Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Incorporating Active Learning in an Online Course to Increase Graduate Student Engagement—Hyesun Cho (2012)

Overview

A professor designs a graduate-level online course to enhance engagement and empower students to be active in their own learning.

Background

Developing Intercultural Awareness in the Second Language Classroom (C&T 823) is an online course for graduate students in the School of Education. The goal of the course is to examine both the interrelationship of language and culture, as well as develop multicultural teaching techniques in order to generate cultural awareness in various educational contexts. I taught this course for the first time in Fall 2012. In previous semesters, this course was offered by other instructors but never in an online format. As an online course, I specifically needed to incorporate assignments that would facilitate interactions among students, as well as between students and the instructor. I re-designed the course and included new readings and assignments. This portfolio documents the various methods that I used to maximize student learning and student engagement in this online, graduate-level course.

Implementation

To facilitate students’ writing and research skills, I worked with colleagues from the KU Libraries and the Writing Center to design the following assignments and provide research and writing support to students:

  1. Cultural narratives: Synthesizing theory with experience
    To assess the change in learning across the semester, I developed a test to evaluate students’ knowledge and skills at the beginning and end of the semester. Students were required to synthesize theories from the course content and their personal experiences.
  2. Weekly reflections: Reflecting on course readings and facilitating peer interactions
    Students were required to post a weekly reading on the designated weekly topic (based on the course reading), respond to at least one peer post, and respond to peer feedback.
  3. Using Twitter to increase student engagement and promote active learning
    Students were required to create an account on Twitter, a social networking site, and “tweet” on topics related to the course. Through these tweets, they shared resources with one another in class, as well as “followed” leading scholars in their field.
  4. Final project: Applying and synthesizing coursework to create a new product
    As part of the course requirements, students completed a final project. They had two options: 1. An interview where they met with linguistic and cultural minority students across the KU campus; 2. Design three lesson plans that demonstrated a critical understanding of the role of culture in the language classroom, and effective techniques for raising students’ awareness of intercultural issues.
Student Work

I was pleased with student performance. In general, I found that students were able to connect their personal experiences (as researchers or as teachers) with theoretical and empirical work related to the course. Students provided feedback to their peers’ Twitter posts, weekly reflections, and final project presentations. Overall, peer feedback not only helped increase interactions but also helped students become more active in their learning. I found the peer responses to be insightful. Instead of merely indicating that certain posts/papers were “good” or “bad,” students gave constructive feedback that their peers could incorporate.

Reflections

I want to continue to make the course more interactive and am considering including more activities and assignments to further enhance student engagement. A few students indicated the need for online lectures that they could use as learning resources. In the future, I plan to work with the Center for Online and Distance Learning at KU to develop recorded lectures. Several students applied to present their interview project at professional conferences, and two were accepted to present their work at a multicultural education conference. I was very pleased with this outcome, as this was another way in which the course had far-reaching effects beyond the classroom.


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Background

Developing Intercultural Awareness in the Second Language Classroom (C&T 823) is an online course for graduate students in the School of Education. The goal of the course is to examine both the interrelationship of language and culture and the use of multicultural teaching techniques, in order to generate cultural awareness in various educational contexts, including:

  1. English as a second language classrooms (ESL) in the U.S.,
  2. English as a foreign language (EFL) classrooms outside the U.S., and
  3. mainstream K–12 classrooms in the U.S. that host English language learners.

By the end of the course students are expected to investigate the relationships among language, literacy, and culture and be able to explore how fields of sociolinguistics and multicultural studies influence these relationships.

I also want to find ways in which I can push students to go beyond the typical multicultural education goal of “let’s celebrate all the cultures.” In other words, rather than consider diversity on a superficial level and romanticizing differences, students are strongly encouraged to take a critical stance and consider sociopolitical issues (e.g., power differential between ethnic groups or class) in teaching for diversity. I want them to not only acknowledge the linguistic and cultural differences students bring to the class, but also take a proactive stance to advocate for diversity in schools and in the community.

