Facilitating Active Learning with Zoom

connected learners image
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Christine Scott, Instructional Design Specialist, Oregon State University Ecampus

So you managed to get your face-to-face courses up and running remotely in the midst of a global pandemic. You’ve secured your Zoom sessions to avoid unwanted disruptions, your students are in their virtual seats, and you’ve successfully delivered a few lectures. So what’s next?

Now that you have students’ attention, you may find that you’re ready to focus on transforming your synchronous session into a space for active learning to take place. It’s no secret that students learn better when they are actively engaged in the learning process. The question is how that translates to a remote Zoom session. Is it even possible to recreate the dynamic learning environment of your face-to-face class? 

To answer that question, we can look to best practices in online pedagogy. We know that students in online environments experience better outcomes and higher satisfaction when there are opportunities for active learning and engagement with the instructor, the course content, and each other. Fortunately, Zoom has several tools we can leverage to incorporate learner engagement in the remote setting.

Creating Opportunities for Active Learning

To set the stage for active learning, consider breaking your content delivery into shorter chunks, punctuated by periods of activity. Ask students to do something meaningful to help them engage with the content. This approach not only supports learning, but it also encourages accountability. If students understand they will be called upon to complete a task, they are more likely to be motivated to engage with the lecture.

During your synchronous session, you might ask students to: 

  • Respond to a question
  • Take notes to share
  • Create a list of examples or discussion questions to share afterward on the Canvas discussion board
  • Prepare a reflection to submit after the fact
  • Solve a problem

Breakout Rooms in Zoom

Breakout rooms are easy to set up and operate in Zoom. These small group spaces are useful as a means of incorporating peer-to-peer interaction and feedback into your remote course. They can also promote inclusion by providing an opportunity for low-stakes participation for learners who may be reluctant to chime in during large group sessions. Finally, breakout session activities can serve as a tool for formative assessment as the activities students complete can help instructors gauge achievement of the learning outcomes. 

Creating Breakout Room Tasks

Breakout room tasks can be carried out on-the-fly in the synchronous session, or they can form part of a more complex assignment. You might provide a prompt, file, or a link as a springboard for spontaneous discussion in small groups. Alternatively, you might flip your remote classroom by providing students with a pre-activity to complete before the live session. For further engagement, you might have students build on what they produce in their breakout rooms through an asynchronous submission in Canvas. 

When creating breakout room tasks: 

  • Set clear expectations. Any explanation of expectations should include a clear relationship to learning outcomes. Provide a code of conduct for interaction, performance expectations related to the task, etc.
  • Prepare instructions in advance. Provide students with a clear task and deliverable. Include any resources needed to complete the task. Outline the deliverable or provide a model so that students understand what is expected upon reconvening with the whole class. 
  • Guide students in how to self-organize. Assign roles or ask students to assign them (host facilitator, notetaker, timekeeper, and speaker who reports back to the class). 
  • Provide technical support. A tip sheet for the technology can be helpful in case they get stuck, for example. 
  • Monitor. Circulate as you would in your face-to-face class by joining breakout rooms to check in. 
  • Report back. Ask students to present a summary slide (groups might contribute a slide to a class google presentation), share group’s response, etc. Follow up with whole-group sharing in some form. 

Sample Breakout Room Activity Types

  • Small group discussion
  • Think – Pair – Share
  • Group project
  • Data analysis/text analysis
  • Debate preparation
  • Simulation practice – mock interview
  • Peer feedback
  • Jigsaw activity

Polling 

Another option for interactivity during lectures is the Zoom poll. Polls are easy to launch and are a handy tool for icebreakers at the beginning of sessions, to check for understanding, or to allow students to have input on lecture content. They can be created as anonymous surveys or as simple question responses. 

Fig. 1 This example demonstrates how polling could be used to pose a question and elicit an anonymous response from participants.

Non-verbal Feedback in Zoom 

Sample of Nonverbal feedback icons from Zoom
Nonverbal Feedback options in Zoom

If you miss the non-verbal feedback of a live audience in a face-to-face setting, you might consider encouraging students to use Zoom’s non-verbal feedback options available in the chat window. This tool allows students to input quick yes/no responses to questions, ask for the speaker to speed up or slow down, indicate that they need a break, and more. 

Sample of a music activity
Fig 2. Consider how the simplicity of non-verbal feedback indicators might be useful in a cognitive psychology course for student feedback while listening to audio clips. Students could be asked to use the thumbs up when they can name the familiar melody mixed with interfering tones, for example.

 

Facilitating Lab Experiences Remotely

Live lab activities provide another opportunity for interactive experiences in Zoom. The following examples of lab tasks that implement active learning principles are taken from existing online courses through Oregon State University Ecampus. Consider how similar field and lab experiences could be used to engage learners in your remote courses. 

