This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies. The transition to online teaching has been partially, if not completely, challenging for
Online Student Engagement
Editor’s note: This article was featured on The Teaching Professor in December 2018. For more articles like this, learn more about a Teaching Professor membership.
This article is featured in the resource guide, Effective Online Teaching Strategies. I used to dread online discussions as much as many students do. However,
Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with approximately 300 faculty who have developed and taught their first online course. One of the
“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.
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.