Interactivity: Not Just for K-12 Anymore!

This past week, I started working with my community college colleagues to develop interactive assignments for our online and face-to-face history courses, as part of an initiative to increase student engagement and raise retention rates. Declining retention rates are one of the major problems facing all American higher education institutions, because it means that there are more people with incomplete degrees and no marketable skills to help them pay off their large student loan debt.

The problem is especially acute at community colleges. For example, the American Association of Community College’s study Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future reported that even though there has been a dramatic increase in enrollment over the past few years, not even 50% of those who enroll will graduate or transfer to a four-year degree program.

To address this crisis, community colleges around the country are developing more interactive lesson plans, curricula, online courses, and interdisciplinary opportunities using distance technology, as shown in the 2010 WestEd article “A New Focus on Interactive Learning at Community Colleges.” Jane Braunger, formerly a WestEd researcher, reports that one of the benefits of such initiatives is that “teachers learn to ‘unpack’ their own reading and thought processes, making them visible to their students, in effect, their apprentices.” This has the potential to make learning both interactive and collaborative, as students can learn.

Unfortunately, one study shows that community college professors have failed to use all of their options for interactive lessons effectively. Wired Campus reported last spring that a study of 26 high-enrollment online courses revealed

“Most professors relied on text-based assignments and materials. In the instances when professors did decide to use interactive tools like online video, many of those technologies were not connected to learning objectives, the study found. The findings could help explain how community colleges can structure the selection of technology to improve student-retention rates.”

That’s why all educators need to adjust our thinking about interactive education and make sure we realize that it can happen at all levels. It’s such a wide open and inventive area that can encompass so much more than games or worksheets completed online. Interactivity can develop far beyond the use of a Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard or Moodle.

Here are some ways that colleges around the country are bringing creative interactivity to their curricula:

Interactive Lectures: Carleton College in Minnesota has focused on developing more interactive aspects of their Geoscience courses. These lectures can be interactive within the classroom through the use of engagement prompts to facilitate group or pair work, or they can utilize various computer technologies. For example, this is the “Using Applet to Demonstrate a Sampling” activity:

“This in-class demonstration combines real world data collection with the use of the applet to enhance the understanding of sampling distribution. Students will work in groups to determine the average date of their 30 coins. In turn, they will report their mean to the instructor, who will record these. The instructor can then create a histogram based on their sample means and explain that they have created a sampling distribution. Afterwards, the applet can be used to demonstrate properties of the sampling distribution. The idea here is that students will remember what they physically did to create the histogram and, therefore, have a better understanding of sampling distributions.”

This activity brings together students, faculty, and interactive methodologies. Students can also learn how to utilize or create applets, which will increase their computer proficiency. It’s a creative blend of the lecture format and new technology to increase classroom engagement.

Simulation Activities: Some of the best uses of interactive technologies in college courses are the simulation activities that many professors have incorporated into their courses. For example, Berry College Associate Professor Todd Timberlake created online simulations of astronomy principles for his Copernican Revolution course. He uses open source Easy Java Simulations to “guide students through an exploration” of the course material, and the students complete assignments based on their use of the simulations.

Similarly, the American Political Science Association (APSA)’sRedistricting Game allows students to work through the complex and controversial process of drawing out the boundaries of electoral districts much the same way politicians do. Participants must design electoral districts in the State of Jefferson, a fictional state used in the game instead of one of the actual American voting districts. Students learn about how population affects the parameters of electoral boundaries and how corruption can play a part through gerrymandering. The APSA offers a list of many interactive games and activities that instructors can incorporate into their courses.

Archival Research: As a historian, this is one of my favorite interactive projects for the classroom, because students can actually conduct the same kind of research that practicing historians do and learn history through primary sources. Fortunately, many archives have been digitized, so budding historians no longer need to travel great distances to examine rare documents. In the past, instructors could photocopy documents for students to examine, but now students can develop research projects based on their discoveries in the online archives of federal documents such as the Library of Congress, state archives such as those of California and Maryland, and private collections including the Albert Einstein Archives. Students can also use online programs to annotate .pdf files of their sources and create interactive archives of their own.

These are just a few of the many ways college instructors can make their courses more interactive. Just because our students are not K-12 students does not mean we have to remain stuck in the same teaching formats we’ve used in the past!

Do you have any interactive teaching methods? Share them here!

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