Sample Experiences

image from science course

Science Education

In this example from a phenology course, students observe and record specific elements in a local natural area over the course of the term. After watching an instructor-led demonstration, learners record key elements based on Nature’s Notebook. They then share their data, photos, and drawings with the class to create a collective body of observations. Students then contribute their observations to a national phenology network. 

Public Health

pedometer walker
Image source: pixfuel.com, cc

Learners in this course collect and analyze authentic data through a public health topic: the human-built environment. Students wear a pedometer to track how many steps they take over a 48-hour period. They ask other members of their family or community to track the same information. Students gather, analyze, and compare their data to identify potential strategies their community could implement to improve its built environment to promote active transportation by walking, biking, or other means.

Tips for setting up remote lab demonstrations or tasks: 

  • Consider common household items to recreate a lab experience
  • Add or find components online
  • Use online videos or DIY recordings of a demonstration
  • Present simulations and provide an analysis or breakdown of what is happening
  • Connect students to virtual labs or simulations
  • Provide instructions and expected outcomes
  • Demonstrate or show the process for collecting data
  • Provide raw data for students to analyze
  • Offline – engage students with assignments or discussions related to the remote lab experience

Whether you opt to use breakout rooms to facilitate collaborative tasks, quick polls to gather student input on lecture content, or non-verbal feedback options to take the pulse of your audience, the features of Zoom offer a means of interaction that can help you to bring students to the center of your remote teaching sessions. 

Adapted from slide presentation by Cyndie McCarley, Assistant Director of Instructional Design, Oregon State University Ecampus

Decorative image: laptop with a screen that shows a portfolio layout

“A well-executed e-portfolio program is an incredible tool for higher education. They provide institutions with authentic assessments of student learning and promote the deeper learning that we want for our students…” -Candyce Reynolds, associate professor, Post-Secondary, Adult, and Continuing Education, School of Education, Portland State University, from PeerReview: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education

What Is an E-portfolio?

There are now more ways than ever to showcase one’s work as a student or professional. Long gone are the days of lugging around an actual folder full of plastic sleeves containing paper prints. Today, students and professionals routinely choose electronic contexts to house their best works. This digital context for storing selected pieces is referred to as an electronic portfolio or e-portfolio, and the items in the portfolio are referred to as artifacts.

To best understand what we are talking about when we speak of e-portfolios, let’s start with a definition. As a former instructor of English to speakers of other languages, I find that word etymology opens my eyes to rich context. For example, in this case, “port” is Latin for haven or harbor. And the “folio” part of the word comes from the Latin word “folium,” which means leaf (foliage) or sheet. From these etymological roots, we can think of the word portfolio as translating to a harbor or haven for your sheets of paper, in a sense.

In order to contextualize this definition within a contemporary academic setting, I turn to a working definition of e-portfolios, such as this one from Lorenzo and Ittleson: “An e-portfolio is a digitized collection of artifacts, including demonstrations, resources, and accomplishments that represent an individual, group, community, organization, or institution.” In other words, for our purposes, an e-portfolio is a selection of a student’s best works, displayed in an electronic format.

The electronic portfolio may be used for assessment or to track progress in a course, for example. An e-portfolio may take the form of a number of electronic contexts, including a user-friendly web-based website design (such as Wix), within the modules of a learning management system (LMS) such as Canvas, in video, as docs within a Google Drive folder, or even within a simple pdf document (Lorenzo and Ittleson). In any case, there are two main elements in an e-portfolio: a digital context and a selection of works.

The Benefits: Here Are a Few Things That E-portfolios Can Do:

  • foster learning communities in online graduate programs. – Bolliger, D.U. (2010) Journal of Distance Education
  • encourage independence and self-directed learning (which is an element of Heutagogy, or taking responsibility for one’s own learning as an autonomous, lifelong learner)
  • prompt students (and faculty) to articulate connections among the products of their courses, the overall program or course curriculum, and larger life goals
  • prepare students for applying to graduate programs or employment, which can be highly motivating and engaging for students
  • give students the opportunity to use higher order thinking skills and metacognition when evaluating their own work (or the work of others, as with e-portfolio peer reviews)
  • provide faculty with a rich source of data, which they can use to evaluate the effectiveness of courses or programs

What Students Are Saying

Student voices from The Benefits of E-portfolios for Students and Faculty in Their Own Words:

