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6 ways to increase student engagement in online learning

This article explores the different tools that educators and universities can inculcate in their curriculum to enhance student engagement.

In this world of technological advances, economists and educators predicted that online learning will be the future of education. However, with 1 in every 4 students taking an online course, it is safe to conclude that its time has arrived. Several institutes and universities have entered the industry of e-learning, and the competition is increasing by each passing day. In such a scenario it is important to invest in strategies for online learning success, and student engagement is one of them. Student engagement plays a pivotal role in the enrolment and retention of e-learners and hence the overall success of online courses.

The Glossary of Education Reform defines student engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” However, we usually limit our definition of student engagement to the ‘cognitive’ elements: academic performance, test scores, information recall, and skill acquisition, but what we often fail to acknowledge are the ‘non-cognitive’ factors which include employability skills i.e. personal development, attitude, work readiness, self-regulation, social skills, determination, perseverance.

Considering all these factors,The Glossary of Education Reform classifies student engagement into 5 categories:

  1. Intellectual engagement: stimulating curiosity in a course or subject
  2. Emotional engagement: taking an interest in the personal well being of students
  3. Physical engagement: using elements of kinesthetic learning (A learning style that requires you to manipulate or touch material to learn, producing multi-sensory learning.)
  4. Social engagement: introducing collaborative tasks that inculcate social and civic sense
  5. Cultural engagement: celebrating the diverse cultural background in academics

In the context of online education, it takes an extra dose of motivation for students to stay on top of their assignments compared to the traditional classroom. The anytime, anywhere convenience of online learning sometimes makes it too convenient to procrastinate and become disengaged. Therefore, online courses have a 10-20% higher attrition rate, as mentioned in the Online Student Engagement Special Report by Faculty Focus.

Here are 6 strategies to increase student engagement, which when embedded in your course curriculum will help you to enhance all six types of engagement:

1. High touch modules of learning

In a Special Report on online student engagement tools and strategies by Faculty Focus, Michael Scheuermann, PhD asked her online students a question: “Should I eliminate these chat sessions in future offerings of this course and make them completely asynchronous?” To that, one of her students responded saying, “NO!! Please do not eliminate these online chat sessions. This is a great way to garner everyone’s thoughts, comments, opinions, expertise, and examples of how principles in this course are applied in real-world situations. I look forward to these sessions.” This response suggests that synchronous learning such as live chat sessions and monitored discussions create a more interactive environment.

Introducing few mandatory synchronous sessions per course and supervising student discussions will also connect students with their classmates by encouraging collaboration and improving their soft skills thus enhancing their employability.

Make sure students respond to at least one or more of other students’ views, while simultaneously sharing your opinion with the students and ensuring that the discussion stays on track. Acknowledging students’ contributions, and drawing in participants will help you facilitate the limited time-specific discussion. Thus making the experience enriching. In this way, you will also address the one major complaint that some students have – dragged out discussions that are too long for students to engage with each other due to the lack of response from others.

Hence it is safe to say that synchronous modules not only foster learning but they also bring a personal touch to the virtual class- an idea extremely important for intellectual and social engagement as well as student enrolment.

2. Mentoring

It is often said that students are more likely to succeed if they have at least one mentor following up with them regularly- inquiring about academic and non-academic issues, personal passions, future aspirations, and distinct learning challenges and needs. Consequently, you should make it a point to individually email students in an attempt to monitor their mood and ask them how they are feeling. Introducing and facilitating services such as counseling or peer mentoring will help make their environment more conducive to learning.

Moreover, try to observe warning signs such as students missing a deadline or not meeting participation expectations in a discussion forum. It will help you give students the support they need to succeed academically and feel optimistic about school and learning.

Furthermore, asking for feedback mid-way through the course can show students that you respect their concerns. On the other hand, you can also give feedback to your students through constructive and specific comments, answering their doubts or queries to instruct and encourage students as they progress through the course. However, students may disengage when there is no timely feedback so be prompt and set out clear guidelines for availability by sharing with them the exact time when you host “online office hours”.

