Creating Engaging Student-Centered Teaching Experiences for Online Students


Student-centered teaching is the key ingredient for successful online learning

Education has gone remote in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. From preschool to postgraduate, students and teachers are forced into a new, remote learning environment.

We may think that virtual learning isn’t that new, but It is important to understand that “remote” and “online” learning are not synonymous. As teachers adjust to remote instruction, the lessons learned over the years from online education serve them well in establishing a student-centered teaching environment.

A top priority for teachers and administrators is giving their students access to learning material. In an article in Educause, Shannon Riggs says that “access to content is a great first step, but access on its own does not make for a quality learning experience." Online is more than access.

The most “significant” lesson learned as teachers begin teaching “from a distance,” writes Riggs, is “to consider the new learning environment from a student-centered perspective."

Teachers faced with going remote have a model to follow for creating an engaging, student-centered teaching experience.

Elements of a Student-Centered Teaching Experience

Three fundamental “interactions” create a student-centered learning experience:

  • Student-content interaction: providing active learning engagement with course materials, including opportunities for students to reflect on what they are learning.
  • Student-student interaction: structuring a learning community with clear direction on how students can interact with each other.
  • Student-instructor interaction: creating a framework enabling students to interact with teachers throughout the learning experience.

There is no prescriptive activity, assessment or technological tool required in meeting these broad interactive goals. Teachers and program designers need only to start where they are. All that is required is “planning, intention and instructional design,” writes Riggs. Teachers start by doing a thorough inventory of the resources on hand that lend themselves to this framework of interactions.

A Community of Inquiry

In the paper Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education, the authors argue that “a worthwhile educational experience is embedded within a Community of Inquiry that is composed of teachers and students - the key participants in the educational process”.

A community of inquiry is not strictly the domain of higher education. From preschool on, it is the participatory collaboration of students and teachers working in a spirit of inquiry, the foundation of a quality learning experience. 

The paper outlines a model for a community of inquiry in a “computer-mediated communication” (CMC) format.

Presence in a Community of Inquiry

Transforming remote learning to online student-centered interaction as we’ve described predicates on presence. If not physical presence, at least an intentional virtual presence. A quality online community of inquiry depends on three critical components of presence:

  • Cognitive presence: How well is communication within a community understood by all participants? Does communication spark a sense of meaning among its members? 
  • Social presence: Are members able to project individual characteristics into the community? Is there a sense of authenticity and of “being real”? Social presence is important in its support of cognitive presence.
  • Teaching presence: What is the instructional design? How will it be implemented?

These three elements of presence consist of categories and indicators helping guide us through this process.

In the case of cognitive presence, for instance, a “triggering event” is indicated by a sense of “puzzlement” or curiosity; exploration leads to information exchange; integration of information lets participants connect ideas; resolution of the initial triggering event stimulates new ideas and learning.

Social presence is categorized as emotional expression, open communication, and group cohesion. These are indicated by emotional engagement, risk-free expression, and a collaborative spirit.

Finally, teaching presence breaks down as shaping understanding, indicated by sharing personal meaning, and direct instruction through focused attention. 

These elements, categories, and indicators are essential for any successful student-centered teaching strategy. The good news for teachers and their students compelled into remote education is that the research supports the capacity for a Community of Inquiry to thrive online. 

“The initial finding of this study,” says Henrietta Siemans, Ph.D., director, Center for Online Learning and an associate professor in the School of Education at Fresno Pacific University, “is that computer conferencing appears to have considerable potential for creating an educational community of inquiry and mediating critical reflection and discourse (i.e., critical inquiry)”.

A Process of Evolution and Iteration

Online education has evolved over the years, incorporating the concepts of student-centered teaching to create rewarding and successful Communities of Inquiry. Teachers and students suddenly thrust into remote learning have an unenviable challenge, but a proven model from which they too can iterate and evolve. Following this model with intention, planning, and design, remote learning can become online learning, to the benefit of students and teachers alike.


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