“I didn’t realize the importance of the work I was doing… all the communication skills I was learning while doing research… When I had a chance to reflect on it and was asked to describe the experience to others in my e-portfolio, I realized that I had learned a lot more than I thought. I was so focused on getting into business school, that if I had not had the space to stop and reflect on my experiences, I would have never known how much I actually gained from everything I did my first year.” Second-year student, University of Michigan

“I feel that the process has enhanced my understanding of the overall higher education experience… I have always felt confused and irritated by the lack of connection between my general education requirements and my core department requirements. I think that the e-portfolio is a great way to link the two… It was encouraging to see that I was attending college for my own personal and professional growth.” Student, Portland State University

Examples of Student E-portfolios & Platforms

  • LaGuardia Community College: Student E-portfolios
  • Pathbrite: An e-portfolio platform
  • Digication: Explore e-portfolios
  • E-portfolios can be as complex as building a website, as in the above examples, or as simple as a group of final essays (or lab reports or other documents) in a digital file folder.

E-portfolios in Your Course

Would you like to include an e-portfolio element in your course but not sure where to start or what tools to use? Talk to your instructional designer to get some ideas about various kinds of e-portfolios and whether an e-portfolio would be a good fit for your course.

Have you used e-portfolios in a course before? How did it go? What tools did you use?

Resources & References

IJeP: International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/index.html

Barrett, H. [TEDxTalks]. (2010, March 10). TEDxASB – Helen Barrett – 2/25/10 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ckcSegrwjkA

Bolliger, D.U. (2010). Student perceptions of eportfolio integration in online courses. Retrieved from the Journal of Distance Education: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01587919.2010.513955

Bowman, J., Lowe, B., Sabourin, K. & Sweet, K. (2016). The use of eportfolios to support metacognitive practice in a first-year writing program. Retrieved from International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/pdf/IJEP221.pdf

Getman-Eraso, J. & Culkin, K. (2017). Close reading: engaging and empowering history students through document analysis on eportfolio. Retrieved from International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/pdf/IJEP242.pdf

Kelly-Riley, D., Elliot, N, & Rudniy, A. (2016). An empirical framework for eportfolio assessment. Retrieved from International Journal of ePortfolio: http://www.theijep.com/pdf/IJEP224.pdf

Lorenzo, G. & Ittelson, J. (2005). An overview of e-portfolios [Report]. Retrieved from EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) website: https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2005/1/eli3001-pdf.pdf

Lorenzo, G. & Ittelson, J. (2005). Demonstrating and assessing student learning with e-portfolios [Report]. Retrieved from EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) website: https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2005/1/eli3003-pdf.pdf

Miller, R. & Morgaine, W. (2009). The Benefits of E-portfolios for Students and Faculty in Their Own Words. Retrieved from PeerReview: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education: https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/peerreview/Peer_Review_Winter_2009.pdf

Song, B. & August, B. (2002). Using portfolios to assess the writing of ESL students: a powerful alternative? Retrieved from Journal of Second Language Writing: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S106037430200053X

Image Source: Pixabay (Creative Commons License)

Why Accessibility?

Online education provides access to all types of students and from all across the world. Each student is unique and has unique educational needs. To better attend to our student’s needs, we can develop course materials from the beginning to be more accessible for everyone.

What can I do?

Provide the equivalent alternative to multimedia

When creating or selecting multimedia for a course, an equivalent option should be provided for students that cannot access the multimedia. As an example, if you are creating lectures you should create a word for word transcript that can be posted or better yet, be used to create closed captions.

Provide “alternative” description for images

For students who use screen readers, adding an “ALT-TAG” on all images used in the course helps them to “see” images or skip over unnecessary decorative images efficiently. The ALT-Text should describe the educational value of that image. What they are they supposed to gain from that image and why is it essential to the course material?

Make all file types accessible

When creating or selecting documents to use in your class, you’ll want to make sure that all files are accessible to students. Using built-in accessibility feature in Word, PowerPoint and PDF documents will help to develop an accessible structure for that document.

Creating meaningful link names

All students will benefit from having a link that describes where they are going to link out to. Students who use screen readers will be especially grateful if they have a link that says “Oregon State University Library resources” instead of “click here” or simply the URL.

Use contrasting colors

Blind person frustrated because the computer says to push the red button but has no other ways of conveying which button to push.
Credit: Zero Project Conference

Dark text on light backgrounds or light text on dark backgrounds will help all students read your important information easier than, perhaps, orange text on a red background. Doing this also limits the trouble that students who are color blind to see the difference between the background and text. Remember to not use color as the only form of meaning. If you have red and green text showing students what to and not to include in a paper, make sure there are headings that also state that information. Want to know what colors and backgrounds work? Check out WebAIM’s Color Contrast Checker.

If you have any tips or questions, please leave them in the comment area below.