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Student-Centered Learning in Online Spaces


Student-Centered Learning in Online Spaces

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By Jess Gromada
Editor, MindEdge Learning

Imagine you’re back in high school, sitting in your favorite class. What class immediately comes to mind? Why was that particular class your favorite?

I always think back to my anatomy class in junior year. While science wasn’t typically one of my strengths, my teacher’s passion was infectious. From conducting experiments to playing games to filling in the infamous anatomy coloring book (while Grey’s Anatomy played in the background, of course), the class was engaging and exciting. But most of all, the teacher’s student-centered design made my learning experience both enjoyable and memorable.

Student-centered learning gives learners autonomy—they choose what to study and how to study it. In student-centered learning environments, instructors shift away from typical lecture-style learning and focus on actively engaging and involving learners.

A prime example of student-centered learning in my anatomy class required students to examine a mock crime scene and make forensic observations. Students were given the freedom to explore the scene, collaborate with peers, and make connections between anatomy and a real-life scenario. While many of us likely made different observations or looked at different clues, we were able to draw the same conclusions in the end, enhancing our knowledge of the subject.

This particular example aligns with problem-based learning, which is a subtype of student-centered learning. According to Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation, problem-based learning requires the instructor to provide students with a real-life problem. Students then work in groups to solve the problem, enabling them to learn more about the subject along the way.

Today, much of learning takes place online, and virtual learning environments naturally have different dynamics from in-person learning environments. So, how can you find ways to implement student-centered learning in online spaces? The techniques may differ between virtual classrooms and self-paced course design, but the goal is the same: actively engaging learners.

Virtual Classrooms

When it comes to online learning, live virtual classrooms are most similar to in-person learning environments. Therefore, instructors can more easily adapt traditional classroom techniques to a virtual classroom.

One common traditional classroom technique is the presentation. When we think of in-person presentations, however, we often picture a presenter quickly moving through slides and taking questions at the end. In student-centered presentations, the presenter actively involves learners by incorporating interactive components. Collaborative slides, for example, can allow users to add notes during a virtual presentation.

Another popular method of engaging learners in online spaces is providing them with choices. For example, the instructor can allow students to choose how to present information to the class. Students may choose to present in formats such as essays, slideshows, videos, or podcasts. This method allows students to apply the information to a presentation technique that feels right to them.

Further, instructors can encourage collaboration in virtual classrooms. While collaboration can be difficult in online settings, instructors can use breakout rooms and similar methods, where small groups of students can discuss topics, think critically, and find solutions.

Self-Paced Courses

Self-paced courses differ from virtual classrooms in that learners can complete courses on their own timeline, eliminating face-to-face interaction and collaboration. When creating self-paced online courses, designers should think of creative ways to implement student-centered learning.

Games are widely used in student-centered approaches to course design, as they allow learners to engage with the course content and make their own decisions. Similarly, simulation courses allow students to make decisions by providing a choose-your-own-adventure style of learning. In both scenarios, learners can enhance their knowledge of a particular subject by making decisions and actively interacting with the content.

Additionally, course designers can implement student-centered learning by incorporating open-ended questions. These questions encourage students to think critically and relate the course content to personal experiences and interests.

While collaborative learning can be tricky to pull off in self-paced courses, instructional designers can consider creating discussion boards or forums that allow learners to collaborate and lead discussions.

In a study conducted by the Jordanian Ministry of Higher Education, Dr. Ogareet Khoury found that both students and teachers favored student-centered learning and its ability to enhance online learning. However, each group identified specific challenges that can hinder student-centered learning in virtual classrooms, such as difficulties with teamwork and peer review. Teachers also indicated that students may have difficulties adapting to a student-centered approach if they have never been exposed to the learning style in previous classrooms. Further challenges to consider in online learning spaces include time constraints preventing students from efficiently engaging with the materials and a lack of collaboration capabilities in on-demand courses.

If you are considering adopting a student-centered learning approach, remember that engaging and centering learners in an online environment is a skill—one that is difficult to hone without patience, practice, and a willingness to try new things. While the specific learning design depends largely on the instructor and the content or curriculum, implementing student-centered techniques is one way to enhance online learning and create a memorable learning experience for students.

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