“I’m sorry to bother you, but…” was the opening line of every email I received in the first week of this semester. This line was usually followed by nothing that would actually bother me: a question about the week’s materials, a link to an interesting resource, a discussion about a potential research topic, and the like. This was all despite my many attempts to ensure that students did not feel like they were imposing whenever they contacted me: a pre-semester introductory email, a video welcoming them to the course, my biography and teaching philosophy, virtual office hours, and multiple reminders about my contact information. Yet, with all of my entreaties to reach out, I was still dealing with the real issues of isolation, fear, and frustration that results in students leaving their online courses. To combat these feelings, professors—myself included—have to deliberately, consistently, and relentlessly work to build student-faculty and student-student relationships in online courses.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
Online Student Engagement
Many faculty members express concern that discussion in their online courses is shallow or sparse. What is it that makes meaningful dialogue so elusive in online courses? Some practices in online course design and discussion facilitation can actually encourage superficial dialogue. Faculty grading and feedback that require too much formality of language can scare students into virtual silence, sticking to exactly what the text says or saying what they think the professor wants to hear. Focusing on lower-level writing issues, such as grammar, APA style, or academic language, takes students away from content issues toward format issues. Although faculty might expect students to use formal academic language in their essays and research papers, it is not ideal for discussion.
Teaching online is a unique experience for faculty and students. Although I love the online environment for some courses, it does present its own challenges. One of those challenges is how to engage online students in activities that push them to go beyond simply reading, interpreting, and interacting. After all, the idea (in most cases) is that the student can apply their learning, knowledge, and skills in their respective fields of study. As such, we are constantly seeking ways to engage students in learning that goes beyond the “click-through” material.
In this article, I share a few ideas—starting with the simplest and working through some more complicated endeavors—that may assist you in bringing more engagement to your online classroom.
There’s a widely circulated YouTube video you may have seen called “A Conference Call in Real Life.” To spoof the strange, stilted dynamics of conference calls, it replicates them in a face-to-face setting. Participants stiffly announce their names at the door of a meeting room, are suddenly interrupted by bizarre background noises, and find themselves inexplicably locked out of a room they were just in.
If you haven’t watched it, do. You’ll recognize the familiar awkwardness of virtual meetings, where the rhythm of conversational interaction is thrown wildly askew by technological hiccups and the absence of visual cues.
Virtual space is not always easy.
Yet, virtual meetings are increasingly common, not only for geographically distributed work teams, but also for online courses.
The convenience and flexibility of the online learning environment allows learners to develop new skills and further their education, regardless of where they live. However, for all of its benefits, online learning can sometimes feel isolating for students and faculty. The question is: how do you build a sense of community in your online courses? One approach involves cultivating more interaction—between you and your students and among the students themselves. Here are five practical tips for increasing the human connection in your online classrooms.
During the past year and a half, our faculty development unit has been gathering data from students about how engaged they felt in their online courses. We wanted to use this data to develop a variety of strategies for faculty to use to better engage their students. Research provides evidence for the connection between higher student engagement and persistence and retention in online programs (Boston, et al., 2010; Wyatt, 2011). Encouraging student engagement is especially important in the online environment where attrition rates are higher than in the face-to-face setting (Allen & Seaman, 2015; Boston & Ice, 2011).
Threaded discussions can provide excellent opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking. But critical thinking isn’t an automatic feature of these discussions. It needs to be nurtured through clear expectations, carefully crafted questions, timely and useful feedback, and creative facilitation.
I am not an athlete. I lack coordination and have some physical limitations. My husband, on the other hand, is an excellent skier. He isn’t a teacher but he believed I could learn to ski, convinced me to try, and partnered with me in the learning process, like the best teachers do. Learning to ski taught me 10 coaching strategies bridging four areas: establishing a safe space to learn, sharing responsibility, providing feedback, and empowering the learner. I apply these strategies to facilitating online discussions, but they relate to a range of learning contexts.
Institutions of higher education are increasingly using online courses and fully-online programs as tools to increase enrollment. There are many issues surrounding the subject of online education as an enrollment strategy. For instance, attrition rates are higher in online courses and online programs than in the face-to-face environment (Carr, 2000; Moody, 2004). It has been well-established that academic and social integration are key factors influencing retention, yet many institutions do not take a systematic approach to ensuring adequate integration opportunities for online students.
Faculty members, at the front-lines of the retention issue, can help to improve student success rates by providing a sense of community in the online classroom and making meaningful interaction and student engagement a priority. Functional units of student services should work collaboratively with faculty members to expand the breadth of support for online learners, with the conviction that retention is everyone’s issue, and fostering student success is everyone’s responsibility.