8 Chapter 6: Creating Effective Course Activities

In order to cross over from passive content consumption into active learning, you will need to make real-life activities the focus of your course content (Hayes, 2015). Activities can be discussions, interactive assignments, blogging, and social media participation – or could even involve learners themselves creating content and activities.

Platform-Specific Activities

Most course platforms have several categories of activities that range from standard online activities to innovative technology-driven interaction. The exact tools you have access to will vary based on the one you are using, but there are some that tend to be universal. Becoming familiar with these activities before you design will help you actively imagine where they could be utilized in your class.

  • Discussions: Most platforms have a discussion tool, and they all tend to operate in similar fashions. However, if you desire to use discussion tools, you should become familiar with how the one for your specific platform works as some versions are different in some ways than the typical discussion tool.
  • Problems/Questions: These tools often have different names, but the general idea is that they are basically online test questions. Sometimes these can be placed in the flow of content to add some interaction, or other times these are in a separate area as a standard “test.” These can also be used as informal or ungraded polls to gauge learner interest or feedback.
  • Exercises and Tools: There are also usually several other tools that accomplish various interactive tasks. These include everything from internal blogs, to drag and drop images, to discipline-specific problems such as the periodic table tool.

Blogging and External Activities

Of course, you are also free to use blogs and other external sources in your course as either the main focus of connectivist learning or as a supplement to the content you create. See the chapter on “Social Learning” for more details on how create these types of activities. Your instructional designer should also be familiar with using these tools in an online course.

How to Choose From Various Similar Tools

[Adopted from “The Confusion Over a Little Thing Called Blog” by Matt Crosslin, published in the former MoodleZine Online Journal, July 2006]

When looking at the various tools that are available to you in a course, you will notice that there are many similarities between various tools. How exactly are blogs different from online journal tools or even discussion boards? When it comes down to it, many tools like blogs, journals, and discussion boards are all forms of personal publication that have similar core components:

  • Genesis: something prods the need for the tool into existence. This prod may be the need to reflect on personal issues, or the need to start an online conversation.
  • Input: there is always a place to type in what you want to say, and then press “Submit.” Any type of media can be submitted – text, audio, or video.
  • Interface: The submission is viewed through an interface. This may resemble the reverse chronological reflection journals with feedback at the end format of blogs, or the typical chronological feedback format of threaded discussions, or any number of configurations.
  • Feedback: sometimes a function for the truly brave (or the gluttons for punishment), there are often ways to receive responses from either the instructor or other learners or both. Whether it is getting grades from the instructor or arguments from strangers around the world – there is almost always an opening for something.

Of course, we still tend to see blogs, journals, discussion boards, and other tools as totally separate entities. This is because each one of them have a totally different focus. That focus determines how all of the above listed components end up functioning. Let’s look at a few examples:

For blogs, the focus is on the most recent input in a string of inputs. This means that the interface is going to display the entries reverse chronologically. This also means that the input device is going to allow for several entries. The feedback mechanism usually will only allow for comments on one specific input at a time, and related discussions will sometimes be confusing to follow because of that.

For journal tools, the focus is on the overall insight of the entry (or entries). This means that the instructor is usually the only one to be able to return feedback. Many times, the input and interface features are minimal or even non-existent (“just e-mail me a Word doc”), even though they can be well-developed in some tools like Blackboard.

For discussion boards, the focus is on the feedback to the initial question or comment (the genesis). This means that the interface will focus on how to display these responses in an easy to read format. Some discussion board tools obviously don’t spend very much time on developing this, but others do.

Ultimately, the differences between various tools may not matter for your desired assignment, or it may mean the difference between a confusing activity and a successful activity. The important take away from this section is to think through exactly what you want to accomplish with any given activity, and then find a tool to match your intended goals.

Renewable Assignments and Activities

The problem with many assignments and activities is that they are often locked away in password protected learning management systems. This can be good for privacy and safety reasons, but many learners want to have ways to show off the work that they do in class to others (including potential or current employers). While some portfolio systems exist to assist with getting content out of the “walled garden” effect of learning management systems, many of these are still more closed off than some learners would like. Some refer to these kinds of assignments as “disposable,” because they get turned in for class and then deleted once the course is removed or archived off of the system they were submitted to.

One way to deal with this issue is by creating open assignments or activities. These are activities that take place somewhere online, either on a public website or on a website that the learners control. Because of this distributed structure, finding learner’s work can be difficult unless a system is created for collecting these responses and resources. They are often referred to as “renewable” assignments or activities, in contrast to “disposable” assignments that often occur within the LMS. Some examples include having learners edit Wikipedia articles for accuracy, or blogging about their learning process. For more information and some ideas, see these resources:

The main focus of renewable assignments would be to create assignments for learners that allows them to add value to the world in some way. Since this value may look different to different learners in different contexts, one way to facilitate renewability is by creating assignment banks, the focus of the next section.

