Current Events Activities in the Online Classroom

by Elizabeth Lemke

As members of an evolving and diverse learning community, it’s our responsibility to pay attention, stay informed, build cultural competency, and hone our digital literacy skills. It’s our responsibility to know and understand the implications of local, national, and world-wide events. What better place to practice those skills than in the classroom, where ideas are meant to be explored, challenged, and refined.

Current events activities are a great way to get students thinking about and engaging with what’s going on in their field of study right now, while also bridging abstract theoretical concepts with application in the real world. The immediacy of the event makes it exciting to track or research and engagement with course materials is activated in new and exciting ways.

With that said, it is equally important to consider your role as developer and/or instructor when designing and teaching current events activities. The “Knowing When to Teach Current Events” article from the Chronicle of Higher Education lists essential questions to ask yourself before you “weave a recent controversy into [your] courses.” Here are a few:

  • Does including the topic allow me to teach students something that, within the context of the overall aims of the course, I think is important for them to learn?
  • If I introduce a new topic into the course, am I prepared to teach students what they don’t know but may need to know in order to fully understand it?

Make sure the topic adds value and students recognize and engage with valid resources and genres of writing. Guide them in practicing the gathering, analysis, and application of information through evidence-based, factual journalism versus opinion-based sensationalism. Remind student of the differences and to recognize the nuances (50 Ways to Teach With Current Events).

With these considerations in mind, the Distance Learning team incorporated current events into a handful of recent online course development projects. Below are some examples from our team.

MSA 445: Entrepreneurship in the Sports Industry

Learning Designer Krissy Wilson worked with MSA 445 developers and instructors to design weekly current events discussion forums that ask students to discuss and critique a current event in sports entrepreneurship. An article or video is posted by the instructor each week and these are the question prompts for students:

  • How does this event relate to the module topic and objectives?
  • How does this event connect to the week’s readings and activities?
  • How does this event relate to your entrepreneurial ambitions? What about this event could you emulate? What about this event should you avoid?

They were asked to choose one of these questions to answer in their discussion post and respond to their peers throughout the week.

Another current events activity example from MSA 445 asks students to select and listen to an episode from the Smart People Should Build Things: Venture for America podcast each week. As students hear about the experiences in the podcast, they consider what changes to make to their business proposal or pitch (one of the main assessments in the course). They are also asked to respond to their peers by providing advice on whether a student’s stated change should or should not be made.

CIS 490: Cloud Computing

Instructional Technologist William Guth and Learning Designer Jacob Guerra-Martinez encountered an interesting current events course design situation and decided to capitalize on it. As you might remember, Amazon Web Services (AWS) went down recently, rendering much of the internet inert, including Northwestern’s Learning Management System Canvas. William and Jacob are currently working with a developer to design CIS 490: Cloud Computing, and a suggestion was made to incorporate this recent disruption of AWS into a discussion forum prompt that is currently being drafted by the development team.

MSGH 450: Sustainability of Global Health Initiatives

I, Elizabeth Lemke, worked with a developer and instructor to design MSGH 450 and incorporated a few open-ended currents events activities to get students thinking about why the human perspective of global health (which is part of their final project) is important by exploring global health in the news and current events by engaging with trusted news sources. Although some guidance was given as to what is a trusted news source (NPR, Global Health section, BBC, Health section, New York Times, Global Health section), students had the freedom to explore other options with instructor guidance and approval.

Students were then asked to create one of the following: a mock news report, an audio presentation like a podcast, a PowerPoint presentation, or written response. Providing different format options helps them choose what skills they wanted to practice. Students submitted the deliverable to a discussion forum and were encouraged to watch, listen to, and/or read your peers’ submissions and respond.

Additional Strategies

Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham wrote a blog post that presents four easy ways to keep your course relevant, interesting, and customized from term to term by using current events:

  1. Take advantage of the library’s E-Journal subscriptions.
  2. Use YellowDig’s pinboard to share articles or assign students to share articles.
  3. Create a recent date requirement for a cited source in assignments.
  4. Create a timeline for your course using the Knight Lab’s Timeline Tool.

You can read Jackie’s full blog post Incorporating Current Events Into Online Course Content for more details on how to keep your course up to date using Northwestern tools, technologies, and resources.

And, as always, reach out to the Distance Learning team for more ideas or assistance on designing current events activities for your online courses!



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