In Online CTE, Focus on Interaction

Educational researchers have long recognized the social and situated nature of learning. Learning – particularly learning as it relates to a skill or trade – is social because it is passed on slowly over time by experienced masters to novices, much as CTE instructors pass their hands-on knowledge on to students. Any CTE professional knows that a student learns best by seeing and doing. Learning is not just a cerebral, abstract process; it is interactive, constructed together by active participants. Learning is also situated, which means that it is not easily extracted from the context in which it has meaning. To really learn something, you learn it authentically, in context. No matter how many books she has read, a student could not be considered to have learned welding if she has never held a torch. 

I have always loved CTE, particularly the apprenticeship model, because the social and situated nature of learning is so clearly on display. For this reason, I have often encouraged programs to stay off the online learning bandwagon as much as possible. Though online learning can have benefits for learners – it is often cost-effective and accommodates busy lives – I have long worried that real CTE is inhibited by online learning, particularly for adults who may have limited literacy and digital problem-solving skills.

However, then the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us, and I no longer had the luxury of warning against online learning. It was happening for everyone, and immediately. As such, I read up on best practices for creating opportunities for social and situated learning in an online environment, and I reflected on experiences I have had as an online learner and as an adult educator. I share some of these practices with you here:

  1. Dedicate time to building “social presence” in your class. Before delving into the course and then into each unit, take time for each student to share about themselves, ask each other questions, and discuss their mutual interests. Encourage them to post a picture of themselves or an image that represents them. Help them see you and each other as individuals before asking them to learn together. 
  2. Create as many opportunities as possible for students to interact with you and with each other. If your course is mainly asynchronous, incorporate a twice-weekly webinar or Zoom session in which students can see and talk with another and with you. 
  3. Use the discussion board feature. Have students respond to a question and to each other’s responses. Have them post brief responses to their readings, or take turns posing a question to their classmates. It doesn’t have to be all business; some discussions can be informal. 
  4. Don’t shy away from paired and small group work. Both in-person and online, smaller groups can help students get to know each other, engage more with course material, and build confidence as problem-solvers in the field. The technology for these projects can be simple; students can have a pair or small-group video call at a time of their choosing, or they could even call each other on the phone and talk.
  5. Keep the course learner-centered. Frequent check in with students to find out how the course is working for them. Many students who feel confused or frustrated will not feel confident enough to share their concerns to the group, so check in with them in a one-on-one or even anonymous format. Respond to student opinions and concerns by changing your design, where possible and appropriate, so that learners stay engaged. 


I still do not think that online learning is an ideal approach for the CTE classroom. However, as we all know too well now, it is sometimes necessary. To help students get the most out of the online course, create all the opportunities you can for them to interact and engage in authentic practice.