For faculty, encouraging student engagement is important in the online environment as the drop-out rates are significantly higher than the traditional face-to-face courses. Engagement like many other things in online education may have a different meaning based on perspective. Here are a few strategies for engaging online students in your online courses, from the faculty perspective:
Feedback – timely feedback on assignments will allow your online students to incorporate the feedback and make improvements for future assignments. This may seem nearly impossible for larger courses. A good strategy that many online faculty use is that of providing examples, templates or models of well-written assignments, this will allow the student to focus on the goals of the assignment. Having a well-written rubric available for online students to review before they begin their work will help them focus on the desired expectations. Online faculty should consider reusing feedback from the previous semester. Based on experience from previous semesters, faculty can proactively address items where students typically run into obstacles and provide clarifying directions as needed.
Interaction – online faculty must be present in their courses in order to engage the students. Faculty can be present in their online courses by participating in discussion forums and asking students probing questions and encouraging the students to ask probing questions of each other. Faculty can also be present by emailing individual students, groups of students and providing announcements, as needed to keep the discussions moving along. Group collaboration tools are also becoming more popular and online faculty are finding success in messaging students directly, outside of the LMS. [Slack is a great example of this technology.]
Application – many online students are also working adults and ensuring the content of the course is relevant and can be applied to their real-life/real-world experience is a key item in the effort to keep them engaged. Those students that consider themselves to be working adults are more likely to voice their concerns about an assignment being “busy-work” if they feel that it doesn’t apply to their work life. Online faculty should invest the time at the beginning of the course to get to know the students and the type of work they might be involved in as well as their expectations for the course. Engaging assignments will involve some type of research, developing an original idea and using their critical thinking skills to solve some problem they might be faced with in the workplace.
Interesting – online courses that include some type of hands-on learning activity will generally be more interesting and more engaging. By asking students to communicate what they have learned about a new technology and how they can apply its use to their current profession/future profession will make their coursework more interesting. As an online instructor, look for opportunities to replace traditional text-based assignments. Try to incorporate more audio and video by using online tools such as Flipgrid, VoiceThread or Jing. Using a few different options as a way to present their ideas will keep students motivated and interested in the course. Students all learn differently and providing a variety of options will only enhance the interest in the course and engage the student.
Training faculty often falls within the scope of work of those that practice instructional design and/or educational technology. This training can be challenging when it comes to the use of new digital technologies and tools. While some of my colleagues over the years have expressed how challenging this can be, I find that to be just the opposite my experience. The training should focus on several strategies and this will lead to an effective and efficient outcome for all of those that are involved. Here are couple things to consider:
Relationship building – this strategy will offer the opportunity to apply newly acquired knowledge directly into daily practice. Building a professional relationship allows the person doing the training to better understand the baseline knowledge and comfort level of the individual receiving the training. This allows open communication that can lead to possible opportunities for collaboration in the future.
Staying informed – research is a very important part of training. To research the latest trends in higher education, instructional design and learning in general can serve as a starting point for training development. Many times faculty are not able to articulate what they need because they don’t know what the options are.
Walk the walk – the person conducting the training should have an inside scoop on what is involved in teaching courses prior to conducting any training. A key ingredient will be that the trainers have first hand knowledge of the entire process of building a course: designing, developing, implementing, assessing and revising.
Build bridges – instructional designers have the opportunity to view a variety of courses across different disciplines. This offers a unique perspective and can often serve as a bridge between faculty members. Many times faculty would like to collaborate across disciplines but they’re just not aware of what others are doing. Sharing information across disciplines will benefit all involved in the process.
Leadership – successful instructional designers that do training proactively support faculty and allow faculty to share experiences with each other. One of the ways to do this is to establish an online faculty learning community within the institution. In this space ideas can be shared in an effective manner. Once established, some of the things it can be shared include job aids, quick tips, best practices and other digital tools to increase efficiency and improve student outcomes.
Many years ago distance education courses were labeled as correspondence courses. We now refer to courses being taken across a great distance simply has online courses. One of the biggest differences between the older correspondence courses and a more recent online courses is the idea of online discussion forums for the students. The idea here being that students can communicate, debate and share ideas in general about the course content.
Over the years we’ve learned many things about online discussion forums and here are a few things to keep in mind that can help instructors maximize the benefits of online discussions.
Domination – a number of studies show that a few students typically dominate an online discussion forum, this is very similar to a traditional face-to-face discussion. Overall students still have a tendency to talk more in online discussions than they would in a face-to-face environment. The benefit here is that this has a tendency to draw out the quiet students who might shy away from discussions in a face-to-face environment. This is exactly why discussion forums should be a key component to any online course.