You can also make the program more holistic by guiding e-learners through their further education or employment. You can achieve this by conducting counseling sessions or hosting online career events.

Availability of such services is not only a strategy for increasing student enrollment but also emotional engagement.

3. Amalgamating different learning styles

65% of people in the world are visual (including reading) learners, 30% are aural or auditory learners, and 5% are kinesthetic learners. It is highly likely that the students of your online course are different types of learners, so using a variety of content-delivery methods and learning activities will help you to keep students engaged.

Videos, screen recordings, and PowerPoint presentations appeal to visual learners. Whereas, an audio clip explaining an assignment, an audio recording of a historical speech, or music can engage auditory learners.

A common misconception about online learning is that students have to sit in front of their computer. One way to engage online learners is to get them out of their chairs and involve them in active learning. Asking your students to interview people in their locality, allowing these e-learners to record videos of themselves demonstrating their skills, or using similar physical activities will benefit kinesthetic learners as well as other students as they are more likely to remember the concepts and apply them in practical life.

Gamification is a tool through which you can create interactive content that will not only allow the students to play and replay scenarios of the ‘game’ but the scoring mechanism will also help you grade their performance in a unique way, consequently increasing the physical and social engagement.

The Completion Rate for Online Courses is less than 50%, therefore using such different yet contemporary learning styles can be another strategy to improve online learning.

4. Introducing short courses in the curriculum

In the article ‘Why Long Lectures Are Ineffective’ by Salman Khan, Founder of Khan Academy, he mentions that students’ attention span is not more than 10-15 minutes. Hence in order to prevent them from zoning out, chunking (breaking down information into smaller pieces) will help you organize your content in a logical way.

Grouping conceptually-related information will make it more meaningful and easier to understand. Along with this, breaking video lectures into shorter segments, interspersing ‘test your knowledge’ questions throughout the video, and pausing between segments will give them an opportunity to break the monotony by getting away from the computer. Furthermore, being mindful about simple things like using a format that gives students the option of printing for long readings can also lead to higher student engagement.

In our recent survey, we found that 82.9% online learners prefer taking short courses so this strategy will not only improve your online student retention rate but it will also allow you to increase intellectual engagement.

5. Relevance of content

The world is changing at an extremely fast pace and skills that were highly demanded 10 years back have become redundant now. This ever-evolving world mandates the use of industry-relevant content in the education sector. We can’t use the same textbooks that we used back in 2000. We can’t teach using the same curriculums that were designed back in 1995. We simply can’t expect our students to thrive in the modern world while educating them with methods that belong in the 1980s.

68% of students enrol in online courses to learn new skills which clearly implies that new curricula need to be designed. Content needs to be altered in a manner that not only allows students to grasp theory but also helps them learn relevant skills. Using real-life scenarios or case studies will captivate learners as they would want to know the application of what they are learning. This acts as an efficient student retention strategy, especially for higher education.

In addition, e-learners also put a significant amount of emphasis on who is teaching them. With 50% of students wanting a lecturer with industry experience and 32.4% asking for a senior industry professional/lecturer, we can deduce that online students want to work closely with industry as a stakeholder. Consequently, it becomes extremely crucial to inculcate different ways of industry engagement: live webinars, case studies, recorded interviews, online career events, capstone projects, etc. Thus making online learning more relevant and increasing intellectual and social engagement.

6. Acquainting new students to online learning

Online learning might be new for several students so they might not be fully aware of the transition that needs to be made in their study habits. Therefore, it is imperative to give them a clear guideline. An effective way of achieving this could be through the introduction of a discussion board: a platform where you write the relevance of doing certain assignments, share informative links like newspaper article or video and connect students from different cultural backgrounds.

You can introduce a badge system: rewards that you offer to students based on their performance, participation, and attitude towards learning. This acts as an incentive and encourages continued engagement.

Lastly, make sure that you populate the course calendar with deadlines and send reminders to your students so that they stay on track. If a student falls behind, make time to speak with that student on what he or she can do to get back on track. It’s also helpful to provide some sort of checklist for students so they know what they have to complete and when.

This is an effective student retention strategy, and a way to increase cultural engagement.

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