Assignment Banks

Due to the fact that online courses will draw in participants from different learning contexts, one idea to accommodate differing contexts is to create a flexible assignment bank for learners to choose from various assignment options. One innovative pedagogical approach that has the potential to work well in both MOOCs and traditional online courses is the utilization of assignment banks. Jim Groom’s ds106 (Digital Storytelling) course at the University of Mary Washington (UMW) serves as an early example of effectively implementing assignment banks into both types of courses. DS106 is free and open to participants across the globe while simultaneously functioning as a for-credit course at UMW.

One of the key features of this course, the assignment bank, allows students flexibility in their submission types by promoting learner choice through ten unique classifications (e.g. video, 3D printed, written, etc.) (DS106 Assignment Bank, 2016) and use of personal web domains (Groom, 2015). This lack of rigidity has the potential to stimulate creativity when compared to traditional, formulaic assignments. Another strength of the ds106 assignment bank is that the course compiles submissions in an open environment that is also available to future students. This can help develop online community over time and encourage investment in the course by students, both of which have the potential to increase engagement and retention (Groom, 2013).

Evaluating submissions through assignment banks can take place in a number of ways. For example, DS106 utilizes a public difficulty rating system of one to five stars, which students accrue when they complete a submission. Other courses might implement a cumulative point system. In this case, students could complete a number of assignments with different values to earn credit. The types could vary by depth of knowledge, length of time to complete, level of collaboration with peers, or a number of other factors.

Connecting Activities to Theory and Communication

In previous sections “Theoretical Foundations of Learning,” “Clear Communication,” and “Types of Communication,” we looked at how to determine power dynamics, methodology, and communication types for your course and course activities. This chapter has introduced various tools and ideas for activities in courses. It is now time to bring this all together to look at how to choose assignments for your course. This is not a very complex concept once you have examined all of the foundations, but many people will create online courses without putting much thought at all into it, and then wonder why they do not even come close to getting the results they desire from their courses. There are really four basic steps:

  1. Determine the Main Power Dynamic for the Course (Instructivist, Constructivist, Connectivist, etc). Ask yourself “What is the main reason for the dynamic I selected?” and “What other power structures could also possibly be part of the course design?” It is okay to have mixtures of others, but thinking through that may make you reconsider the main one.
  2. Determine the Main Methodology for the Course (Pedagogy, Andragogy, Heutagogy, etc). Ask yourself “What is the main reason for the methodology I selected?” and “What other methodologies could also possibly be part of the course design?” Again, it is okay to have mixtures of methodologies, but thinking through that may make you reconsider the main one.
  3. Make a List of Every Type of Communication You Think Would Be Utilized in the Course (see the previous section on “Types of Communication and Interaction”). This may be a short list (or a list of one) or a long list. Then, next to each type of communication, write out the power structure and methodology you want to use with each type. Use this list to re-evaluate numbers one and two.
  4. Create a Map of the Activities You Would Like in the Course. The final step is to start listing the activities (or activity ideas) that you want in the course. Then connect those with a communicative action (Normative, Strategic, Constative, Dramaturgical, etc – see previous section on “Clear Communication”). Connect each of those with a type of communication. Next, add the power dynamic and methodological match for each item in the list. This process may cause you to revise previous steps, or even the map of activities. Finally, match your activities to your goals/outcomes/competencies (and make sure there are no gaps), order the list, and begin plugging it into the course outline.

As you can see, this process requires a lot of looking at different parts and revising as analysis reveals missing elements or incorrect identifications. For example, a list of assignments may reveal that you desire to have mostly heutagogical networked activities where you previously identified instructivist pedagogical student-teacher strategic communication as your course structure. This should lead you to reconsider the overall structure of the course (or to redesign the activities to match the existing structure).

For a more detailed look at this process, as well as a helpful worksheet for the steps listed above, see “From Instructivism to Connectivism: Theoretical Underpinnings of MOOCs



DS106. (2016). Assignment Bank. Retrieved from http://assignments.ds106.us

Groom, Jim. (2013, October 12). DS106 Assignment Bank 2.0 [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://bavatuesdays.com/ds106-assignment-bank-2-0/

Groom, Jim. (2015, August 13). Digital Pedagogy as Empowered Choice [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://bavatuesdays.com/digital-pedagogy-as-empowered-choice/

Hayes, S. (2015). MOOCs and Quality: A review of the recent literature. Retrieved from http://eprints.aston.ac.uk/26604/1/MOOCs_and_quality_a_review_of_the_recent_literature.pdf


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