.

With this and self-directed learning in mind, I decided to add a required participation component that allowed students to choose the means by which they completed it. I called it “Open Inquiry,” and it’s meant to be a means through which students earn credit for asking meaningful questions related to the mathematical content of the course. They can do this by posting a question in an on-going discussion board, by sharing a resource they found in an on-going discussion board, by emailing me a question, by working with an online tutor, by going to one of PCC’s on-campus Student Learning Centers, by completing additional homework problems, or by another alternative they request.

There are three primary benefits this element of choice has added to my course. The first is obvious—students get to spend a significant chunk of their time doing whatever best meets their needs and ability level. The second is also obvious—when students get to spend time on things they feel are beneficial, they do better work. The third isn’t quite as obvious though. By allowing students a choice, the rapport that I have with my students and the rapport they have with each other changed dramatically. For one, students stopped apologizing for sending me emails. I never understood why students would start an email to an online instructor with, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” Isn’t that a primary part of our job? Once it was part of a required component, the apologies stopped altogether. Another surprise was how it changed the rapport students had with each other. Students who benefited from open discussions started posting really exceptional work, and in doing so naturally formed small groups within the class. But because not everyone was required to post, the discussion board stayed void of a plethora of “Cool!” replies.

For a few last nitty-gritty details: I weight “Open Inquiry” as I would class participation, which is at 4%. I do have to record each submission manually, but I estimate that I spend less than 5 minutes a week doing so.

Do you have other ways that you’ve implemented self-directed learning in your online course? It would be great to hear them.

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x (Comment #3473) by Jessica Bernards 8 years ago (Comment #3473)

This is amazing! So proud of you, Ann!

x (Comment #3474) by Frank Goulard 8 years ago (Comment #3474)

Nice article, Ann. Thanks for your insights!

x (Comment #3475) by Kandace Kling 8 years ago (Comment #3475)

This is awesome, Ann! Thanks for sharing.

x (Comment #3478) by Dan Findley 8 years ago (Comment #3478)

This is an intelligent strategy that leads to effective student collaboration in their own learning. Too often, it seems that students feel as if they are spectators in class rather than being active participants and co-creators of meaning. I especially appreciate that this method respects students as being both capable of and interest in making critical choices that drive learning and success. Nicely done!

x (Comment #3507) by Shawna Dehler 8 years ago (Comment #3507)

Excellent article. I love the flexibility of the “open inquiry”. Please let me know how you grade this component in 5 minutes per week??
Thanks so much,

x (Comment #3529) by Shirlee G 8 years ago (Comment #3529)

I too have wrestled with the dilemma of accountability+engagement without creating Busy Work. I am jazzed by your idea of Open Inquiry and will give it a try!

One idea I have used for about 10 years now is creating a grading “menu.” I offer people a set of assignment options, and allow them to pick. A sample menu includes weekly quizzes, a midterm, discussions, a final, discussion boards, weekly essays, weekly homework (usually from the text) or a presentation. Sometimes I guide things a bit to make sure all the work isn’t heavy on the first or last part of the class — for example, two choices from column A and one from column B.

I hear back from students over and over how much they like this. Since they are assigning the assignments to themselves, there is engagement IN the accountability from the beginning!

As long as you are confident about your ways of scoring different ways for people to demonstrate learning, it is great!

(CASCADE TLC had a speaker from U of Penn long ago as part of a year-long series, and this was one of the things she recommended. She is the only other instructor I have run across who uses this method. — which shocks me, as it works really really really well to solve a riddle so many of us wrestle with.)

x (Comment #3617) by Ann Cary 8 years ago (Comment #3617)

Hi Shawna,

In referring to “5 minutes per week,” I was only referring to the time it takes to record this grade component. There’s unfortunately not an easy way to automate this type of grade component in Desire2Learn, at least not in the way that a quiz question or discussion post can be automatically graded or directly linked to a grade component.

Facilitating this component of the course takes far longer. It’s also one of my favorite aspects of teaching online though, as it gives me the opportunity to know that I’m truly teaching and stimulates genuine, in-depth inquiry. Each reply from me can take anywhere from 2 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on the depth and content of a student’s question or request. I end most of my replies by asking the student if my explanation fully answered their question, which is a great way to encourage them to keep asking questions. The total time varies greatly throughout the term and from class to class; I’d estimate anywhere from 2-6 hours each week.

x (Comment #3675) by Iris Savich 8 years ago (Comment #3675)

This is a great idea to keep students more engaged in their online learning and a way to help them create a better leaning community.

Iris :)

x (Comment #3791) by Loraine Schmitt 8 years ago (Comment #3791)

Thank you Ann for taking the time to share your experience with us. Knowing that many online students face challenges with feelings of isolation, the benefit of the impact this has had on the rapport students have with you and each other is compelling. And, I imagine the confidence they gain from sharing exceptional work must only enhance their sense of self-efficacy. I also appreciate Shirlee’s “menu” of options for assignments.