At this year’s Academic Tech Expo (ATE) at OU, we had several team members who spoke on how to use various technologies to make online instruction more engaging and successful for learners. The conference also featured loads of other folks who shared great information, but we wanted to highlight some of the biggest takeaways from our team this year. 

A good course template helps instructors build a course around essential learning principles.

the home page of O.D.L.'s Canvas course template
ODL’s Canvas Course Template

A good course template should be more than a dropbox for files and assignments. Instead, you should think if more as a workbook that supplements and supports all the learning materials of a course (such as the textbook, live sessions, and/or assignments). 

We’ve spent the past couple of years fine tuning a Canvas course template that encourages good course design, meets accessibility standards, and helps learners navigate courses easily. The template’s design is based on adult learning principles, and every part of the template helps learners succeed in the course.

But the template isn’t just helpful for learners. It also saves time for instructors who are building new courses time and prevents decision fatigue. Instead of worrying about getting all the fonts and colors right, instructors can focus on the subject and content.

And ODL’s Canvas course template will be useful for any OU instructor, even if they don’t directly work with us (the template is good for in-person courses as well). We also have a repository of sample Canvas courses that have used the template as well. We hope you find it helpful!

ePortfolios are a great way to demonstrate learner’s progress through a program.

the landing page of the Arts Management program's ePortfolio website on O.U. Create
Arts Management Program ePortfolios landing page

End of program assessments can be really tricky to implement well, but we think ePortfolios are a great option, especially for online programs. ePortfolios enable a student to track their progress throughout the program, which shows how they’ve grown with each course. The student, their advisor, and the program can see what the student has learned and how they’ve connected that learning to their life.

But ePortfolios are also useful to people outside the program. Students may wish to share their ePortfolio with a potential employer or subsequent degree program to show them how that degree has made them more qualified for that position or program. 

That’s why we’ve created a resource for OU students to be able to quickly, easily, and securely share what they’ve learned and/or created online. It’s called OU Create, and it allows students (and faculty) to create a website or blog to show their work. It’s a great resource for programs and instructors to offer to students to be able to show what they’ve accomplished in their learning.

Escape rooms can help students learn content and practice skills in an engaging way.

A dark room with bright light coming through an open doorway | Temstock

If you’ve ever participated in an escape room, you know how engaging and fun it can be. A good escape room stretches your mind as it encourages you to collaboratively solve problems.

Escape rooms can also be used to teach important content while supporting learning theories. By using a game-based activity like an escape room, learners are able to work together to accomplish difficult objectives. They can explore content or practice skills in an iterative process that allows them to try new things and learn from their mistakes. 

If you’re struggling to engage your students with the content, try creating an escape room to spark their curiosity. The mystery and narrative of a good escape room motivates the students to learn and allows them to create their own meaning. For some more tips on how to create an escape room for an online course, the College of Charleston Library’s escape rooms page has some great resources. Lafayette College also has some great examples of digital escape rooms on their website.

Contextualized learning activities increase students’ engagement and help them apply what they’ve learned to the real world.

Why should we redesign learning activities with contextualization in mind? Relevance, Application, and Engagement.
Contextualized learning activities are relevant, applicable, and engaging.

Adult learners want to be able to connect what they are learning to their actual lives. That’s why it’s so important to create contextualized learning activities. Instructors should seek to encourage learners to connect the content of the course to their own experiences. This helps students apply what they’ve learned to the real world.

In each discipline there are numerous to connect the learning activity to the students’ world. For example, an accounting class might use a current financial crisis to illustrate a key point. Or a marketing class might use major sporting events to practice understanding TV viewership. The key is to figure out something in the real world the students can connect to the topic.

This can also be done more generally by utilizing things like reflections, discussions (with plenty of student agency in what and how they respond), projects, scenarios, and even field trips. Speaking of field trips…

Just because your course is online doesn’t mean you can’t take your students on a virtual field trip.

A screenshot from a video: four men working over a big pipe at a drilling site
A still from the virtual field trip video

This past semester, we partnered with an OU instructor to create a virtual field trip to an active drilling site. As an in-person course, the oil and gas accounting class had always taken a field trip, and the instructor wanted to create a similar opportunity for the online version of the course.

So the instructor and their instructional designer got together with the ODL media team to visit the drill site, record loads of video, interview some of the site workers and managers, and create voiceovers to walk students through the whole process. The virtual field trip allowed students to connect their learning to the real world and see what the concepts they had learned in class actually look like in the field. The end result was an incredibly engaging virtual field trip that students really enjoyed.

In the end, the 2023 ATE was a great time to learn from other members of the OU community and share some of our expertise. Thank you to OU IT and everyone else who helped organize the event!