I place an emphasis on the integration of multilingual and multicultural approaches in a variety of educational settings. I believe this course fits nicely into both the School of Education’s conceptual framework, as well as KU’s Bold Initiatives since it aims to promote diversity and raise cross-cultural awareness among students.

I taught this course for the first time in Fall 2012. Previously, C&T 823 was offered by other instructors but never as an online course. In setting up the class as an online course, I specifically needed to incorporate assignments that would facilitate interactions among students, as well as between students and the instructor. I re-designed the course and included new readings and assignments. This portfolio documents the various methods that I developed to maximize student learning and student engagement in this online, graduate-level course.


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Implementation

To facilitate students’ writing and research skills, I worked with colleagues from the KU Libraries and the Writing Center to design assignments and provide research and writing support to students. In this section I will outline the various assignments that I used to develop and assess student learning.

Cultural narratives: Synthesizing theory with experience
To assess the change in learning across the semester, I developed a test to evaluate students’ knowledge and skills (with respect to the course goals) at the beginning and end of the semester. This measure also helped assess students’ own reflections on their learning: students were encouraged to reflect on the change in their perspectives on multi-cultural education.

In the first narrative (pre-test), students were asked to explore their own perceptions and beliefs about cultural differences. This drew upon students’ personal and experiential knowledge. In the second narrative (post-test), I provided more guidelines on how to incorporate readings into their own narrative. In other words, students were required to synthesize theories from the course content and their personal experiences. Thus, the second narrative focused on theory and an evidence-based approach to cultural understanding.

Weekly reflections: Reflecting on course readings and facilitating peer interactions
Students were required to post a weekly reflection on the designated topic, based on the course reading. They were also required to respond to at least one peer post. Finally, students were then required to respond to the peer feedback. Thus, there were three deadlines for each weekly reflection: writing a reflections paper, commenting on a peer’s paper, and responding to the peer’s comment. This assignment not only assessed students’ understanding of the course content (and their ability to critically reflect on the weekly topic) but also facilitated peer interactions.

While I have a rubric for this set of assignments, I evaluated their work mostly on completion (so as long they completed the basic guidelines outlined in the rubric).

Using Twitter to increase student engagement and promote active learning
Students were required to create an account on Twitter, a social networking site, and “tweet” on topics related to the course. Through these tweets, they shared resources with one another in class as well as “followed” leading scholars in their field. The main goal of this task was to share useful web resources (e.g., links to relevant websites, news articles, videos, and blogs) in the field of multicultural and second language education. For instance, students could post online videos that reflected certain cultural stereotypes, or they could upload journal articles relevant to the course content.

Students were required to post tweets at least once every week, from week 3 until week 12. I assessed them on quantity (one point per tweet) as well as on quality (relevance to the week’s topic). Each week, I provided students with a list of possible topics, and they were required to discuss videos, websites, journal articles, lesson plans, or employment opportunities related to the provided topics.

This assignment has several uses. First, it is a learning resource as students can use their tweets and their peers’ tweets to learn new course materials. Second, it acts as a method of facilitating as well as assessing student engagement and participation. Moreover, it facilitates active learning that is student-focused and not instructor-focused. Rather than providing students with a package of information, students can take an active role in their learning and contribute toward class discussion. Finally, this assignment allows students to maximize peer interaction, an element that is often challenging to promote in an online setting.

Final project: Applying knowledge to create a new product
As part of the course requirements, students completed a final project. They choose from two options.

The first option was an interview. Students could conduct interviews with linguistic and cultural minority students across the KU campus. The main tasks were to:

  1. learn about experiences of linguistically and culturally diverse students in and out of school settings;
  2. analyze the interviewees’ experiences based on the theories and perspectives that students have learned in the course; and
  3. develop skills to communicate with non-native speakers.

In addition to writing about this process, students had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation that they shared with their peers. Once again, to increase interactions, students were required to respond to at least one peer’s presentation by a specific deadline (typically during Finals week).

