Gearing Up! Maximizing Student Potential Using Multi-Platform Online Learning

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

Creating a new course in an online learning environment can present many challenges. Drawing from their experiences developing an asynchronous multi-platform online graduate-level course, the presenters will discuss techniques for making online courses user friendly, maximizing student engagement, meeting course objectives, and preparing for large scale classrooms. 


Hannah is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker certified by the states of Arkansas and Georgia. She is currently a Ph.D. student and research assistant for Dr. Brené Brown and Dr. Ronda Dearing at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She holds a Masters of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Communication from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Hannah has experience working with foster children, young adults in a college setting, adults in residential recovery, women experiencing homelessness, as well as groups, couples, and families. Her research interests include intervention research, program evaluation, shame, and leadership and organizational development. Her treatment interests include trauma, grief, and relationships. Hannah is currently in the process of becoming a Certified Daring Way Facilitator. She specializes in distance therapy in her own on-line private practice and teaches online bachelor and graduate level social work courses. When she isn't working or studying, she enjoys traveling, being outdoors, photography, skiing, antiquing, watching college sports, and hanging out with her golden retriever Lily and her husband Mark.

Extended Abstract

Creating a new course in an online learning environment can present many challenges. As Easton (2003) pointed out, the instructor’s role in an online course is often more ambiguous than in a live classroom setting. Course policies, assessments, lectures, and materials all need to be designed differently from a traditional course. Of particular importance is that expectations need to be clearly stated up front, to ensure that students are prepared to work independently and have a strong chance for success in the course. Ryan, Carlton, and Ali (2004) found that online learning relies on a combination of methods such as reflection, exploration, and use of critical thinking, as well as interacting with others, sharing information, and using resources.

In a pilot run of an online graduate-level course, the two panelists attempted to maximize student potential by implementing each of the learning techniques acknowledged by Ryan et al. (2004). Because this new course utilized two different online learning platforms (Blackboard and, additional planning was necessary to make the course user-friendly and conducive to learning, as well as to ensure that students understood the complex logistics. Specifically, the instructors implemented a small (informal) pilot test of an asynchronous multi-platform online course for eventual larger scale enrollment.

The development of this novel course presented several opportunities and challenges. One major opportunity was the chance to develop a highly specialized course on a topic specific to the instructors’ research areas. Some specialized topic areas are best taught by a handful of qualified instructors, meaning university departments may not have the specific expertise to offer courses in topics that are of interest and beneficial to their students. Large for-credit online courses offered through affiliated universities provide one solution to this dilemma. An eventual goal of the course being discussed was to allow students at other universities to obtain degree credit by participating in the online course being offered by the instructors’ university.

One advantage of traditional graduate level courses is that they have a smaller number of students, allowing for more intimate interaction and assessment of higher level learning via essay exams, written assignments, and presentations. Thus, challenges in developing the current course included finding ways to engage students despite minimal direct interaction (with each other and with the instructors) and to assess higher level learning using only objective assessments and automated grading. Students are motivated to choose an online class for several reasons, but one major reason students make this choice is due to scheduling flexibility (Braun, 2008; Horspool & Lange, 2012; Nandi, Hamilton, & Harland, 2012). As Bigum and Rowan (2004) point out, there are many benefits to the flexibility of online learning for students, but without face-to-face interaction, it may be difficult to effectively engage students. Given future plans to teach the course in a large scale format (i.e., >100 students), the instructors utilized multi-modal formats for teaching (Limperos, Buckner, Kaufmann, & Frisby, 2014) and discussion forums to create an intimate learning environment (Nandi, Hamilton, & Harland, 2012). Furthermore, it was imperative for the instructors to create assessments that were feasible to grade for a large number of students but that also assessed higher level learning. Utilizing Bloom’s Taxonomy and Boston University’s “Techniques for Writing Multiple-Choice Items that Demand Critical Thinking” (Boston University School of Public Health, n.d.), the instructors developed assessment items geared toward higher-ordered thinking (e.g., application, analysis) in order to meet graduate-level standards.  

Drawing from their experiences and learnings gained from developing this online course, the two presenters will help clarify the role of a distance education instructor by discussing techniques for making online courses user-friendly through clarifying expectations, encouraging student engagement, and maximizing student learning. Observations were collected over the course of two semesters with roughly 75 Master of Social Work graduate students enrolled in the course Courage and Vulnerability in Clinical Practice and Leadership. The course was taught in both a 7-week and 15-week format. Key learnings from the pilot course will be demonstrated throughout the presentation, including how to utilize and evaluate multiple assessments, structure course content, and effectively engage students through the use of course management tools. Three main learning objectives will be achieved in this presentation. First, participants will be able to describe techniques for setting clear expectations in an online learning environment including using strategies for student engagement and providing a detailed syllabus, comprehensive information about course structure, and periodic reminders for meeting course deadlines. Participants will also be able to explain and summarize ways to maximize student engagement using multiple learning platforms, frequent assessment, immediate feedback, and participation in a “Student Lounge” discussion board. Lastly, participants will be able to summarize and apply a variety of techniques to maximize student learning including offering frequent assessments, giving immediate and content-specific feedback, developing higher-level learning assessment items, and providing study tips to help students prepare for assessments. After attending the presentation, participants will walk away with skills to effectively develop and teach an engaging online distance learning course. The presenters will use course examples including video clips, student exercises, quiz questions, live demonstrations of the two learning platforms, and discussion in a large and small group format.  Creating engaging and effective online learning environments can be challenging, but applying the learnings from this pilot study may prove beneficial for constructing successful virtual classrooms.