Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A New Method for Student Engagement in an Online Class

by Dr. Bruce A. Johnson

At the start of a new online class educators typically find that most students are involved in the class with a mix of feeling excitement and uncertainty.

From the students' perspective, staying involved in the class requires effort and they cannot stay highly engaged without their instructor's support.

While many students are driven and have an ability to sustain their involvement, there are often others who lack self-motivation and begin to disengage.

As many educators realize, by the time a student disengages from class it is often too late to get them back on track.

A primary challenge throughout the duration of the course for online educators is that class facilitation takes time. There are many important aspects required for managing instructional duties and those are often related to contractual requirements.

With a busy schedule it is natural to focus on matters and issues that get our attention, and not notice that a student is slowly disengaging from the class until they are completely absent or have withdrawn.

It becomes important then to take a proactive approach and establish a method for helping students stay engaged in their class.

Defining Engagement

When educators define the nature of student engagement it is usually done from a tangible (what we see) perspective and this is often a subjective assessment.

For example, if a student is seen posting participation messages most every day of the week you might say that they are highly engaged. The question is how active does a student have to be to meet this criteria?

As a general guideline it can be assessed by how invested a student is in their class. This includes involvement in discussions, asking questions, submitting assignments on time, and how responsive they are to other students and their instructor. There needs to be substantial visual cues to consider that a student is engaged in their class.

Why Does Engagement Matter?

It matters because it means that students are involved in the class. This is the only method of making a distance education class feel like a community. If students are not actively involved in their class, especially an online class, they can easily disengage, lose interest, and become missing in action.

If the instructor doesn't intervene these students may drop the course and a continual pattern like this may also lead to disengagement from their degree program.

Therefore, visual cues are important because they are indicators of how involved students are in the process of learning. This includes qualities such as their level of effort, along with being visible and present in class.

Measuring Engagement

When visual cues are interpreted is often done in a subjective manner because it does not involve a tangible work product such as a written paper. The purpose of measuring students' engagement in class is to raise an educator's conscious awareness of students and keep track of their involvement.

It is easy to become so busy managing class operations and discussions that students who are not present may go by the wayside.

For those instructors who are detail minded they can create a spreadsheet and track students' progress. It is also possible that technological tools may be utilized or checklists can be written and printed out. The overall purpose of this activity is to pay attention to your students and how they are doing.

A New Model to Track Progress

To assist educators with the process of tracking students' involvement in class the following model can be utilized:

Examine class conditions as this can be conducive to their participation.
Notice students' involvement and pay attention to their activities.
Gauge the expected level of activity for an average student to establish a standard.
Assess students and look for visual cues as you monitor their progress.
Get students' attention through some form of communication such as an email or a phone call if it appears they are not present.
Engage and be engaged as students will follow your lead.

Instructor Engagement Matters

For instructors, being highly engaged in an online class requires conscious proactive involvement. It is possible to catch struggling students before they are disengaged; however, it can be challenging because keeping track of students does take time.

One of the first steps you can take is to develop a standard of acceptable engagement for an average student. By developing this standard you can observe patterns and reach out to students as needed.

Overall, it is necessary to establish a plan for conscious awareness of your students if you want to keep them involved. Student engagement in an online class is related to their involvement in the learning process, their retention in the class, and it is a contributing factor to their overall success.

Dr. Bruce A. Johnson is an online college professor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, faculty mentor, faculty peer reviewer, and professional writer.

Dr. J authored four books, including Be Prepared to Teach Online: Strategies from an Online College Professor and APPRECIATIVE ANDRAGOGY: TAKING the Distance Out of Distance Learning.

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