Engaging Students Online: “Face to Face” in the Virtual Classroom
By fall 2006, online courses in higher education were experiencing exponential growth, with over 3.5 million students participating in at least one online course per semester. This number has grown to over 6 million in 2017, and although the enrollment numbers in higher education have declined steadily, public institutions recorded the largest numbers of all online enrollments, topping over 67 percent.
Want to see the state of online learning in Higher Education? Click here to download the 2017 report.
Methods of online delivery have changed over the years and students now, more than ever, want an evolved art of delivery. Therefore, how can educators keep students engaged and coming back for more in the online classroom, meeting expectations of both traditional and nontraditional students? The answer lies in the way educators engage the students.
Face to Face versus Virtual Communication
Face-to-face communication is defined as communication between two or more parties without the intervention of technology. Because online learning typically uses only computer-mediated communication, a mixed-methods approach that utilizes a variety of available tools may be the best way to curb student frustration at being isolated while learning.
For instance, online students may not feel as valued as students in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Are these students simply a number that keeps the institution's for-profit doors open? Or are educators willing to go the extra mile to ensure students feel not only welcomed, but engaged with their fellow classmates?
Different LMSs make several options available to educators to engage students, including social media-style interaction (comments, likes, etc.), digital discussions, web conferencing, and video feedback. These systems can also help to further engage students through increased confidence in technology and therefore more initiative and drive to participate in the course.
Keep in mind that LMSs usability ranges from easy to complex. While it's possible for a complex platforms give educators more tools to engage the online learner, these systems can frustrate students, causing them to participate less often and making them feel left behind. No matter the system available to the educator and online student, however, it is essentially up to the educator to provide the necessary tools to make the virtual experience engaging and worthwhile to the online learner.
Creating an Online Community
According to a study by the Online Learning Consortium, fostering a community in the online classroom is one of the most important strategies to increase and improve student engagement. Though not a new technique, digital discussion boards utilizing video prompts can allow online students the opportunity to not only engage with fellow classmates, but also learn new skills in creating their own videos and posting to various platforms.
For example, in one online course at a Mid-America Christian University, the instructor creates a video prompt at the beginning of each learning week, choosing a specific case study and questions for the students to answer. The students are then required to respond to the discussion in video format. In this entire interactive process, students are able to not only get to know the instructor 'face to face,' but can also engage with fellow classmates, putting faces with names during the discussion process.
Another alternative is to use the LMS interface to schedule online group sessions using video conferencing tools. Each student has the opportunity to log in at specified times to virtually hang out with classmates. Whether the instructor is present for a lecture or the students are simply offered the chance to meet one another to discuss classroom issues or knowledge, once again, the face-to-face interactions are designed to engage the learners on a new level.
Social Media in the Virtual Classroom
Online students are different from students in the typical classroom. Students might be more comfortable with LMS programming that uses technologies similar to those they already used on a daily basis. Methods and activities that mirror the social media sites these younger students are already familiar with can increase their positive engagement with a course.
In an OLC article, Ali Briggs notes social media is also an excellent tool to connect with enrolled students. For example, embedding a Twitter feed into the course content can be an option to increase involvement.
Social media is not just for the younger generation. The Pew Research Center found that "young adults continue to report using Facebook at high rates, but older adults are joining in increasing numbers. Some 62 percent of online adults ages 65 and older now use Facebook, a 14-point increase from the 48 percent who reported doing so in 2015." Thus, all students, regardless of age, can benefit from social media platforms that are used as an engagement tool for the virtual classroom.
Engaging, Shorter Content is Key
Finally, using LMS tools to provide shorter and more engaging content is an excellent way to engage the online student. Video lectures that are longer in length are often disregarded, which can increase the possibility of students missing important information. Shorter and more lively interactive content has been proven to engage the virtual student and further expand student interaction.
The bottom line for online learning and engagement is to always think outside the box. In today's society, students are trained to look for the bigger, the better and the larger than life. From discussion boards to online group work, there are options to engage in face-to-face activities in the virtual learning environment. As educators, we must continue to be innovative in the online classroom and adjust the online teaching styles and methods to meet the demand for improved student engagement.