This is especially critical when dealing with non-traditional students, who are at a higher risk than traditional students for dropping out, and are also more likely to take online or hybrid classes for their much-needed scheduling flexibility.
Using an Inquiry-Based Approach to Promote Learning Success
An inquiry-based view of learning is reflective of the philosophy of renowned educational thinkers such as John Dewey and his cycle of learning:
- Ask (questioning)
- Investigate (problem solving)
- Create (synthesis)
- Discuss (community)
- Reflect (what did I learn?)
Dewey believed that, through collaboration, students would assume responsibility to actively construct knowledge as they went through these five stages; making connections with past learning in constructing new knowledge. By employing inquiry-based learning strategies, students can further develop their inquiry skills as they share, discuss, collaborate and reflect on new information. Educators routinely use such approaches in the traditional classroom. However, what becomes challenging is constructing opportunities for this to take place in an online environment when the instructor is not physically present. In other words, how do you engage students, spark their curiosity and promote questioning and understanding when you are teaching in a virtual environment? The following strategies are designed to accomplish this task.
Case Study: A Successful Assignment
One inquiry-based assignment I have found to be very successful and useful across many disciplines is to have students visit the CIA World Factbook website and complete an investigative assignment. In addition to the activity being interdisciplinary, investigative in nature and supportive of inquiry-based learning, it also requires critical thinking and use of reflection. From a social science perspective, the goals of the assignment include:
- Familiarizing students with how demographic data is used
- Contrasting different characteristics of nations throughout the world
- Making students more aware of how institutional structures of a society impact its citizens
To complete the assignment, students are asked to select one developing nation and one developed nation and to contrast their specific demographic characteristics with those of the United States. Students are reminded that they are writing about the nations and not merely stating data or numbers; the emphasis being on their perceptions, observations, analysis and reflection. An additional component of the assignment is to ask students to note what questions arose as they completed the assignment. They can then share their questions with other students if this is a group assignment, and have them decide what additional questions they want to research about the nations they selected.
Other Pedagogical Strategies that Drive Success
The above is just one example of the many assignments instructors can create to support inquiry-based learning and to make students into active learning participants. In turn, students may make greater effort to complete online work and successfully complete the course.
As hybrid/online educators are aware, the dropout rate can be very high for online students. This is especially true for students who are ill-prepared for college work to begin with, or who lack the discipline required to be successful in an online educational environment.
Some other suggested inquiry-based strategies are: debates; simulations; peer teaching; videos; online discussions; recorded lectures; use of social media, blogs, Wikis; e-portfolios, digital stories, field trips, synchronous and asynchronous chats and conferencing. It is important to think outside the box when creating assignments and to avoid common hybrid/online teaching pitfalls. Some course components to consider when designing a hybrid/online course are:
- Create pre-course requirements (number of credits needed, certain GPA, etc.)
- If required, conduct a student pre-enrollment assessment (student motivation and ability to take an online/hybrid class)
- Decide what technology students must have in order to be successful in the course
- Determine whether the course requires faculty or administrative approval
- Regularly check on students’ progress and communicate expectations clearly
- Determine a realistic and clear timeframe for assignments, grading and email replies
- Use creative assignments and real-world examples to keep students interested
- Decide whether students will be required to collaborate with one another
- Provide continuous contact, e.g. sending emails and announcements (this avoids having students feel isolated and/or disconnected from the class)
- Provide support and encourage students to ask questions and to seek help, if needed
- Repeat instructions for assignments, activities, quizzes, etc.
- Create open means of communication via Facebook, instant messaging, etc.
- Maintain high, yet realistic, expectations
- Don’t “pile on” assignments
- Allow students sufficient time to complete online assignments
In summary, hybrid/online course instruction is not going away; in fact, it is projected to increase dramatically over the next decade. Hybrid/online instructors need to be prepared to face the challenges of educating students in a virtual environment. It is also important to keep in mind that the future of higher education will not only emphasize the basics we already provide, but will want to ensure students are competent in the areas of inquiry-based learning, global awareness and appreciation, critical thinking, digital communication and information literacy.
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