Providing an effective learning experience is vital for achieving the best possible learning outcomes. This can be especially true when using online or blended learning, as learners’ attention is often harder to capture and hold from a distance.
With online learning, there is sometimes an increased chance of learners becoming passive and losing engagement with their education, especially if traditional teaching methods like delivering lectures are simply transposed to video conferencing apps. Although students often report high levels of understanding of topics when learning passively (e.g. via reading text or watching videos), results show that their understanding is usually lower than they believe it to be.
In this guide, we will explore what an effective learning experience is and how it can be delivered via online and blended learning models. To gain insight, we spoke with experts from LMS provider Skooler, online learning experience platform Kortext, and A6 Training and Consultancy to understand what makes an effective online learning experience.
What is considered an effective online learning experience?
“Effective learning” is a subjective term that generally refers to teaching and learning that provides long-term positive results. Rather than simply teaching students to memorise enough facts to pass their next exam, effective learning also teaches students how to learn—a skill that can be used for long after the end of the course. Effective learning has become a staple framework of the UK’s National Curriculum.
Effective learning strategies typically entail the learner being more involved and engaged with the process of their education. Student engagement—or the degree to which students are interested, invested, and optimistic about the educational content they are learning—is a key priority of effective learning, and successful effective learning strategies notably increase student engagement, and subsequently learning outcomes.
As online learning (also known as “virtual learning”) and blended learning (a combination of online and traditional classroom learning) models become increasingly popular, you may be wondering how you can provide an effective and comprehensive learning experience virtually. Thankfully, online learning offers plenty of opportunities to implement effective learning models.
In the words of Dave Foord from A6 Training and Consultancy, “online learning should be used to empower the teachers and students to benefit from the more flexible ways of working that online learning offers.”
According to Skooler, online learning models include “the increased use of platforms like Microsoft Teams, which integrates multiple forms of collaboration, including chat, online video meetings, documents and shared files.”
However, the experts agree that not all online learning models have positive effects on student engagement. Those that typically fail tend to do so due to an over-reliance on what is called “passive learning”, rather than the more commonly effective “active learning”. Before we explore how effective online learning strategies can be planned, let’s look at these two concepts.
What is passive learning?
Passive learning (often abbreviated to PL) is when the learner simply receives educational information rather than actively engaging with it. Whether a learner is watching, hearing, or reading this information, their learning experience is purely passive unless practical activities are also involved.
Examples of passive learning involve a lecture being delivered via slides, a book being assigned to a student to read, or a video being played to a class. Even listening to a teacher speak directly to them is a form of PL if it is a one-way conversation and students are not expected to respond or contribute.
While PL strategies do typically involve testing and assessment, these tend to be at the end of a module or course, rather than consistently and regularly.
Although reading, listening, and watching can be effective ways to learn, educational strategies based entirely on PL tend to result in lower student engagement and learning outcomes. It isn’t just traditional classroom learning that is often overly passive—online learning can also rely too much on PL, such as when content is only taught via text, PowerPoint presentations, or even rapid authoring tools (e.g. SCORM packages).
What is active learning?
In contrast to PL, active learning (or AL) gives learners an active role to play. While there are usually periods of listening, reading, and/or watching involved, these periods are interspersed with other activities and do not take up an entire lesson.
There are various benefits of active learning. Retention of information is generally higher when practical activities integrate that information into tasks. While PL favours auditory and visual learners at the expense of students with other learning styles, AL is more versatile and increases student engagement across the board.
Dave Foord describes examples of active learning tasks as including “answering questions, categorising information, representing a concept with an image, carrying out a role play”, and more.
AL can help teach independence and useful transferable skills. While PL can often include simply memorising information to provide in an exam or assessment, AL can promote research skills, problem-solving skills, teamwork, and initiative—all of which learners will use long after they have left the classroom.
Examples of AL through online learning
AL is an essential part of an effective online learning strategy. While the internet is often a tool of PL, it can also be used to facilitate AL—inside and outside of the classroom.
For example, instead of simply displaying videos, images, and/or written text for learners to passively consume, questions can be periodically asked in order to test understanding of the information provided and to prevent loss of concentration. Google’s Digital Garage online learning platform is an example of this—training videos are frequently punctuated with short quizzes.
The internet can also be used to facilitate group discussions—in fact, this can often be the only way of doing so when using a fully online teaching and learning model. Forums such as Moodle Forums, or videoconferencing tools like Microsoft Teams or Zoom can be used for learners to collaborate on projects and share information.
Tips for creating an effective online learning experience
Creating an effective online learning experience that increases student engagement can be achieved using the following tips and tricks.
1. Implement an active learning system
Facilitating AL doesn’t just benefit your learners with their current courses—it also helps them to develop skills that they can use for the rest of their formal education and beyond. This can help you with lesson planning in the future!
When designing an active learning system, remember that different students respond differently to different types of interaction, based on their specific learning styles. Try to make sure that activities are varied enough to suit each learner.
For example, when educational content is presented with text appearing automatically, it is best for learners to be able to adjust the speed that the text appears or to click through to each page when they are ready. Automated text can be too slow for quick readers and frustrate them, and too quick for slow readers and overwhelm them.
When it comes to images, complicated diagrams such as diagrams of combustion engines, computer processors, or muscle cells can be confusing when simply displayed as a static image. Diagrams that can be built up piece-by-piece, ideally at the learner’s chosen speed, can be much more effective at keeping them engaged with the content and enhancing their learning experience.
2. Use aesthetic presentation
Aesthetics are extremely important when it comes to creating an effective learning experience—and not just for visual learners. Dave Foord describes how “a lot of people make the mistake of choosing things that look good, but are low quality”, and recommends instead choosing “content that best meets the intended learning outcome, that is going to work on all devices (e.g., large screen and mobile) and has high levels of accessibility.”
