In this coffee course, we’ll be looking at some strategies to foster engagement in online teaching and learning spaces, whether it be for fully online courses or just in your Wattle (Moodle, or LMS) course site. To get us started, this post will look at some of the aspects of engagement in higher education and explore how they differ online from face-to-face.
What is engagement, anyway?
In a regular face-to-face classroom, how can you tell if students are “engaged”? Whenever I ask this question of teachers, they usually reply by saying that students are paying attention, asking questions, participating in discussions, and look interested. (Please share your own responses in the comments below!)
But these are all visual or interpersonal cues that are often missing when students are online: if you can’t “see the light in their eyes”, are they really engaged? John Hannon (2009) points out that even the most experienced classroom teachers often feel disoriented when they are teaching online for this reason. The nature of online delivery impacts many aspects of how engagement has traditionally been understood in the face-to-face classroom. For example, missing verbal communication cues mean that developing rapport with students doesn’t happen automatically. Unlike face-to-face “contact hours”, where the whole cohort meets in person in the same physical space, the flexible nature of online teaching also means that students may be in different time zones, accessing their course sites at different times. Students can often be following the course with interest online, but are unknown to the teacher or other students if they do not post anything in the forums (commonly called lurking). Many teachers are concerned that they are “shouting into the void” as they cannot see if the information they are putting online is being read. Another key difference is that while face-to-face classrooms mostly rely on verbal communication, in online spaces text-based communication is more common – this can benefit some students while disadvantaging others. (We’ll explore this more in Day 4 of the course.)
Definitions of Student Engagement
“Engagement is more than involvement or participation – it requires feelings and sense-making as well as activity. Acting without feeling engaged is just involvement or even compliance; feeling engaged without acting is dissociation.” (Trowler 2010:5)
Contemporary academic work on student engagement highlights the social, communicative, and participatory dimensions of learning. In her literature review on the topic, Trowler (2010) shares the following dimensions of student engagement:
- Active and collaborative learning
- Participation in challenging academic activities
- Formative communication with academic staff
- Involvement in enriching educational experiences
- Feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities
These aspects are seen to be the key to foster student interest and participation in learning. Improved outcomes and student success are seen to be the key goals of fostering student engagement:
“In essence… student engagement is concerned with the extent to which students are engaging in a range of educational activities that research has shown as likely to lead to high quality learning.” (Coates 2005: 26)
This is part of a broader trend in higher education towards a philosophy of student-centred learning:
“Engaged learning is not a new instructional approach. It has been written about under various terms such as active learning, social cognition, constructivism, and problem-based learning, all of which emphasize student-focused learning within an instructor-facilitated environment.” (Conrad & Donaldson, 2011:1)
A student centric-approach focuses on the activities and ways that students engage with the material and how they can make it relevant to their own circumstances in order to facilitate deep learning. For example, a student-centred approach to teaching will de-emphasize the role of one-way content transmission (such as the long lecture), and encourage peer and collaborative work along with activities.
Many learning technologies enable student-centered learning. Indeed, our ANU Wattle environment is based on these principles in its design. The developers of Moodle (the system behind Wattle) have explicitly stated that the system is designed to support engagement and interaction rather than large amounts of content. Despite this, the aspects of a course that contribute to student engagement, listed above, are precisely those that are often under-served by online teaching and learning spaces. It’s very common when developing online courses for a significant amount of time to be spent to be focused on putting the course content online (such as recording videos, presenting information, curating resources). The elements of a course that foster engagement might happen more naturally, and in an unplanned way, in a face-to-face context. Students and teaching staff can interact, speak with each other, make jokes, and share experiences in an on-campus classroom, but it takes special consideration to create the same experiences online.
For the rest of the course, this is what we will explore! We’ll look at some ways to create engaging experiences and build relationships online, including how to build social presence and communicate effectively. In the meantime, take a moment to think about your experiences and respond to one of the discussion questions below.
- Coates, H. (2005) The value of student engagement for higher education quality assurance. Quality in Higher Education. 11(1), pp. 25-36. Available: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13538320500074915
- Conrad, R-M. & Donaldson, J.A. (2011) Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Hannon, J. (2009) Disorienting spaces: Engaging the multiple “student” in online learning. In Same places, different spaces. Proceedings ascilite Auckland 2009. Available: http://www.ascilite.org/conferences/auckland09/procs/hannon.pdf
- Trowler, V. (2010) Student engagement literature review. Higher Education Academy. Available: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/evidencenet/Student_engagement_literature_review
We invite you to respond in the comments to one of these prompts, or share your thoughts more broadly. Please respond to the posts and questions of your peers as well! Please note: If you are signed up on HORUS to receive professional development recognition for this course, you will need to comment on each of the daily blog posts.
- Why did you take this course? What would you like to learn from it?
- Tell us about your least engaging online experiences. What makes you tune out or log off?
- What would you consider to be evidence of engagement in your own teaching practice? How can you tell if your students are “engaged” online?
We look forward to hearing from you in the comments!