Three innovations in online course design

Unconventional formats help engage students

What's next in online education? In a post for U.S. News & World Report, Ian Quillen explores three emerging trends in the sector that are shaking up the everyday for students and instructors.

1. Synchronous instruction: Technology can provide new ways to combine experiential learning with guided instruction and feedback. For instance, in the social work master's program at the University of Southern California, students participate in a virtual field practicum.

For four hours each week, students meet online for hands-on experience paired with instant virtual feedback. The first hour is spent in a mock counselling session with an actor. Then, students alternate leading the session and finally review what strategies were most effective.

2. Gamification: Infusing online courses with competitive elements and rewards can be an effective way to engage students. At the online New England College of Business and Finance, MBA students use course modules that harness their natural sense of ambition. The students "participate in a simulation where they steer their own businesses, then justify their results to a fictitious board of directors," Quillen writes.

At the undergraduate level, students compete to design the best website for a preselected nonprofit. The winner is selected by faculty and then presents his or her finished product to the organization. "One of our goals is to get our students talking about our classes afterwards," says Jason Kramer, an e-learning instructional technologist at the school.

3. Project-based learning: At the online College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, students demonstrate mastery of course materials by creating a product. Degrees are earned by demonstrating competency, and students move at their own pace.

Yvonne Simon, the competency-based learning program's chief learning architect, says the structure forces students to learn more of the material. "You continue to work on your project until you master all the competencies," she says. "You can't just take your seven out of 10 and move on" (Quillen, U.S News & World Report, 5/4).

The takeaway: Some online learning programs are working to engage students with project-based learning, synchronous instruction, and the gamification of curriculum.


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