Engaging Students – Interaction is key.

I got an email from a professor this week which really stuck with me.  Essentially he was concerned about the fact that students can take a rigorous course, but if they don’t feel engaged by it, they aren’t going to learn anything.  To quote him “we are our emotions, it’s what drives us, creates change and stimulates learning.”  He couldn’t be more right and in the age of scientific education (that we take a clinical approach to how we foster student success) I find it hard to disagree with him that we are straying away from one of the key factors in what makes students take our courses.

So the question I sought to answer this week is how do we create engagement in online courses?  There are a hundred different approaches to this questions and frankly I won’t be able to answer it in any definitive way.  There are entire sub-fields of education research that focus on it so, instead of making a long discussion today, I figured I’d share two articles (one scholarly and one for scholars) about what drives engagement in online education.

The first, and less scholarly, is this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It’s pretty boiled down already, but it reminds us that student engagement is always a two way street.  In face to face courses, we get engaged because the professor is fired up and passionate about what they’re teaching (or, the inverse, we check out when we get the talking head on the podium).  The same responsibility exists in online.  Students won’t engage in a course if the faculty aren’t there either and instructor presence is a key factor in whether or not students care.

From a design perspective though, I thought would be interesting to share this article.  We often talk about differentiation of instruction for K12, the idea that there should be multiple methods of assessment and multiple ways to learn for students.  It’s not a concept I see practiced consistently in higher ed, either in face to face or online.  The article actually comes to the conclusion that there aren’t activities that foster engagement more than others (reading from a textbook isn’t inherently better than a discussion forum) but it’s more about the way students interact with the content that fosters engagement.  Engagement in online starts with providing students with a multitude of opportunities to interact with your faculty and each other as well as the content. 

Of course this is just a small sliver of the pie and I’m wondering what you think the key elements of engagement in online are.  What has worked for you in the past?  How do you focus on student engagement in the programs you manage?  What do you think still needs to be answered about this topic?  I seem to find that no matter what I do, each attempt I make to answer questions only leaves more questions to answer.  Sisyphus would approve.

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