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Are Students Tuning You Out or Downloading You In? Improving Online Instruction for 21st Century Skills

By Jennifer Levin-Goldberg / December 2011

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Online learning has proliferated significantly in the last five years. But is online education preparing students for 21st century skills just because students are required to have access to a computer?

The Partners for 21st Century Skills categorize 21st century skills as follows:

  • Information, Media, and Technology skills: information, media, and ICT literacy
  • Learning and Innovation skills: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity
  • Life and Career skills: adaptability and flexibility

Considering the rising interest in online education and whether or not educators are truly preparing students, the million dollar question is "How do we improve online learning to better prepare our students?" This issue goes beyond the classroom; workplace learners face the same struggles. Below are five strategies to not only enhance online instruction but also integrate and hone students for the 21st century skills needed to globally compete and succeed.

Communication, Communication, Communication

Provide relevant and meaningful feedback—not the mere "good job" or "what did you mean here?" Students should also provide meaningful and relevant feedback to other students. This fosters electronic communication skills, which is becoming more prevalent with the inception of social networking and the exorbitant use of emails and text messaging. Remember feedback should be timely. Have students respond to their peers' reflections in order to encourage dialogue and cogitate upon what others think and feel. Since students do not have face-to-face contact with their peers, electronic dialogues are crucial in establishing an organic classroom environ.

It is also important to furnish a rubric so particpants know how they will be evaluated, or what the expectations are in the discussions or blogs.

Relevant, Rigorous, and Congruent

Make the curriculum relevant, rigorous, and congruent with the various learning modalities by creating "real world" applications and connect it to previous lessons. For example, when examining plate tectonics and seismic activity, address the catastrophe plaguing Japan's most recent earthquake. Have students explore how other cultures in the past have constructed infrastructure to withstand earthquakes, such as the Incas and Mayas, and problem solve how they could architecturally fabricate contemporary infrastructure conducive for the topography, commerce, and population of Japan. Lastly, have them to construct a replica of their idea and conduct a simulation to see if it would work.

Inform students to what they are learning, why it is important to learn the material, and how it ties into their life.

Ask students what their goals are upon completing a unit or lesson. After students individually furnish their personal goals, monitor their success formatively and summatively. Performing scheduled weekly "conferences" is one way of accomplishing this. Ask them how they feel they are doing in attaining the goal(s), what are they doing to master them, and what you can do to help them.

Provide more than just articles to read for students to learn material. According to Holder and Young [1] utilizing more than one form of media enhances the learning process. Include videos, interactive simulations, and games to assess prior and newly acquired knowledge. This also accommodates the diverse learning modalities. Use discussion boards and blogs. Ask pertinent, relevant, and open ended questions focusing on problem solving and critical thinking, which accommodates the "learning and innovation" skillset. Once again, encourage students to respond to at least two other student responses using relevant and meaningful feedback.

Utilize emoticons to help students establish or interpret your tone; and bold face or highlight crucial points, terminology, or inquiries you want them to pay close attention to. However, be careful not to overuse emoticons, it may come across as unprofessional or sophomoric.

Performance-based Assessments and Evaluating and Defining Expectations

At the beginning of the course, dispense specific rubrics to students to help them understand how they will be evaluated. Include concrete examples of what exceptional work is and have them explain why it is considered stellar work.

When assessing students, inform them exactly what it is they did well and what they need to hone and improve upon. Make assessments more performance-based. Provide more opportunities for students to apply the newly acquired knowledge to a project utilizing technology, such as creating their own interactive website or blog, uploading self-created videos on YouTube, composing an ebook or podcast, and so forth.

Give students an opportunity to rectify their mistakes before final submissions. Schedule "progress conferences" to see where they may need more guidance. Remember; certify your feedback is meaningful, specific, and relevant.

Do not always have students work on projects alone; instead, encourage group collaboration. When ascribing a plethora of projects, allow students to change or rotate who they work with. This allows them to experience real world scenarios of not always choosing who they get to work with. It encourages them to learn how to collaborate with other individuals' skills, interests, and personalities.

A Positive and Safe Learning Environment

In online environments, we do not have the opportunity to read people's body language and hear their tone when communicating. Therefore, your words are imperative. Use the exact and specific words/adjectives you need. Read what you wrote; does it need to be more specific? Provide examples to clear-up any potential misinterpretations. Predict what questions may arise and if so, address them in advance.

Model professionalism and insist the same with your students. Furnish examples and non- examples of professionalism. Furnish students with problem based scenarios and ask them reflective questions on how they feel they would handle the situation. By establishing expectations and behavioral classroom policies, students will be better equipped to succeed in the course. Make sure you are consistent and follow through with consequences.

Get to know your students' interests and needs. Ask them questions about themselves, respond to them, and share your own. Address them by name or a nickname if they wish, include your picture when responding, and provide an emoticon when appropriate. You may want to have them complete a learning inventory so you can identify what their learning modalities are and insure your curriculum and instruction accommodates it. If you believe a student is struggling, this information may be germane for differentiation.

Throughout the course administer surveys to your students. You want to determine if they are satisfied with the communication, assignments, curriculum, and assessments presented. Do not take the responses personally instead use this feedback to accommodate and refine the course if and when necessary. Students feel empowered when given the opportunity to provide input; they have a say in their learning environment and the opportunity to improve their learning experience. Lastly monitor and facilitate communications between students; maintain a strong presence in your online environment; and post office hours and try to respond to emails within 24 to 48 hours. Instructors may want to use Skype or ooVoo to hold conferences to clarify assignments and information.

Incorporating Technology

Technology can be used to deliver curriculum, impart instruction, and manage assessments. If you are not familiar with technological tools and resources such as how to create ebooks, podcasts, websites, blogs, wikis, and other Web 2.0 tools, learn! Disseminate this knowledge to your students so they too can grasp these tools and have them demonstrate their mastery of newly acquired knowledge by using the technology as the conduit to exhibit their understanding of both technology and content knowledge.

Online classes are becoming more pervasive; therefore, the need to engender quality online instruction is germane. Now is the pivotal moment to make this a reality.

About the Author

Jennifer Levin-Goldberg, Ed.D, has been in education for 11 years serving as a middle and high school social studies teacher. She is currently an adjunct professor teaching graduate education courses at Grand Canyon University online. Levin-Goldberg has worn many hats in her career: an educator, Dean of Academics, instructional coach, and teacher mentor. She is a member of numerous professional organizations including: National Council of Social Studies, Association for Curriculum Developers, Social Science Education Consortium, National Social Studies Supervisors Association, College and University Faculty Assembly, and Kappa Delta Pi. To learn more about the author visit her website.


[1]Holder, D.E. and Young, J. Heard and seen: Instructor-led video and its effect on learning. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning 7, 9 (2010). Retrieved August 11, 2011 at


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