In 1987, Chickering and Gamson suggested seven principles for undergraduate education that (supposedly) transcend pedagogical theories. Nine years later, Chickering considered how technology could be a "lever" for the seven principles, but now another sixteen years have passed, and while the principles haven't changed, the technology certainly has.
As classes move more and more online, it becomes more important to consider these principles and how well they are embodied by our hybrid and online learning environments, particularly in regards to student engagement (which I think is what at least six of the seven principles are really about, and perhaps all seven).
I looked to Chickering's two articles to frame a series of questions about online learning that might expose some of the limitations of those environments, particularly asynchronous environments where students may not have contact with one another or with an instructor, as well as looking for both native CMS strategies and external tools that can extend the learning space.
1. Do you realistically and explicitly help students manage their time?
It is easy to think of an online classroom as a timeless void, but it isn't for students. Your learning activities should set expectations for how long learners will need to complete each module or activity. Remember that twenty minute blocks are best while anything over forty minutes will seriously tap students ability to stay on task and remain focused. If you find many of your activities or modules are over an hour long, consider breaking them up or shortening them.
When adding a lot of supplementary resources such as documents and links to other websites, be sure to label these appropriately as optional and suggest how they might be useful to complete the objectives of the course.
2. Do(es) the instructor(s) in your course websites have presence, particularly in a way that makes the student feel genuinely connected?
There are easy-to-use video tools that can capture video from a webcam and embed it in the discussion board or elsewhere, such as the University's own Media Mill or YouTube. Rather than create and "can" the video in advance, instructors should consider creating the videos during the course in response to student questions and feedback.
3. Do learners have the opportunity to assess their own learning in low-stakes ways with prompt feedback?
Remember John Houseman in the Paper Chase? Students dreaded being at the wrong end of his pointed finger, but they sure prepared for class knowing they might be. That’s lost in an online environment -- the challenge to give a good answer to a tough question on the spot, and the professor’s withering and/or complimentary response. Most CMS have some kind of self-assessment tool but they may only be good for basic comprehension of knowledge as opposed to the higher cognitive goals. Can you introduce a discussion forum or other way for students to demonstrate deep learning, and can the instructor commit to validating their efforts?
4. Are there opportunities for students to reflect on what they've learned or connect it to past learning?
Learners in face-to-face environments benefit from hallway chatter and other opportunities to simply share their challenges and frustrations, as well as their rewards and "aha" moments as they make their way through the course. While this can be somewhat facilitated with threaded discussions, you may also consider how blogs, podcasts, or other self-publishing and self-broadcasting tools can help students process their learning in an honest and reflective way before they have to demonstrate it on a final assessment.
5. Are there opportunities for learners to learn together in a meaningful way?
A few of us in the faculty development group have lately been thinking about the different modes of collaboration in learning environments -- from "sharing" to full-scaled collaborative writing. The best strategy here may be more for students "sharing" with their peers by posting their work in draft form and getting feedback. Consider folding peer reviews and small group discussions around assignments, particularly capstone assessments. If the course is open for students to complete at different times and at their own pace, you may need to consider how to create cohorts or otherwise facilitate a process where students do not feel isolated.
6. Do you help learners see the big picture?
"High expectations," Chickering calls it, but perhaps a better way to think of it is "post-course expectations." Why are learners in the course? What do they hope to achieve not just from this class, but from their program? What is it all about? This may be one case where an online class has an advantage over a face-to-face class. You have the ability to connect to real world experts and cognitive mentors who can explain how each component of the class is relevant to them, as professionals in the field your learners want to pursue. Because it doesn't involve a huge time investment or travel, you'll have an easier time finding willing guests. Embed short videos of testimony, or invite guests to answer questions using a live tool like Skype or an video sharing service like You Tube, embedding the result right in your CMS. Of course, this is just one of many ways you might take advantage of the web medium to connect learners to the world beyond the classroom and how the learning relates to their professional goals.
7. Does your course website appeal to diverse talents and ways of learning?
Can you include high-impact visuals, videos, and interactive multimedia to enhance pages of textual content? Of course this is a resource-intensive investment, but you may be able to incorporate existing materials that others have made available, or find ways to invest in reusable media objects that can be used by several different courses in your college or department.