One of the main challenges that instructors face when teaching an online course is student engagement. Traditional classrooms provide a space for student and instructor to engage face-to-face frequently and actively, the same level of interaction can not be replicated when instructor and students are separated by a computer screen. Outside distractions can also become an issue because students can attend their online classes anywhere; in their own living rooms, in a bustling coffee shop or even on-the-move if they’re using a smartphone or tablet.
The difference between an online class and a lecture theatre ultimately boils down to proximity. What can you do to increase student engagement in online classes when you don’t get to see your students in person? This blog post aims to guide you through some activities and tools that can help your online class stay active and focussed on your course.
1. Introduce Yourself
First contact with the students of an online course should be before the class officially begins. Students that may be new to the world of online learning will probably have questions about the course and how to get started. Rather than waiting until the beginning of the course to get bogged down in the deluge of student emails, it can be helpful to anticipate the things that students will need to know in advance to provide them with a welcome pack that is sent out before the first session. Whilst this requires some preparation and work up-front, it will save lots of time and effort once class officially begins and again the next time the course is due to run.
The most unproductive use of an instructor’s time is to spend it answering basic questions in the first few sessions, so an email welcoming students to the class and answering their most common questions will be invaluable. It could also include some valuable extras, such as a copy of the syllabus and a few tips on how to get the best out of online learning.
2. Provide Orientation
Not all students who enrol will be familiar with distance learning and may find familiarising themselves with the LMS quite tricky. Set students up for success by providing them with a step-by-step video tutorial detailing how to get started; including how to log in, how to navigate the system and where to upload assignments. Students seem to have a better grasp and retention of content if they’re able to see it and have an opportunity to actually do it. Offering this orientation as a video to guide them through the process is something that will only need to be done once as it can be re-used for future online courses.
3. Be Active and Engaged
As the adage goes, “out of sight, out of mind” – online classes can sometimes slip the minds of students. Some may forget about a scheduled session, where others may forget about key pieces of course work and may not log in for days or weeks at a time. This kind of behaviour causes students to become disengaged, inactive and it may lead them to miss deadlines. Encouraging active and engaged behaviour from your students will help give them a nudge in the right direction when it comes to remembering when the sessions are. This can be as simple as requiring students to log into the LMS a certain amount of times per week, to actively monitoring the LMS on a daily basis and emailing any student that hasn’t logged in for an extended period of time.
4. Respond Promptly
Engagement works both ways – if students are expected to check in with the instructor and the course material, instructors should be available to respond in a timely fashion to any queries or messages regarding the course. Even if an answer can’t be provided in detail straight away, addressing that the query has been received and will be dealt with quickly leaves a really good impression with students as it shows that they are seen as important.
5. Adopt New Techniques
There are plenty of techniques that can be adopted in a virtual classroom to keep your students interested in the course, even when they’re not sat in front of a computer. Try releasing short podcasts (or ‘microcasts’) of around 5 minutes in length. These can be particularly useful to break up long lectures into manageable chunks for students to digest, but can also be designed to be stand-alone, brief discussions of specific parts of the course. This can be particularly beneficial for classes that are mostly student-led with little instructor interaction.
Gamification is another fun way to motivate and engage students. Even if the rewards are really simple, such as accruing points, this method encourages a bit of healthy competition within the class environment. Gamification ties in really well with an online class as the instructor is able to track the progress of students, so it may be an idea to set some tasks around additional content that is stored in the LMS. Examples of this include assigning extra points for watching specific videos, or reading key texts that are useful, but are not included on the syllabus.
6. Fast Feedback
Giving effective and regular feedback supports and helps the learning process for the student. Specific feedback based on evidence lets students make informed decisions on how to improve their work. Compliment the things that go well and offer solutions for problems rather than focussing solely on criticism. Feedback helps students gain a clear understanding of where they stand with their instructor whilst promoting confidence and safety in their learning environment.
As mentioned above, feedback should be left promptly. The Internet is an environment of immediate feedback and this is expected in eLearning. If it takes too long for students to attain proper feedback it could discourage students from further participation.
Student engagement is more than just listening. If students are not engaged fully or actively participating in the learning process, it’s highly unlikely that they will understand and retain what is being taught. By constantly monitoring the level of student engagement, it is possible to consciously work to increase the amount of time that students are involved in learning, which can then result in greater success in teaching. Engagement with the learning process ultimately drives students to become invested in the course and their own academic growth.