Unequal – it is important for faculty to establish requirements for participation but they must realize that equal participation is not going to be likely. No matter the requirement there is a small group of students who will still dominate the discussion. If too many discussion items are required for each student this may have a negative impact by leading students to post just enough to meet the requirements.
Participation increases – in general studies have shown that the initial discussion takes place between faculty and students but as time goes on students start talking to each other a more regular basis. If the goal is to move the course from the traditional lecture format and includes more discussion this is a positive. This is most likely the result of every student having an equal opportunity and online discussion so it makes sense that they will organically start speaking to each other. Overall faculty should be involved in, but not dominate any of the discussion forums. Providing a solid structure and a gentle nudge when necessary will be just enough to let it get taken over by students.
Interactions – researchers have found that responses generally contained supportive messages about each other’s postings. This is important to recognize as many people who do not participate in these types of discussion forums generally have a negative connection to anonymous online discussion feeds that contain a lot of inappropriate and flaming text.
Challenges – one of the challenges in creating discussion items is the requirement that all students make an original posting. Often times this creates multiple discussion threads that are hard to follow and students will run out of original ideas after a few postings have already been made…thus posting unoriginal comments.
Faculty should consider the purpose of the original posting requirement. What is the goal? Is it to simply be creative, then responding to someone else’s point of view might contain more creativity than trying to develop an original posting. Faculty might consider requiring one or two original thoughts on a particular topic, instead of requiring a *post once and reply twice strategy*.
Researchers have also found that in general most responses to your discussion items are supportive and positive in nature. Students in many cases appear to be too nice and not willing to challenge one another in a professional manner. If the goal is to participate in a constructive disagreement an instructor might deliberately pick an extreme point of view to stir things up and invite students into a disagreement and then facilitate the interaction and engagement amongst the students.
As an instructional designer, one of my primary responsibilities includes managing the design, development and delivery of online course content for our college’s online courses, most of which enroll more than 200 students in a section. For a class of that size our college hires several Academic Associates – degreed professionals hired to work with up to 30 students and facilitate their learning under the leadership of a Lead Instructor. This past year presented me with the opportunity to serve as Lead Instructor for one of our freshman-level online courses, managing a 12-member instructional team to facilitate a high-enrollment course of nearly 300 students. This was by far the most interesting, challenging and learning experience I have had teaching online courses since I began in the late 1990’s, both as an instructor and also as a team leader.
Teaching the course and leading this dynamic instructional team taught me several new things about working online. Having so many students enrolled in a single course, all working in smaller groups of up to 30 with different instructional personnel, highlighted the need for clear and consistent guidelines and applications of policies, such that students would understand them and instructional personnel would know how to carry them out. Our inter-team communication and collaboration was also critical and allowed us to coordinate as a team – discussing key issues, raising and discussing questions, clarifying information, and highlighting changes for the next course offering.
Several key items emerged as essential to the successful course experience. Here are the top 5 things that I learned, in no particular order.
Lay the Groundwork – to lay the groundwork with the instructional team before an online course begins is synonymous with establishing the *rules of the road*. This is a must for all instructional teams and a good practice for individual instructors to think through. Laying the groundwork consisted of creating and sharing a document with the members of the instructional team that would be used to guide the discussion at the pre-course meeting, and refer back to as needed once the course went live.
This document provided general guidelines as to how we would together facilitate the course with as much consistency as possible. For example, how would the instructional team communicate with students, how would we communicate with other members of our instructional team, how would we as an instructional team handle grading and feedback, how would we handle student issues and how would we address modifying course content.
Establish Weekly Meetings – the idea of a pre-course meeting with all of the members of the Instructional Team seemed like a no-brainer and a must as most of us would be meeting for the first time during this meeting. I made initial contact with the members of the Instructional Team using email and we agreed to use Google Hangouts for our first and subsequent meetings.
In that first meeting, because of the size of our team I decided to bypass individual introductions and get the course management discussion started. Our laying the groundwork document drove the discussion for this first meeting and we talked about the course in general being offered in a different LMS [we were part of a pilot project and asked to provide feedback about our experience using a competing LMS], the final project and the Lesson 1 assignments. We spent nearly 75 minutes in that first meeting and it became very clear…very quickly that we would be meeting weekly.
