By Lindsay Richardson, Instructor, Department of Psychology & e-Learning Designer, EDC

In mid-March, I found myself, like many of my colleagues, suddenly required to create an online learning experience, in lieu of designing a face-to-face (F2F) course. For many of us, this meant recording online lecture videos and asking ourselves, “How do I get students to watch my lectures?”

This is especially true for those of us who have decided to create asynchronous courses. Moreover, for those of us teaching large courses, we might find ourselves consistently checking to see how many students have watched the lecture videos. Unfortunately, this might not be an indication of actual participation. Instead, we might be looking to ask ourselves whether students are actively participating in online lectures.

In F2F courses, we can pose questions and wait for students to participate. When I shifted to online delivery, I wanted to mimic this practice, but checking logs for views wasn’t going to cut it. So, I reconceptualized how I thought about online lecture attendance; that is, if the idea is to engage students in active participation during online and asynchronous lecture videos, then creating mini-lessons, by chunking content and combining it with interactive components (e.g. reflection questions, polling, activities) can help reach that ultimate goal: participatory learning.

Conceptually, this idea was simple, but I found myself with more questions than answers at first. How long should each lecture segment be? Would students actually complete the activities? So, I turned to adult learning theory (i.e., andragogy) to help me find some answers.

This line of research has suggested that lectures become less effective after 15-20 minutes (Jeffries, 2010), which can be attributed, in part, to working memory (Cooper & Richards, 2017). This makes sense, as the act of processing new information in a lecture requires the learner to attend to the information, manipulate it, and hold it in working memory to associate it with prior knowledge before it can be sent to the long-term memory store. If this is the case for F2F lectures, I would wager that online lecture videos might become a somewhat daunting task around a similar timeframe. However, video length wasn’t the only factor that appeared to influence successful learning ability, according to andragogy.

Cooper and Richards (2017) explained that success in learner-centered courses also requires a motivated and active learner. Still, even if it is assumed that the adult learner has adequate working memory capacity and is motivated, I felt as though there must be something I could do to increase active participation in online lecture videos.

Since success in learner-centered courses can also be explained by learner engagement (Knowles, 1984), it seemed plausible that online lecture videos that capture students’ attention by means of engagement would increase the likelihood of active participation. Thus, rather than thinking about how to ensure students are watching lectures, I started to consider how to promote engagement.

It started with a rather simple concept: lessons. If lectures become less effective after approximately 15-20 minutes because of decreased cognitive engagement, then natural pauses or breaks between lessons might increase the likelihood of learning by creating multiple points of cognitive re-engagement. Hence, when designing my online course, I used the cuLearn Lessons feature to create a series of lecture videos, whereby students were required to press “next” in order to advance the lecture. I thought that the break in content, by requiring students to press “next,” could result in cognitive re-engagement.

I found that this practice, of creating a flow of shorter videos, was well-received by most students; that is, a number of them reported their appreciation of the shorter videos. However, I had a few students reporting that they felt annoyed at the necessity to click “next” to advance the lecture. So, it turned out that I needed to find the sweet spot for video length and perhaps an acceptable reason for the need to press “next.”

Additionally, I still did not have a good indication of active participation. The only measure I had was a report of how many students clicked on the lecture videos and (hopefully) watched them. So, back to the drawing board I went – I needed to remember what I was trying to accomplish: I was attempting to simulate the engagement encountered in a live classroom.

This helped me create mini-lessons that varied in style (e.g. lecture slides, dynamic drawing, demonstrations) and were combined with interactive components (e.g. tasks, pre-assessment questions, reflection questions). Even though students were informed that their participation within the mini-lessons was not graded, I noticed that many students were actually participating! Not only did I notice students were answering questions, I could see that the quality of their answers demonstrated an actual attempt at learning the material.

Mini-Lessons and Technology Used

More concretely, these mini-lessons were constructed using an online survey platform, Qualtrics. Qualtrics allowed for the programming of the flow of presentation and I found it to be quite user-friendly. Within Qualtrics, I was able to create ungraded mini-lessons for each lecture that comprised short (i.e., 7-20 minute) videos interspersed with interactive tasks. Participation in these mini-lessons was ungraded because they were included in the course after it had started. In the future, I would strongly consider using the mini-lessons to give students participation marks.

Lecture Videos

For each mini-lesson, the videos varied in style: some were hand-calculation demonstrations, using a combination of a Wacom Tablet, Clip Studio Paint, and QuickTime (i.e., a Mac-specific screen recorder); some were Excel demonstrations that included screen recordings of the execution of Excel-specific tasks (which made sense because all assignments were Excel-based ones); other videos were PowerPoint presentations that I recorded using Kaltura Personal Capture. The Kaltura videos included webcam footage of me speaking to the students (asynchronously). From the learner’s point of view, they were able to choose how the media was displayed on their screen (i.e., picture-in-picture, side-by-side, or single view of either webcam or screen recording footage). I believe that the variation in video style alone could simulate the natural pauses and breaks experienced in a F2F course that allows for the learner to cognitively “catch up.”

Interactive Lesson Components

Another way that instructors allow for cognitive re-engagement is to break up the lecture content with learning activities or tasks (Hora & Ferrare, 2013). I was able to simulate this practice in an online environment by including interactive tasks as part of the mini-lessons that comprised both questions (e.g. pre-assessment, post-assessment, reflection, multiple-choice) and course-related tasks. Pre-assessment questions were made possible by programming Qualtrics to change the flow of the lesson, whereby the flow depended on each student’s responses. For instance, students were given a BEDMAS quiz (designed within Qualtrics) before completing a math refresher component of a mini-lesson. I programmed the flow (within Qualtrics) with the following logic: if students received 100 per cent on the BEDMAS quiz, then include the option to skip the math refresher and head right into the next section.

Throughout the mini-lessons, reflection questions allowed students to think about what they were learning. Moreover, by typing their response into Qualtrics (which they had access to upon completion of the mini-lesson) students could see whether their responses were congruent with their thoughts after the lesson has been completed. Additionally, multiple-choice questions were used as post-assessment questions, within the lesson, because multiple-choice allowed me to program feedback right into the lesson. The feedback included “correct” or “incorrect,” but also provided the correct answer and elaborated upon it. Finally, some of the mini-lessons included tasks as well. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest advantages to online learning! So, I learned that, even though I was attempting to simulate F2F learning experiences, there were tremendous advantages to creating a truly online learning experience. In F2F courses, there isn’t often time to have students participate in tasks (e.g. reading a peer-reviewed journal article) during class. With mini-lessons, I was able to prompt students to do certain tasks and pre-determined times (e.g. “please contribute to the Tell Us About Yourself forum”).

For example, one of my mini-lessons began with a demonstration of how to break down an APA-style reference in order to find a peer-reviewed journal article online. Then, students were provided with a reference and asked to find the article on PsycINFO. Then, they were guided to read sections of the paper and answer questions about those sections. Before watching the lecture video that expanded upon the article (and answers to the questions), Qualtrics provided them with automated feedback to their responses (that I had pre-programmed into the lesson). One of the main advantages to this tool, in my opinion, is that students were provided with a summary page at the end of each Qualtrics mini-lesson. This summary page included all of the information from each lesson and their responses to questions (along with the feedback). Students were able to download a .pdf file to keep as part of their course materials.

I have received a lot of positive feedback from students regarding the interactive mini-lessons. Moreover, I can see them participating “for free” online. So, how do I get students to watch my lectures videos? I don’t – I entice them to actively participate in an online learning environment that houses interactive mini-lessons. These mini-lessons create more manageable lecture chunks that might allow for increased instances of cognitive re-engagement.

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