Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic came an accelerated shift to all things digital. One of the most obvious changes was the rapid adoption of remote work as well as online learning for students of all ages, from pre-school right through to tertiary level.
Teaching online comes with unique challenges, and the inability to engage face-to-face can make it difficult for students to stay engaged; with the material, lecturers, and amongst themselves.
For lecturers, the problem is twofold. Not only do they need to find ways to foster engagement with the material, but they also need to learn new skills very quickly. That is, the skills which pertain specifically to teaching online.
Resonating with an audience you can’t see, talk to, or gauge reactions from is a skill which used to be left largely to people like radio presenters. Nowadays, educators across the world have had to adopt these skills – often with little to no training.
Regardless of how you feel about the challenges of online instruction however, e-learning is here to stay. The good news is that, when done effectively, online learning can be both engaging and interactive. On top of that, digital tools can help improve access to education for students by removing barriers such as physical location, transport costs, childcare, and more.
The Problem – Lower Levels of Engagement When Teaching Online
Transitioning from the traditional classroom or lecture hall to online learning can be challenging for everyone involved. Traditionally, research has suggested that students typically do worse in courses that are delivered entirely online.
In order to compensate for this, educators need to adapt their teaching efforts to engage students even more effectively than you might in a physical setting. Not to mention the problems that can sometimes be inherent with technological tools themselves. Examples range from discussion becoming stilted when 100 students are trying to unmute their microphones simultaneously, to the reluctance of students to turn on their cameras, and connectivity problems which may make engaging with the material difficult.
On top of that, students who participate fully in online courses tend to perform better than those who participate only partially or selectively. So, full participation is in everyone’s best interests.
Fostering Engagement When Teaching Online
Employing effective means of engagement can help students to participate more readily in classes and improve the overall experience of online learning.
Rather than simply trying to recreate the methods used when teaching in a physical space, this means leveraging the environment and adopting a digital-first approach.
Focus on building relationships
Whether students are receiving instruction in-person or online, they’re more likely to be engaged and interactive in the learning experience if they feel at ease and if they believe that their educators are invested in their learning. By creating a space where students feel accepted and comfortable, you are likely to foster participation and interactive engagement.
Earnestly welcoming students for attending class, engaging with different viewpoints when they are offered in discussion, and sharing some lived experiences can all go a long way towards increasing morale – and in turn, participation.
Aside from checking on students regularly, creating informal chat channels like WhatsApp groups where they can communicate with educators and fellow students can help them to feel connected to the course and to one another. Breakout rooms, Slack channels, and social media groups can all be effective when it comes to strengthening communication and fostering a sense of community within the group.
Make it easy for students to participate
As learning shifts to online, it is important to remember that, in response, student participation methods are likely to shift too. A shift to online learning also implies a shift in social situations. For many students, this can impart a sense of awkwardness or anxiety around participating in classes and engaging with one another.
Some students may not feel comfortable talking on camera, but are happy to engage in other ways using tools such as chat functions or discussion boards. In reality, this is no different to the “quiet” students in physical classrooms who turn in assignments but would never raise their hands to answer or ask a question during a lecture or tutorial.
When lecturing online via Zoom or another platform, it is important that the educator is able to facilitate productive discussion rather than superficial, one-word or single line responses. Educators can make use of various tools for their students to engage with to help encourage this. Arguably, there are more ways for students to participate online than there would be in a physical classroom. Whether your students have their cameras on or not, faculty members can make use of options like polls, typed chat, discussion forums, audio chat, the Google Workspace, quizzes, and breakout rooms. Try to ask open-ended questions which spark discussion rather than closed questions.
These are active methods of learning which allow students to regularly and consistently engage with the course material, test their knowledge, and participate in ways which they are most comfortable with.
Help students to manage time and expectations
Effectively managing workload, schedules, and student expectations of an online course are key to helping students engage with the content. Research has shown that students are experiencing all-time high levels of stress and anxiety, with concerns around academic performance being one of the main contributors. As an educator, you can do your part to reduce some stressors by helping students to manage their time and workload.
One key element in helping students to manage this academic anxiety is being consistent. Establish regular times at which you are available, make sure you always provide grading on work within a regular timeframe, and be sure to provide feedback which is both timely and helpful if a student has queries or inquiries. Being consistently present helps to assure your students that they are supported and that you are invested in their success.
Additionally, it is important to closely manage the submissions of tests, assignments, and other materials more closely than you would in a physical classroom.
Communicating with students proactively to let them know what material will be covered in coming lectures, and to remind them of any upcoming or missed deadlines can help them to organise and manage their time effectively.
We understand that moving from a face-to-face environment to a digital one can be challenging but it can also be rewarding. Our 6 step guide on how to move your courses online is free to download, and can help you to develop the strategies you need to engage your students and immerse them in the online learning experience.