The Instructional Team agreed to meet on Tuesday evenings at 6:30 pm. Agendas were created using Google docs and all members of the Instructional Team were able to add items throughout each week. The weekly meetings evolved into a recorded Google Hangout session that was hosted on YouTube and could be viewed by a member of the team that arrived to a meeting late, or viewed by a team member that missed a meeting or reviewed by a team member to better understand an agenda item.
Write Clear Directions – when I first began working as an online Instructor I would spend a significant amount of time composing the syllabus and schedule for a course to make sure course policies and assignment due dates were clear to the students. Those documents were always the priority and I recall not spending quite as much time on assignment directions, rubrics and feedback for students. That all has changed now after seeing what a large online course looks and feels like. As an Instructional Team we quickly realized how important it was going to be to provide clear directions not just for the students, but for us as the Instructional Team as well. Examples of areas where we provided clearer directions include:
Policy – when we began we realized that each member of our Instructional Team had a different definition of late work ranging from *5 minutes* to *within the first 24 hours*. If we were to provide consistent grading we needed to DEFINE late work. Here is how we defined late work:
No late work will be accepted
LATE WORK: NO late work will be accepted. Late work is defined as *any graded item that is submitted after the due date – this includes items that are submitted ONE MINUTE past the due date*
Rubrics – word count criteria – this criteria is common in rubrics and our course was no different. We found that we needed to present word count ranges in order to prevent students from submitting work significantly below or in some cases beyond the expectation.
Minimum word count of 350 words is expected
Response must be provided in 300-450 words. Responses with word counts below or above this range will be penalized
We also wanted to address the resources that were being used for student research. The goal was to push the students to find more credible resources than what they might find doing a simple search on the internet.
Provide two resources that support your position in the discussion
Provide two resources that support your position in the discussion. These resources must come from the university library
Assignments – in a smaller [25-30 student] online course there may not be a need to provide clear direction as to the file type that will be accepted. There may be 1-2 students that submit a file that can’t be opened and reviewed. In a large online course those numbers could be much greater. We provided clearer directions by changing this direction:
Submit your document here
Submit your document here:
*ONE file – do NOT submit more than one file.
*The file must be saved and submitted as a .pdf, .docx or .doc
*Submitting more than one file, or a file type other than what is listed here, will result in a zero for the assignment.
Increase Instructor Presence – we all agreed that establishing instructor presence was the key to creating an engaging community of inquiry. The presence of our instructional team would have a direct impact on the small group interactions and the development of thinking skills of the students enrolled in the course. We decided to create interactions with students by using:
Interactions that would encourage participation in the course – the goal was to be welcoming and personable from the beginning of the course and provide motivation and encouraging language using the student’s name at every opportunity
Interactions that monitor student progress – the goal was to provide timely interactions with students. This meant all students…and especially those that appeared to be behind and not making satisfactory progress towards the objectives
Interactions that provide feedback on submitted work – the goal is to provide timely and frequent feedback to help students determine where they need to spend additional time. We made every attempt to sandwich recommendations for improvement between positive comments to avoid leaving the student with the feeling that everything they do is wrong.
Talk with Students – the goal here is to actually “talk” with students. Many times when I ask faculty how they talk with students they reference email, scheduled course announcements canned feedback based on the course rubrics etc. I too use those methods as they are a must in online courses and our team will continue to use those going forward. During this last Fall semester I found significantly more opportunities to talk with students live and in-person due to the size of the course and some of the issues that arose due to the pilot project we were involved with. I found these opportunities to be well worth the time I invested. In the Spring semester, I randomly selected 2 students each week to speak with. Each conversation started with two questions: What are we doing well as instructors? What can we do to improve?
I found students were willing to speak openly about what they thought and what was confusing to them. For example, during one phone conversation a student asked me: “should the discussion boards should be used like a regular conversation in a regular class?”. Yes, I replied.
Whether you are a seasoned online instructor with years of experience or preparing for your first online course assignment these 5 things will lead to a more enjoyable online experience for the students and the instructional team.
It is difficult to see beyond your first course offering when building a new online course or moving an existing face-to-face course online. And if you want there to be a second offering of your course, you’ll want to focus your energies on making the first offering a success. But don’t ignore the fact that you will want to make revisions to the course based on your experience and feedback. Designing online courses always takes much longer than expected and planning for future revisions seems like something that can be dealt with…well, in the future. Here is a Top 5 list of things to consider while building your course to simplify revisions.