The second option was to design three lesson plans that demonstrate a critical understanding of the role of culture in the language classroom and effective techniques for raising students’ awareness of intercultural issues. The three lessons plans should be designed in conjunction with specific content and/or language objectives in mind. Each lesson should include culturally relevant activities, materials, and modes of assessment that tie directly to the lesson objectives. For instance, if students are teaching English in a particular genre, they are required to develop a lesson plan that represents content from diverse perspectives and assignments that require a synthesis of these perspectives. Rather than merely listing contributions from various scholars, the goal is to promote a more insightful integration of different perspectives and scholars. As in the first option, students had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation that they shared and sought peer feedback.

Both options required students to build on their course readings to develop a particular research question (option 1) or specific lesson plans (option 2). In other words, both options required students to understand the theoretical frameworks in the course readings and then apply them to a novel situation. I developed these options while keeping in mind that some students were focused on a teaching career while some were more focused on a research career. I designed a rubric for the interview project as well as for the lesson plan project to evaluate their work.


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Student Work

I was pleased with student performance. In general, I found that students were able to effectively make the connection between their personal experiences (as researchers or as teachers) and theoretical and empirical work related to the course. This was clearly demonstrated in their cultural narratives (pdf)—students synthesized theories from the course content with their personal experiences. Moreover, as predicted, their responses in the post-test highlighted an evidence-based approach to inter-cultural awareness.

I was also pleased with their final projects. There were several students who clearly described the audience (age/grade) for their course designs. Moreover, they developed course objectives and lesson plans that were clearly aligned with the course objectives. Several students scaffolded the class activities to maximize student learning.

Likewise, I was pleased with the quality of the interview projects. Several students designed questions that were relevant, comprehensive, culturally appropriate, and sensitive to participants’ needs and experiences. In their analyses, students were cautious to avoid making broad claims and over-generalizing their results. Finally, they effectively transferred knowledge of course content in their analysis of interview results. See this example of an interview project (pdf).

Students responded well to the Twitter assignment. Several times they posted more than the required one post and, likewise, responded to more than one peer’s post. Overall, I was pleased with the quality and quantity of peer-to-peer as well as peer-to-instructor interactions. Students provided feedback to their peers’ Twitter posts, weekly reflections, and final project presentations. Overall, peer feedback not only helped increase interactions but also helped students become more active in their learning. I found the peer responses to be insightful. Instead of merely indicating that certain posts/papers were “good” or “bad,” students gave constructive feedback that their peers could incorporate.


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professor hyesen choReflections

As mentioned earlier, I was very pleased with the quality of final projects and with the quality and quantity of interactions. I want to continue to make the course more interactive, and I am considering including more activities and assignments to further enhance student engagement. For instance, I can have students work in pairs or larger groups to create Wikis and/or work on the final project. However, this can be challenging given that students come from varied backgrounds (e.g., part-time vs. full-time students) as well as varied locations. I need to consider the ways in which I can incorporate group work, keeping in mind that my students may not have the same time schedules.

Students liked the Twitter assignment. While they initially expressed hesitation over this task (primarily those who had no experience in using the site), students quickly recognized the value of this exercise. I am hopeful that they will continue to use this as a tool to exchange resources even after they are no longer required to do so.

A few students indicated the need for online lectures that they could use as learning resources. In the future, I plan to work with the Center for Online and Distance Learning at KU to develop recorded lectures. However, I do not want to develop a lecture for each topic, as I want to maintain the active learning component and require students to develop and/or find new resources for the course material.

I faced difficulties with students meeting deadlines. I found that many students disregarded the deadlines that I had specified for them. Since they did not have to meet at a certain time, as with face-to-face classes, I found that they did not feel like they had to complete tasks by a certain day and time (e.g., the time a class meets in a traditional face-to-face class). I think I need to be firmer about deadlines and perhaps send reminders about upcoming assignments.

Since this was the first time I was teaching this course, I did not have any sample student work from other course iterations. Several students wanted to see examples of the final project, especially those who had selected the interview project. Now that I have taught this course, I plan to use examples of student work as samples for the next round.

Several students applied to present their interview project at professional conferences, and two were accepted to present their work at a multicultural education conference. I was very pleased with this outcome, as this was another way in which the course had far-reaching effects beyond the classroom.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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