Most educators will agree that student engagement is paramount for a high quality learning experience. Not everyone agrees on what is meant by student engagement or how to achieve it. One definition of student engagement is “the amount, type, and intensity of investment students make in their educational experiences.”
How Can You Engage Students in Online Learning?
A question that’s increasingly top of mind for educators at universities and colleges is how to engage students online? The number of distractions available these days coupled with the difficulties of remote education mean that online student engagement is at a risk of falling. And instituions can’t simply think about their online educational offerings appeal to students for one class—what’s more important is how to keep those same students engaged in online learning over the course of a semester. It’s one thing to have someone’s attention at the start of a module—maintaining that same level of focus throughout the duration of a course is different story.
Here Are 7 Ways to Engage Students Online
Here are a few ideas for increasing and ensuring higher levels of student engagement in online courses:
1. Communicate in multiple formats
Online education provides instructors with multiple avenues for communicating with students. Course email and discussion forums tend to be the standard communication tools, but don’t overlook embedded audio and video, chat rooms or instant messaging, broadcast text messaging, and home page announcements. Explanatory screencast videos tend to be well received by students, and are increasingly easy and inexpensive to create.
Educators may also want to consider the use of audio or voice notes as a way to engage students online. Recording a piece of feedback and leaving it for a student to listen to adds a personal touch and creates another layer of connection between student and teacher—extra important when that student and teacher may never meet in real life. Voice notes also have the benefit of being asynchronous. Teachers don’t have to spend time trying to book meetings in calendars for real-time video calls and students are free to listen to the recorded notes when it suits their schedules.
2. Provide active learning opportunities
A common misconception about online learning is that students only sit in front of their computers. That might be true if the course is designed that way, but one way to engage online learners is to get them out of their chairs (or beds) and get them involved in active learning. One definition of active learning is “hands-on learning,” although that could probably include “hands-on your mouse,” which is not the suggestion here. Assign your online students to interview people working in the field, or to otherwise bring their learning out into the community where they live. Case studies, group projects, or gathering and analyzing local data are just a few of the many examples of active learning.
3. Make Learning Social
Social platforms, if used effectively, can help build a sense of classroom community among the students and between students and instructor.
Many instructors are looking at social media as ways to spice up their courses and engage students in topical learning. Consider adding a Twitter badge to your course homepage and then using a hashtag to push posts with course-relevant content to your students. Alternately, you may want to start an Instagram account for your course, where you share supplementary content that students may find interesting.
Don’t think of social platforms as a place to repurpose your existing course content. For example, reposting a picture of a diagram students already studied in class may not create much interaction. Posting an article on Twitter that’s relevant to your course and encouraging students to share their thoughts in a thread would likely create more engagement and could spark interesting conversations.
When using social media, it is very easy to get overwhelmed. With each passing day, new apps seem to come out of nowhere. Meanwhile, trying to keep up with posting on multiple channels can get exhausting. If you choose to use social media in your course, we recommend choosing one social platform and using it consistently.
4. Gamify with Badges and Certificates
Gamification is the practice of incorporating game-based elements into courses to help students acquire knowledge more quickly. Seeing how well video games are at keeping the attention of students, educators and learning designers cottoned onto to implementing parts of these games into their curriculum in a bid to improve online student engagement.
There are many ways that you can add gamification elements to online courses, without going the route of building a full game-based learning course from start to finish (which has been accomplished by a few ambitious educators). As a more intermediate step, consider adding badges to your course for recognizing student accomplishments along the way. Badges that are rewarded on the basis of achieving particular competencies can be offered as a way of rewarding student performance and encouraging continued engagement.
They’ve also been shown to improve student motivation. In a study from Nurse Education in Practice, researchers found that student attendance, satisfaction levels and motivation all improved when nursing students were awarded digital badges. They concluded that badges and certificates can act as an extrinsic motivator for students.
5. Provide timely and useful feedback
Feedback to students about their performance is extremely important in the effort to keep students engaged in the learning journey. Quick responses to discussion posts and email questions can help keep students on track for the next assignment or activity. Turnaround time on grading of assessments can also have an impact on future student efforts. Students should never have to engage in the next assessment without receiving feedback on the previous assessment. Feedback that is detailed and positive in nature tends to be more effective than faint praise or unclear messages.
6. Add self-assessment opportunities
Encouraging students to reflect and assess where they’re at in their learning journey while they’re still taking the course is a great method of formative assessment. For one thing, it encourages the student to be an active participant in their own education. Instead of the student relying on an educator to tell them how they’re doing, self-assessment puts the student in the driver’s seat, empowering them to see if there are any gaps in their learning.
Providing opportunities for self-assessment allows students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Some suggestions for self-assessment include: allowing students to grade their own discussion posts, or providing input for their own grade for course participation. A course-based ePortfolio or learning plan can be used to encourage students to build their own personal learning plans while identifying their preferences for multiple assessment methods. Self-assessment can be a motivating and sometimes humbling experience, but it is also an empowering one, whereby the student can come away feeling more energized about the path forward.
7. Improve course accessibility for all
Student engagement can be reduced for all when course content is provided in a way that isn’t accessible. Regardless of whether a student relies on assistive technology or not, having course materials that don’t create barriers to learning is an ongoing need for students in online education. The pandemic pivot that the majority of institutions were forced to make in 2020 shone a light on the barriers that many students face when it comes to gaining an education. Everything from a learner’s physical and emotional capability, to their socio-economic status, to where they physically live can play a role in how well they perform throughout post-secondary studies.
With respect to engaging students online, institutions should first gain an understanding of what technologies students have access to, as well as how regular that access may be. Some students cannot use a computer all the time, or may not have access to strong Wi-Fi. If you are using an LMS that doesn’t support offline, responsive learning, this would hinder a student’s learning experience.
We’re aware that not every challenge can be solve overnight. That’s why taking consistent steps toward accessibility improvement of course materials is a good practice for educators to engage in on a frequent, periodic basis.
If you’re interested in learning more about best teaching practices with respect to online learning and other areas, check out our upcoming webinars and the Brightspace Community for more information.
Barry Dahl is the Teaching & Learning Advocate at D2L. Barry previously served as the Vice President of Technology and Lake Superior Connect e-Campus at Lake Superior College in Duluth, MN, where he was the senior administrator in charge of online learning. He has a total of 27 years of work experience within higher education, and also milked his college student career for as long as he possibly could.
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