One Source Information – if you have important information like assignment directions, discussion group expectations or details about online quizzes place those items in ONE place and simply link back to it from all of the different locations where students may need to access it. As you move through the course you can remind students [and the other members of your instructional team] where the information is located. This will help minimize confusion in the course and allow for easy updating…as updates will only need to be made in ONE location.
Another way to use this strategy is with the deliverable due dates in the course. Placing all of the due dates in ONE document/location will eliminate any conflicting information that could lead to a less than pleasant experience for the students…and the instructional team. Google Drive [documents] is a great solution.
Avoid Dates and Times – the goal here is to try to get as much mileage as possible out of your content. Avoid any mentions of dates, times, the weather, the season, the BIG championship game that just took place. Create a course schedule/calendar to refer students to. Consider a simple one-pager that allows for easy revisions. As you make revisions you need not worry about catching all of the places where dates were entered because that will all be contained on ONE location. Revisions can then be made lesson-by-lesson.
Compartmentalize Current Events – group discussions are usually a focal point of online courses and if current events are being discussed consider placing them in their own unique lesson rather than weaving them throughout the course. If your lectures are wrapped around an major current event like an election year you will want to create separate throw-away lectures that can be easily replaced after the event has taken place.
Place Content Into Modules – there are many reasons to place your content into smaller bite-size modules for the students. For example, taking that 30-minute lecture and creating six 5-minute lectures to help student maintain focus while watching and track their progress should they get interrupted. The benefit for faculty and the instructional team here is that this strategy makes locating areas to update much easier. Updating just one module might make sense than trying to re-record an entire longer lecture.
Leverage Your Tools – many Learning Management Systems will have a feature that allows for a copy of your course to be moved from one session to the next. In those, cases you should consider creating a *master* copy of your course. A master copy of your course can be kept behind the scenes and never rolled out to students allowing you to constantly update as you move through your course. As the beginning of each session approaches you can copy out a fresh [pure] offering of your course and know that students will be getting the most up-to-date version. It takes discipline and organization to maintain a master shell with any success….and a talented instructional designer.
With every new semester or new session there will be some required work to get your online course ready to go again for the next wave of students. If you are working alone or with a team of other professionals using an external tool to help track the changes that should be considered will be the key to your success and the team you are working with. Consider a tool that allows for maximum collaboration.
Online education has allowed users to advance their education and develop new skills from any location. The trouble is that users can still feel isolated and this goes for the facilitator as well. With all of the benefits that come with online education the challenge of creating an online community is still a challenge. One strategy is to simply create more connections between the user and the facilitator. Here is a Top 5 list of things to try to help increase connections between the user and the facilitator.
Discussion Forums – get creative when using discussion forums. For too long online education has used the old *post-once AND reply-twice* approach to discussions. While this may be a quick way to meet a quantitative measure….it really does not do much for creating and encouraging a quality discussion. One suggestion is to create groups of 7-8 students and ask that they first create a Group Charter for their group before jumping right into the coursework. The group creates their own rules and work expectations while getting to know each other.
Encourage Real-TimeConnections – connections can be limited student:student and student:faculty when only asynchronous options are considered. Providing an opportunity for synchronous communications will start the momentum of the back-and-forth discussions that will help proactively clear-up any miscommunications. Increasing the opportunities for synchronous communications can help build a greater sense of community in online courses. There are many different opportunities for this type of communication including virtual office hours, small group meetings [6-8 students], large group meetings [24-28 students] and small study groups [2-4 students]. Google Hangouts is one good option to offer students to get the communication started.
Use a Variety of Tools – there are many tools available that can be used to increase student interaction and get them engaged in their courses. Many institutions are looking to private social networks that allow for student connections to take place from course-to-course as students move through a degree program. However, if the need is for just ONE course Skype and Google Hangouts have proven to be effective tools to go above and beyond the pre-programmed messages such as lesson tours, presentations/lectures and announcements.
Develop a Plan – developing a plan around the activities and the tools selected for the course will lead to a successful experience in your course. The tools will only be as effective as they way they are presented and implemented. Consideration must be given to answering the question…how will this tool increase connections and support the outcomes/objectives of the course.
Interact with Non-Task Activities – consider using interactions that are not related to a specific task as a way to make connections. Find a way to connect with students or facilitate students connecting with each other in ways that are not directly related to learning. Connections made this way can foster a supportive learning community. Many LMS offer some functionality that will allow for this type of social networking. If for some reason the LMS doesn’t offer this functionality you may have create your own private Facebook page or use a tool like Slack. And…simply asking your students to come up with a suggestion to enhance networking might be a good option. Chances are good they may already be using a tool that could be shared.