D is also for Distance-Learning (Part 2)

How to help your students to engage with each other

Interconnecting lighthouses

In Part 1 of our blog post on distance learning, we looked at some ways of supporting our students via their online learning communities during these difficult times. Many academics are anxious about teaching online, feeling that they are expected to become technical experts overnight. And yet the smallest of acts, such as inviting students to share how they are and providing a platform for this – or encouraging our online participants to stretch or move and thus engage in some self-care – can make a difference, without the need for any digital wizardry.

On the other hand, there is more to online teaching than a screen dump of all your usual lecture materials. Below we present some activities designed to engage participants in rich learning experiences while reminding them that they are not alone. As before, we will be suggesting different collaborative learning apps, but do consult your own institution’s ed-tech or e-learning team for further support and advice on possible alternatives. All of the examples have been used in practice, with positive feedback from participants.

Moving things around: virtual matching and sorting activities

Just because you’re teaching online, it doesn’t mean that all the tasks have to be in a Question and Answer format. To be sure, there are some great quiz apps out there, but matching and sorting statements on cards can achieve a level of deep learning that simple Q+A activities can’t. When you’re moving cards or sticky notes around a table, a wall or a screen with someone, knowledge can be negotiated and quite literally reconstructed without the added stigma or finality of typing in a ‘wrong’ answer, and the activity in itself encourages communication, which in itself is an essential part of learning at every stage in education.

It’s easy enough to imagine students engaging in this type of task in a face to face session. Here’s how to make it work in an online environment.

If you are designing a card matching task with a single correct solution, apps such as  Quizlet allow you to create virtual question and answer cards (e.g. a term and its definition) and then have the students pair them up as part of a game.

If, on the other hand, there is no single ‘correct’ arrangement of cards as such, and the aim is more to get people thinking or talking about the content, then something like Lino is a better bet. This allows you to create an online noticeboard with virtual sticky notes and then invite other people to move them around. For a large cohort, you can create several copies of the resource, as in the image below. Each group can then take a screenshot of their response and send it to you for comment.

Activity directing students to different links, using Lino

If this sounds a bit complicated, never fear; there are low-tech options, too. One is to create a document in Word or PowerPoint (or equivalent) with colourful text boxes. The document can then be downloaded by the student, and the text boxes moved around the screen as needed.

Drag and drop card matching task

Another tech-lite option is to produce a version of the activity for people to print and cut up (if they’re able to), so that they can move the components around manually. This provides an embodied learning experience, which in itself can help with recall.

In a synchronous (‘live’) online learning session, to make these activities collaborative you need to find a way for your students to work in small groups and share their screens, for example by getting each group to set up their own Google Meet, or by creating ‘chat rooms’ within a VLE tool such as Blackboard Collaborate. This involves giving clear instructions and informing the participants when they are expected to report back to the main group. In an asynchronous session, discussion forums could be used for participants or groups to share their responses to the task.

Collaborative Online Tasks – with a twist

Working on shared documents on the ‘cloud’ as part of a team project is not a new phenomenon, but you can add a bit of drama and suspense to the process by creating a wrap-around narrative that makes people smile (or groan!).

The Mystery of the Missing Theory - with detective novel type background image

Instructions for task, directing the students to a Google Doc to replace the 'missing' theory

An activity such as this can work asynchronously or synchronously, and it can be designed as a starter or as the main focus of the session. The idea of the dramatisation is that it provokes an emotion and stimulates the imagination, thus making us more ready to respond, and it makes the task itself more fun, and therefore more memorable.

More creative ideas for online teaching and learning

Here is a virtual ‘restaurant’ where participants can choose their favourites from a menu of theories and post their orders online:

Welcome to the Restaurant at the End of the Module. Slide inviting students to collect a menu and place their order via mentimeter.

(cue accompanying Spanish music…)

A mock tapas menu with theories instead of dishes

Plus a downloadable ‘menu’ of the theories and models being studied…

A sign saying that due to lockdown restrictions, customers are expected to provide their own food and drink.

And a Do-it-Yourself approach to catering.

A slide asking for feedback on the activity, with examples of what people contributed.

Followed by an opportunity for feedback and discussion.

In fact, the sillier the narrative, the better. This is because when we laugh, as The Atlantic journalist Tom McTague explains, we are not simply trying to regain control in a currently unpredictable and threatening environment, we are also trying to reconnect with each other.

Learning online is not just about the learning: it’s a place to make contact, see friendly faces and hear familiar voices, a space in which to crack jokes and engage in general silliness and a means of sharing stories and expressing fears. Above all, it provides an opportunity for reminding us that we are not alone.

Rachel Stone


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