The Best Roads to Student Engagement Online

Every online course, and everyone who delivers them has at least one common concern – beyond making sure you’re not on mute –  how do you engage learners in a modern, distracted learning environment? 

As it stands, delivering courses in a remote or blended atmosphere can be a lonely and alienating experience. It is hard to get past the notion that you are talking into a void; and to people who are reading Twitter, updating Instagram, and killing time on Facebook. Because, well, you are. So, about crossing that road to student engagement then:

First, it is not hard to find information and research on increasing student engagement. What is hard is putting these somewhat esoteric ideas into action in your learning environment. It is all well and good to say you need exciting content, the problem is, of course, the Internet is full of exciting content, so distractions and options abound. But how do you actually do that, how do you make it exciting? 

The first thing to remember, and never keep far from mind is that the audience is no longer trapped in space, so you should be incredibly parsimonious with their time. The second thing to remember is that you should always remember the first thing. 

Where once a student exiting a class would be conspicuous, now it is either unnoticeable or impossible to govern. People are disconnected, distracted and overloaded with information. So, given all that, how do you get people to sit forward in their chairs (or their sofas, or beds, or whatever). Like this:

In theory: Guarantee access

It is incredible how easy it is to lose someone in an online world. When was the last time you went back to a website after it didn’t load? Why give an inferior site another chance when there are infinite options in the digital world?  Same goes for online courses. If that PDF or PPT slide deck you described won’t open or display in a strange way, will the student know to ask?  Will they even bother asking?  You may have lost them and not even know it. 

In practice: Guarantee access 

Check every link. Open every file. Find every path through the material. Could an expert get lost?  Could you? Beta test your course structure in multiple formats; ask colleagues to do the same; view as a student would; check and recheck everything, all the time. 

In theory: Build skills & competencies

A student that feels themselves making progress; and personal development will be an engaged student. If you can get the “this is actually working for me” vibe in your course, you are half-way to dynamic student engagement. The principles of Universal Design for Learning tell us that students internalise information that they build in a gradual and logical sense. One of the ways to chase away students is to overwhelm them with information too early and too often.

In practice: Build skills & competencies

Build a hierarchy of learning objectives to support stacking and growth; assure that students are scaffolding their own ideas onto the course material as they progress; ask them for more self-reflections and thoughts on their progress. Use teams to tackle problems and allow people to accentuate professional skills as they learn about your specific subject matter. Think more about communication and advice early in your course, and less later as skills, competencies and accountability build. Remind ad nauseum about assignments, assessments and other milestones.

In theory: Seek higher ground

Oscar Wilde said, “where there is sorrow there is holy ground”. He was talking about the salvation found in sharing in difficult, challenging conversations; so, he too is correct in the academic or professional learning world. Basic learning plans and course content delivered in a distracted and disengaged way will lead to subject interrogations that get you base level engagement and interest. Why wouldn’t they? 

It is harder to make challenging assignments; and it is more time consuming to personalize and customize lecture and assessment content for a specific learning cohort (hence the sorrow), but it is also far more rewarding (the holy, or higher ground). It is the difference between feeding facts and sharing ideas.

In practice: Seek higher ground 

Ask open-ended questions and be prepared for open-ended answers. Seek more complex and relevant learning objectives and examples thereof, also always be asking, is this the best version of the point, this argument, this media? Don’t be afraid of creative tension and disagreement. Give up power and let others lead conversations. Jump in but not on to let learners perambulate around the material, encourage the carving of new and distinct paths to the acquisition of learning objectives. Be flexible and generous.

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