5 Ways Of Keeping Online Students Engaged And Teachers Involved
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Keeping Online Students Engaged: How Teachers Should Act

Online courses require less direct time for teachers to spend with students. However, teachers cannot be completely hands-off. Research shows that although students like the convenience of eLearning, they feel less engaged. With studies showing a 10-20% higher drop-out rate of online courses than in-person classes, teachers must find ways to connect more with their online students. Among the reasons why learners do not finish courses is that they may feel lost, disinterested, or distanced. Consider these ideas for engaging your learners:

1. Get To Know Each Other

By default, online interaction is more distant than in-person interaction. Teachers have to initiate more opportunities to get to know students in order to understand their perspectives and needs. Since online courses allow for greater flexibility and access to a broader audience, online students tend to be more diverse. Teachers should find out how students differ and try to teach and support them accordingly.

  • If students are from another culture or country, will any of the content need more context in order for the students to understand?
  • If students are more experienced in a particular area of their field or are working in different settings, is the content able to be practically applied in their various situations?
  • Are the assignments requiring technology or time that students are able to handle? If not, are there ways to support the students as they are challenged, for instance by giving demonstration videos on how to use the new technology, or are there different options for fulfilling the assignments while still maintaining a high standard?

As an initial assignment ask students to introduce themselves in one paragraph, answering where they are from, why they are taking the class, or what they hope to learn from the course. This can quickly give you an overview of your students and how to guide the class. Adding your own photo or personal video introduction can also foster a personal connection with students. Show that you are a real person—not an anonymous robot—who is interested in knowing students as individuals and reaching students where they are.

2. Be Clear And Creative In Communication

Miscommunication can more easily occur when students can’t see the body language or hear the tone of the teacher or don’t have the opportunity to immediately ask clarifying questions. Teachers must, then, be especially careful when communicating online. For teaching how-tos or giving assignments, in addition to text, you can supplement with videos to instruct and demonstrate. Requirements for assignments should be clearly laid out so that students understand what is expected of them. If students are supposed to give feedback to each other or participate in discussions online, provide the rules for such activities ahead of time in order to prevent inappropriate comments or discussions from going off track.

Vary your teaching methods and activities so that different learners can process and understand more deeply. For instance, adding videos can appeal to visual and auditory or aural learners. An audio clip explaining an assignment, an audio recording of a historical speech, or music can engage auditory learners as well. Not only text documents but also screen recordings of the audio and PowerPoint slides combined with presentations can help verbal learners. You can include assignments that allow students to take photos of items they make or to record videos of themselves demonstrating their skills in order to engage physical learners as well as those of other learning styles. There is a world of possibilities for engaging different learners as long as you are using various ways to communicate clearly with your students.

3. Monitor Progress

Teachers should monitor students’ progress, checking, at least weekly, to see if the students are keeping on track. Are students turning in assignments on time? Are students showing understanding of the material? Take the initiative to reach out to any of them if there are signs that they are having difficulties. Perhaps they need extra help or else just a boost of encouragement or reminder to persevere. Consider whether or not reminders or additional explanations about the content or assignments are needed. You can send weekly messages that review what has been covered, remind students of assignments, and give any other information that you want to send to the entire class. Whether brief or extensive, via text or video, such messages help students know that you care about their learning and are keeping them accountable.

At the end of major sections of the course, or mid-way through the course, you can ask the students to provide feedback and ask questions. A survey with a few questions, such as "What was the most difficult part of this topic?", "How can you practically use this in your field?", or "What else do you wish to learn about this?" can show students that you respect their concerns, assess students’ understanding and interests, and also provide useful information to make any adjustments for the rest of the course or to improve the course for the future.

4. Be Timely

Students may disengage when there is not timely feedback, such as would occur more readily in an in-person class. Be prompt in responding and giving grades and comments to students. In addition to grades, constructive and specific comments, even if brief, can help instruct and encourage students as they progress through the course. When students reach out for help or with questions, ideally teachers should respond within 24 hours.

One complaint that some students have with online courses is that discussions are dragged out too long for students to really engage with each other. With little or no response from others, students are also not motivated to check back in on the discussion. You can require students to respond to at least one or more other students’ comments. Meanwhile, you should facilitate either the entire time if there is a limited time-specific discussion or frequently if the discussion is over the course of a few days. A reasonable time limit should be set so that students have flexibility in when they participate but that there is a limited time in which you and the students need to actively participate and respond without the discussion dragging on indefinitely. Comment along with the students, and ensure that the discussion is on track, acknowledging students’ contributions, drawing in participants, and making sure the discussion is beneficial.

5. Be Available

Offer at least 2 ways for students to communicate with you, for example via email and through the LMS (Learning Management System). If you have an office on campus, you can give local students an option of meeting with you in-person. You should not be on call 24-7 however. Determine for yourself how much time you can spend online. Then, set out clear guidelines for availability, for instance by letting students know ahead of time that messages will be answered within a certain amount of time and exactly when you host "online office hours".

When you take the time to get to know each other, communicate clearly and creatively, monitor progress, give timely responses, and make yourself available, you narrow the digital distance between you and your students. Students will be more engaged as you stay involved.

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