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Student Engagement and Online Learning

While there are challenges related to student engagement in all types of learning environments, online delivery may include added obstacles. In a face-to-face course, instructors are able to directly observe students' behaviors and evaluate their attitudes and motivation levels at each lesson or class meeting. Online students are working in different physical locations and not as easy to observe. This experience can be isolating and prone to distraction. Online learning also requires skills related to the technologies used in the delivery of the course. Students without these skills, who are new to the format, may be more easily discouraged and less likely to engage.

Student engagement is a term we are seeing more frequently in educational research, and there are numerous studies, including one from researchers at Lander University and Clemson University, that find student engagement can have a positive impact not only on the understanding of course materials, but also on retention and course completion rates. The overarching goal of student engagement strategies is increased learner motivation to be involved in his/her own learning processes – active, attentive, involved, and adventurous. 

Describing Student Engagement

The Australian Department of Education, Employment, and Workplace Relations describes engagement in the context of learning as "energy in action, the connection between person and activity." This group also presents three forms of engagement, through behavior, emotion, and cognition – things that students do, feel, and think.

In an article entitled, What is Student Engagement, Anyway, educator Linda Deneen provides the following definition that includes technology: "a rendezvous between learning and the digital tools and techniques that excite students." Deneen adds that this extends beyond the classroom or course site, including the support students receive from other school services, especially those related to making the technologies available.

Engaging learning is …

  • Relevant: The learner understands how the topic and materials are important and related to their academic programs, as well as the potential for future application and learning transfer
  • Participatory: Engaging learning is more than just a presentation of information. Students are active participants in the learning process interacting with the content, each other, and their instructor, and involved in conversations and decisions related to their learning. 
  • Collaborative: Instructional strategies that promote engagement often leverage collaborative activities in which students work together to solve problems, practice new skills, and create products that demonstrate their learning.
  • Challenging: Students are more likely to become engaged with learning activities when working toward a challenging, but reasonably achievable, goal. 

Engaging learning activities provide …

  • Specific feedback. Students should receive feedback that extends beyond “correct/incorrect,” with explanations of why they were correct or incorrect, and suggestions for further improvement.
  • A friendly climate. Student engagement often hinges on the comfort level of the student in the learning environment. The culture of this environment should foster a safe classroom in which questions and input are encouraged and not subject to inappropriate criticism.
  • Connections. Opportunities should be present for online students to connect with each other and their instructors as members of a learning community. Students that feel like they are part of the group and know each other may be more likely to engage in class activities in a meaningful way. 

Examples in Higher Education

How can you foster student engagement in your online courses? You may already have two common components in your course: threaded discussions and static presentations. These are a great place to start.

Discussion boards. Asynchronous discussion forums are widely used in online courses and pose a significant challenge: to get students to engage in the assigned topic and with each other beyond simple responses meant to fulfill basic course requirements. The University of Alberta and DePaul University each provide detailed guidelines for instructors. Creating engaging discussion forums includes careful construction of the questions by encouraging collaboration, debate, and examination, as well as thoughtful moderation to provide opportunities for active participation, frequent feedback, synthesis, and recommendations for taking the discussion further.

Interactive presentations. Michael F. Ruffini, a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, reported his use of animation in slide presentations as a method to foster student engagement that enhances learning and retention of the instruction. Effective animations are designed to meet the needs of the learner audience, address specific learning objectives, and follow established design rules. Ruffini points out that poorly produced animation can also be problematic, preventing or blocking student learning and posing more distraction than assistance. Take a look at Ruffini's four animation examples and consider the potential for enhanced development of your existing presentations.

More engagement strategies. The Illinois Online Network is just one initiative to collect and archive teaching strategies for online courses. The Online Teaching Activity Index lists more than 40 activity types each with examples and instructions for online implementation in higher education. This index contains a combination of strategies that adapt activities found in traditional classrooms (e.g. case studies, debates) and those that are unique to online delivery (e.g. podcasting, blogging, webquests).

Measuring Student Engagement

How do you know when students are engaged? Most studies rely on student feedback via surveys, focus groups, and interviews. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is one such survey that that been collecting student feedback from more than 1,400 colleges and universities (U.S. and Canada) since 2000. The NSSE evaluates student engagement in two ways:

  • the time and effort students invest in their courses and related activities, and
  • efforts at the institutional level to encourage student engagement in learning activities.

The 2010 NSSE Annual Results report describes engagement practices in specific academic disciplines and with the specific population of student veterans. This report also addresses emerging practices in higher education. Among the findings last year: "students who engaged in learning activities with their peers were more likely to participate in other effective educational practices."

While the NSSE draws primarily from traditional institutions, there is a relevant message for online learning instructors and designers at all colleges. Through the Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice [PDF] the NSSE presents five areas of student experience that are critical to student learning and translate to the online environment: academic challenge; active and collaborative learning; student-faculty interaction; supportive campus environment; enriching educational experiences. Publication of the 2011 report is expected in November.

Share Your Experiences

Students are not the only source of information about student engagement. Instructors are also participating in survey research and explaining the lessons they have learned in academic publications and online in blogs and communities of practice. Explore recent student engagement posts at Faculty Focus, an e-newsletter highlighting effective teaching strategies, and consider documenting your experiences and recommendations that might be helpful to other online instructors.

September 19th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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