Creating an Interactive Learning Environment at Home
Two weeks ago, my daughter Jemma began to learn Farsi – a language as beautiful as its region of origin. For her first class, her teacher arrived in a swathe of musk bearing sweets to mark the turn of Persian new year. I watched as their fingers danced across the map of the countries Farsi is spoken in, and listened as my daughter copied the teacher’s gentle accent, marvelling at the new sounds warbling from her throat.
Jemma concentrated hard as her hands curved Perso-Arabic letters for the first time; and, at the end, after quizzing her on what she had learned, Jemma’s teacher showed her a clip to a very cool Iranian song. The class was highly interactive, immersive and enthralling, and a fortnight later, my daughter has retained most of what she was taught.
This is, however, in stark contrast to the at-home class I watched Jemma attempt to conduct a week later in our lounge room in the wake of the need to self-isolate. With a laptop, a book and a pen, my daughter opened her language teacher’s email full of self-directed learning instructions, and couldn’t help but stare out the window as she attempted to learn, bored with the lack of collaboration and colour.
Distance education has gone from something reserved for school-of-the-air students to the norm, and the sudden shift from in-class to remote teaching has plunged many of us into what feels like uncharted waters. If there’s anything Jemma’s bleak at-home Farsi experiences thus far have prompted me to realise, it’s how important it is to create an interactive learning environment at home in order to assist with the teaching process.
Sure, teachers these days can instruct students from anywhere, but unless you come up with ways to effectively communicate lesson plans and facilitate interaction, you run the risk of losing engagement. This is especially true when it comes to teaching school-age students, who are used to interacting with dozens of peers, multiple teachers and a diversity of content each and every day in the classroom and playground.
Fortunately, we live in a time where there is an endless amount of support, advice and tools at our fingertips to facilitate learning and rich interaction in a remote environment, so it’s high time to explore them. Let’s look first at different styles of communication and interaction.
There are two types of communication: synchronous, meaning real time, and asynchronous, meaning communication without the need for an immediate response. For example, synchronous communication would be having a real-life conversation with a teacher about what exactly a hypothesis needs to say. Asynchronous communication, on the other hand, would be a student emailing a teacher to ask for a definition of a hypothesis, and a teacher emailing an answer back later that day.
In an online learning environment, there are three different categories of interaction: student-student, student-teacher and student-content interaction.
I'll examine these categories more in depth:
In a remote learning environment, student-student interaction can often be overlooked, but is exceptionally important. Not only does it create a sense of solidarity and community between learners, through which students can share the responsibility for learning, but it also prompts discussion of divergent understandings and can help determine the direction of a class. So how to facilitate this at home?
- Set up a communal meal break, where students participating in the class can eat their morning tea or lunch together on camera while chatting with each other. It doesn’t need to be compulsory, but giving the students the option to be social is important!
- Create a group conversation using a social media tool, such as WhatsApp or Facebook messenger, whereby students can talk to each other (obviously, various ground rules about appropriate content will need to be set). As supervisor and facilitator, you could post discussion points or topics in the group relevant to elements of the course content or instigate broader discussions about positive ways in which students are coping at home. Perhaps you could set fun out-of-class projects that students could share with either other, such as new recipes to try, an in-house photography competition or a wear-a-costume-to-class day.
Student-teacher interactions are fundamental to learning outcomes. The more of a social presence you can establish and maintain as a teacher – whether you be delivering information, giving feedback or guiding learning – the more effectively your students are going to respond to your content. These ideas will help you enhance this kind of interaction:
- At least once a fortnight, organise one-on-one meetings with each student, maybe over a cup of a tea or a juice to make it more fun.
- Give students as much meaningful, personalised feedback as possible, whether it be verbal or written. Using Google docs, you can comment on students’ work in real time, and some learning platforms will even let you to see students’ progress as they are working through lessons, which gives you the opportunity to see where they are having difficulty. This is a great way to know how to best check in with certain students about areas they need help with or clarification in.
- Work out what features are available through whatever video conferencing platform you are using (such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts). For instance, there are virtual “hands” students can raise to ask a question, and emojis students can use to express their feelings and emotions in response to the learning material.
- Organise a group calendar or set email reminders for classes or class topics.
- Let students know what hours you will be online each week so that they are aware of when they can get in touch with you in real time.
Through learning activities such as watching videos, using software, reading, participating in simulations and working on course tasks and assignments, students interact with content. To help make this more enriching, you could:
- Give students the opportunity to teach! Assign each student, or a pair of students, a topic or subject. Instruct them that they must become experts and then present their findings back to the class, complete with an interactive activity for everyone to complete together.
- Check in with students and reinforce their understanding of topics by holding quizzes and asking questions.
- Diversify the learning materials you are providing as much as possible through whichever platform you are using. Given the numerous different learning styles that exist, remote learning can be a great opportunity for students to explore and find which works best for them. This can be facilitated by you offering them a choice between content in text, audio and video form.
I hope this has given you some solid insight into making your own remote learning environments more interactive and community-driven. If you’ve got any comments or suggestions, I’d love if you could post them below! It’s times like this, when we share our different experiences and ideas, that supreme innovation can be born. Together, we can rise to the new challenges remote learning presents us with, and find more ways to facilitate students’ engagement, supporting them in optimising their academic outcomes.