Enhancing Active and Interactive Learning Online - Lessons Learned from an Online Introductory Agroecology Course

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					             Enhancing Active and Interactive Learning
              Online - Lessons Learned from an Online
                  Introductory Agroecology Course
                                                                                           1
                                                Michelle S. Schroeder-Moreno
                                                North Carolina State University
                                                      Raleigh, NC 27695

Abstract                                                                 across many disciplines and institutions, instructors
    While web-based course offerings are growing                         are seeking innovative approaches to improve the
rapidly across various institutions and disciplines,                     online learning experience for students.
there is an emerging need to enhance student                                 Teaching an online course requires more than a
interactions and active learning for online learning                     mastery of the subject knowledge sufficient for a
environments. An Introduction to Agroecology                             traditional classroom-based course. Faculty not only
online course was developed at North Carolina State                      must learn new technologies, but consider effective
University purposefully with the intention of maxi-                      instructional strategies to enhance student learning
mizing student interactions and active learning                          and interactions in a virtual environment (Gaytan
through diverse instructional strategies to create a                     and McEwen, 2007). Web-based courses and
collaborative, virtual learning community. This                          advanced educational technologies can improve
paper will describe the course development, outline                      instructors' abilities to expand information to new
the specific strategies to promote active learning and                   audiences, but these alone do not guarantee effective
student interactions used, and share student evalua-                     teaching and learning outcomes. A variety of studies
tions and lessons learned; complied after eight                          have found that instructors teaching online share
semesters of teaching this online course. From course                    similar concerns that include lack of institutional
evaluations and post-course surveys, students valued                     support and incentives, increased time needed for
the opportunities to interact with each other and the                    online course development, potential technology
instructor and stressed the importance of making                         problems, and effectiveness of student-instructor
time and treating their online course like their face-                   interactions (Born and Miller, 1999; Gammill and
to-face courses. The instructor used the evaluations                     Newman, 2005). The lack of interaction among
and surveys each semester to continually assess                          students and instructors in online courses is a
student experiences and impacts of specific course                       concern also shared by students (Flowers, 2001;
components. The instructional strategies, evaluation                     Schmidt and Gallegos, 2001). Although a number of
process and lessons learned described here are                           studies have found online students to perform equal
general and diverse enough to be easily utilized by a                    to or better than their classroom counterparts
variety of online courses in various stages of develop-                  (Dutton et al., 2002; Schroeder-Moreno and Cooper,
ment. This purpose of this paper is to stimulate                         2007), the failure to complete courses is much more
further communication on successful pedagogical                          frequent for online students than for traditional
strategies for collaborative and interactive online                      classroom-based students (Dutton et al., 2002).
teaching and learning.                                                   Although the reasons students withdraw from online
                                                                         courses are often complex (Garland, 1993), the lack of
                                                                         real-time interaction and stimulation from online
Online Education and the Need for
                                                                         course materials can often cause learners to feel
Active Learning                                                          isolated in the online environment (Fulford and
    The growth of web-based educational technology                       Zhang, 1993). While the dynamic nature of online
and the increasing demand to offer distance educa-                       courses can provide a flexible learning (and teaching)
tion courses has led to the rapid development and                        format in which students can progress at their own
diversity of courses offered online. More than two-                      pace, they must be self-disciplined and highly moti-
thirds of all higher education institutions offer web-                   vated to be successful in online courses (Waschull,
based courses and in fall 2006 there were more than                      2005). Instructional strategies that enhance frequent
3.48 million students enrolled in online courses                         interactions and student engagement in online
representing close to 20% of the total student enroll-                   courses can help keep students connected to the
ment (Allen and Seaman, 2007). Online courses and                        material and to each other and motivated, even in
programs can extend the reach of the university;                         virtual space (Phillips, 2005).
providing learning opportunities to new audiences                            Active and interactive learning activities may be
that would otherwise be limited by time or distance.                     fundamental strategies to keeping students engaged
As online education continues to quickly develop                         in online courses (Edwards et al., 2007). Active
1
    Assistant Professor, Department of Crop Science, 2406 Williams Hall; Email: michelle_schroeder@ncsu.edu


NACTA Journal • March 2010                                                                                                  21
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