If online content is too garish and features clashing colours, this is likely to become tiring for the eyes, and student engagement will decrease. On the other hand, if the content is too visually under-stimulating, the result can be the same.
When choosing (or designing) online educational content, soft colours are typically best. The colours of the text and the background should also be sufficiently contrasting, and fonts should be of an easily readable shape and size. This can be particularly important for students with disabilities, but is generally important for all learners. Ideally, images should be used regularly but purposefully, and visual objects should feature rounded corners rather than square ones.
The overall aesthetics of a page are not only important for accessibility and student engagement, but are also a representation of the professionalism of your institution. Fonts like Comic Sans have been widely criticised for seeming too informal, but may be more readable for learners with difficulties such as dyslexia. Try to find the right balance between accessibility and formality—for example, using sans serif fonts like Arial.
3. Use tools and plugins
Virtual Learning Environments—or VLEs—are indispensable tools for carrying out online learning strategies. One of the most popular and renowned VLEs is Moodle, a free piece of open-source software with a huge variety of tools and features that can be used to facilitate active learning. With the right technical know-how, Moodle can even be customised to suit your institution’s specific requirements.
Moodle plugins are optional programs that can be downloaded and applied to Moodle environments. They can carry out a range of different functions and provide a range of benefits for active learning. For example, you can create custom questionnaires, change visual themes, and integrate apps like Microsoft Teams using Moodle plugins. You can find the most downloaded Moodle plugins here.
Our experts’ particularly recommended Moodle features are Learning Analytics and HTML5 Package (or H5P). Moodle Learning Analytics can be used to predict future learning outcomes based on past data such as assessment results and grades. This can be used to personalise learning plans for individual learners. H5P enables the creation of interactive presentations, quizzes, and more, which can be integrated into an effective online learning plan.
4. Choose interactive educational content
Interactive educational content is not only useful for kinaesthetic learners (those who learn best by carrying out practical activities)—it can also increase student engagement across the entire class. Quizzes and games based on information presented visually or through text can help learners to better integrate that information as they require different skills and can engage different senses.
When choosing interactive online content, keep a few things in mind. Although—as mentioned before—aesthetics are important, many educators fall into the trap of choosing content that looks appealing visually, but the content is less substantial. Finding content that is both high-quality and visually appealing is the best way to improve the learning experience. It is also vital to make sure that content works well on all devices, from desktop and laptop PCs to tablets to smartphones, especially if students are learning from home.
Kortext’s Ellie Parker says that “giving your learners access to eTextbooks from a digital content provider can make all the difference.” Many modern eTextbooks include interactive features “like colour-coding note-taking and highlighting tools as well as accessibility features such as text to speech options which enhance the learning experience and can have a positive impact on outcomes”
5. Foster collaboration and communication throughout
Educational content is not the only important part of an effective online learning strategy. Collaboration is an excellent tool for increasing student engagement. This can be collaboration between the teacher and the student, between students, or both.
However, effective collaboration requires effective communication. As mentioned before, it is common for learners to believe that they understand educational content better than they actually do, so in-depth discussion is needed to make sure that there is genuine understanding. Whether online or face-to-face, an effective learning experience is usually a result of effective communication between teacher and student, and often between students.
Dave Foord notes how “learning itself usually takes place as a result of communication between student and teacher, and between the students—this is the same if learning takes place face-to-face or online.”
Alongside the general principles of effective communication, there are also practical considerations. When it comes to online and blended learning, this means using the most suitable communication tools and programs available. While online learning lacks the in-person aspect of traditional classroom learning, the opportunities for flexibility and easier communication provide advantages.
The ability to use videoconferencing tools like Zoom, forums like Moodle Forums, and shared documents stored on the cloud make online learning particularly good for collaboration.
VLEs such as Moodle are especially useful for facilitating collaborative communication. In a general sense, the ability to host educational content in a single environment with an accessible user interface ensures that everyone is on the same page (no pun intended!).
In the example of Moodle, the program comes with default Chat, Messaging, Feedback, and Forums tools, which can all be used for communication between teachers and students.
Ellie Parker describes how “smart study platforms like Kortext offer group collaboration tools, connecting learners to teachers and their peers to facilitate co-operative, research-led learning.” Platforms like Kortext can also “integrate seamlessly with VLEs to provide learners with an easy user journey when navigating to their learning content.”
Plugins like Moodle’s Dialogue plugin can also enable 1-on-1 conversations between teacher and student. This plugin can be configured to assign permissions for who can start conversations—this enables effective communication while abiding by safeguarding policies.
Moodle’s Microsoft Teams plugin can be used in a similar way. Dave Foord recommends “turning off the non-required communication tools in Moodle” if you are primarily using Teams for communication. Ultimately, an organization should choose the tools most suitable for their needs and stick to those as much as possible to avoid the confusion of tracking messages across multiple channels.
Plugins like Skooler’s mConnect can even integrate Moodle and Teams “together in one seamless workspace with a single sign-on.”
Other online platforms also enable collaboration between learners. Popular platforms include quiz creation tools like Kahoot, Quizizz, and Socrative, and video creation tools like Wevideo, Animoto, and Mysimpleshow.
A productive approach to online learning
There is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy for providing learners with an effective online learning experience. You will need to make sure that content is suitable for learners of varying styles if you want to increase student engagement. Thankfully, there is a diverse range and huge quantity of content online to choose from.
When producing a teaching and learning plan, incorporating a combination of the tips listed above is likely to provide the most effective results and the best learning outcomes. You can benefit from using multiple digital platforms and resources, especially if you use tools that integrate these different platforms and resources together into a single environment.