This page is intended to help instructors conceptualize what can or should be included in an online or blended course, and how to maintain a good balance of independent ‘homework’ activities with interactive activities.
For in-person courses, contact hours are the only guaranteed time instructors have available for synchronous, live interaction with the students, and students with each other. Homework hours, in the traditional model, prepare students for whatever activity contact-hour interaction includes, or provide an opportunity to apply concepts learned during class. For in-person courses, the ratio of synchronous live interaction to asynchronous independent work is one of the measures of course quality, with that live interaction being a prized course element.
Things like group work and flipped courses have already blurred these lines, though. Group work often includes significant student interaction during homework hours. Flipped courses move one major form of instructor interaction (lectures) into homework time in the form of videos, substituting a different form of interaction (often application or problem-solving) during contact hours. In blended and online courses, the lines blur even more.
The affordances of online tools and platforms, and the many ways to interact within them, make it difficult to determine precisely what might count as a contact hour, or what interactions should be most important. Should it be synchronous interactions only? What about highly interactive asynchronous activities like discussion boards or peer review assignments? When planning an online or blended course, it may make the most sense to focus on the quality of the interaction itself.
The core of what makes interaction and communication powerful is not whether it’s face-to-face or online, nor whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. Rather, the crux is whether it’s an ongoing process. A course announcement, wrapping up the week’s work, is valuable communication, but it’s one-way (instructor to students) and one-time (no response or continuing dialog). Likewise, answering a poll question during lecture can help students re-engage a bit with the content, but it’s only if the instructor then does something to respond to the poll answers (e.g. returns to a point many people seem unclear on) that the interaction starts to become an ongoing one, and more valuable for the course. Even an auto-graded quiz can be made into a better interaction by adding in feedback comments, as the quiz is built, that direct students who answered incorrectly back to specific course materials or practice activities.
So instead of thinking in terms of contact hours per se, when you construct your blended or online course, consider how many total activity hours your course will require. Within that time, try to ensure a ratio of at least one hour worth of activities with high quality, two-way, ongoing interaction for every three hours of less interactive activity.
Here are some examples of high-quality interaction that could be included in an online course, or the online segment of a blended course.
Lectures by themselves are on the less interactive end of course activities, even with a dynamic and engaging speaker. Direct interaction with the instructor and other students is a vital addition. This might include discussion with the whole class, Q&A sessions with the instructor, and small-group activities to apply or process the lecture concepts. Each of those things can be done either synchronously, using Zoom and breakouts, or asynchronously, using discussion tools and Canvas group workspaces. Similarly, the lectures themselves might be delivered live or by video, especially if the videos include in-video interaction (pop quizzes, reflection points, note-taking prompts, etc.) which lead into assignments that the instructor or other students will respond to.
Reading or viewing course materials is on the less interactive end of course activities. Both discussion and collaborative annotation of the material can provide the necessary opportunities for students to interact with each other and the instructor. This can be done either synchronously, using Zoom, or asynchronously, using discussion and annotation tools. It may be best to use both, starting in an online discussion board for brainstorming, moving to a synchronous in-depth discussion, and finishing up with a reflection posted to the discussion board. If small group work is included in the course, opportunities for the groups to meet with the instructor for feedback also provide high quality interaction.
Many writing courses already use peer review to include student-to-student interaction in the process of writing. Many of the same tools that are used for in-person writing courses will work for the process online. Likewise, the detailed feedback that most writing instructors provide on assignments is already reasonably good interaction with the instructor. It is often one-way, though; to make it best-quality interaction, students should also have an opportunity to respond or ask questions based on feedback. This can be done synchronously, with online office hours, or asynchronously, using the feedback-response features built into Canvas assignments or Google Docs.
The lecture element is the least interactive part of a case-based course. Case-based courses are excellent candidates for flipping, moving the lecture element into homework time in the form of videos. Groups working through the cases and problems, and instructors dropping in on the groups, provide the highest quality interaction in these courses. Group work can be accomplished synchronously, using Zoom meetings or breakouts, or asynchronously, using group discussion forums, Google tools, or Canvas group workspaces. Instructor feedback is a vital part of the ongoing interaction; asking students to record their work and conclusions for later comment will strengthen the activity.