If you’ve taken a continuing education class, you’ve seen how students fade away over time. People get busy. They have trouble making class and keeping up with coursework. Or, they don’t get the support they need and lose motivation.
Online learning presents additional challenges. Online students must have the motivation and discipline to work in isolation. A lack of face-to-face accountability makes it easier for an online student to give up without anyone noticing.
An online course that merely provides information is no better than any other in today’s competitive lifelong learning market. Your association must differentiate itself by offering online courses that engage, connect, and transform students.
If you follow the nine steps below to increase online student engagement, research shows you will increase the level of student satisfaction, perceived learning, and actual learning. When more students enjoy and complete your course successfully, your eLearning programs benefit from their return business and referrals.
#1 - Prepare students for the online learning experience.
Students who are used to learning in a classroom or meeting room may have trouble adjusting to the online learning experience. To help them thrive in this new environment, give them an introduction to online learning, your association’s learning management system (LMS), and their online course.
Require all students to go through the introduction to online learning the first time they register for one of your online educational programs. Explain how online learning is different from the traditional classroom experience. Provide tips on time management, goal setting, and planning and prioritizing work.
Take them on a guided video tour through your LMS, pointing out the different features and functionality, including the online community. Show them how to find materials, assignments, and assessments, and how to communicate with their instructor and fellow students.
Instructors should also provide an introduction for students to watch before the course begins, like this introductory video for the Coursera course, Learning How to Learn. Instructors should review course requirements, provide estimates for the amount of time students should spend each week on coursework, and go over course materials.
A good introductory video could also serve as a promotional trailer, like this one from another Coursera MOOC, Modern & Contemporary American Poetry—a course we’ve discussed before on this blog because of its creative and effective instructional design.
#2 – Frequently review learning outcomes.
The instructor’s introductory video should also review the learning outcomes for the course. These learning outcomes should be included in the course description so students know what to expect and whether the course is right for them.
Students want impact, not information. Tell them what they’ll be able to do after taking the course, not what information the curriculum contains. Remind students throughout the course about the results they can expect if they stick with it.
Instructors should explain the purpose of each course activity and connect it to the learning outcomes for the course. If students know why they’re doing an activity and how it will impact them, they’re more likely to invest themselves in it and complete the work.
#3 – Present clear, organized learning materials.
Students must be able to easily navigate your LMS to find their course materials, discussions, assessments, and records. Everything they need should be right where they would naturally look for it.
Instructors have a role to play as well. Course materials should be organized and labelled in a consistent way to reduce student confusion. Checklists for each lesson or module help students know how far they’ve come and how far they still have to go—providing students a sense of progress.
#4 – Prevent isolation by increasing the presence of instructors.
Students should feel as if the instructor is right there with them. The course shouldn’t feel like it’s running on auto-pilot. Students feel more connected to instructors who talk to them, as if in a one-on-one conversation, via instructional videos. Videos also relay a sense of an instructor’s personality—another means of connection with the audience.
If a student hasn’t logged into the course for a while, instructors should contact them to see what’s going on. The student may need help or encouragement. These touchpoints will help students feel less isolated and less likely to abandon the course.
Instructors should make it easy for students to get in touch with them via email. A regularly scheduled “office hour” encourages students to speak up if they have issues or questions.
Ask instructors to check in with students throughout the course, especially when coursework becomes more challenging. During the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) course, the instructor and his teaching assistants (TAs) upload videos each week in which they review assignments and address recurring student questions.
For high enrollment courses, consider hiring TAs to check in with students to see if they’re progressing on schedule, find out if they need help, and gather feedback on the course.
#5 - Build a learning community.
Researchers found that when an online course included an online community component, students were five times more engaged and 16 times more likely to finish the course. Engagement increases when students feel like they ‘belong’ and are ‘part of something’ with like-minded people.
“The social context in which we learn is usually what supplies relevance—a critical element for adult learning, or andragogy—and it is by wrestling with ideas and information in a social context that we make sense of them, modify them, and make them our own.”
When an online course requires community participation, students have more opportunities to connect with instructors and fellow students, discuss coursework, help each other through struggles, share ideas, and, most importantly, become more engaged.
#6 - Deliver bite-sized, spaced learning.
Make course content easy to digest and retain by delivering it in bite-sized chunks. Jeff Hurt refers to the science that backs up the chunking principle:
“Neuroscience has proven that our attention span is 10 minutes. After that, our attention starts to wane. Chunking content into ten minute segments and then allowing learners 10 minutes to digest is the best way to learn.”
Give students the opportunity to recall and review information, therefore committing it to their long-term memory, by spacing out content. Keep their brains engaged by delivering content in different formats: videos, voice over slides, audio, text, and panel discussions.
#7 - Get students to take action on what they’ve learned.
Help students cross the knowing-doing gap by having them immediately apply what they’ve learned. Each lesson should consist of a piece of information and a student action. These actions could include:
- Participating in an online forum.
- Providing examples or scenarios.
- Solving a problem.
- Writing a short essay or opinion piece.
- Having a conversation (online or offline) with a fellow student.
- Reviewing what they’ve learned in notes or journaling.
- Answering instructor questions.
Ask good questions, for example, open-ended questions that require a higher level of reflection and thinking. Ask students to refer back to the content in their answers—another opportunity to revisit the material.
Put the information in context for students. Discuss how they can apply what they’ve learned by sharing case studies. The sooner students act on the new information they’ve digested, the more likely it will stick in their long-term memory.
#8 - Provide regular feedback.
Feedback helps students feel a sense of progress and rescues them from isolation. Instructors, TAs, or peers should provide feedback on all assignments with suggestions for improvement and kudos for good work. To convey a personal sense of connection, instructors should use video every now and then to deliver feedback.
Remind instructors and TAs that everyone watches their behavior in online community discussions. They should model the type of responses and feedback they want students to give each other. Draw students out in discussions. Ask them to go further, elaborate, or think of the topic from another angle—anything that helps them revisit what they’ve learned and make it stick.
#9 - Make time for fun.
Learning is serious business—even life and death business for some professions. But you can make it an enjoyable experience your students will remember and talk about with others.
The ModPo instructor and his TAs have created an online community of poetry lovers because they make learning fun, as you can see in this video preview of an upcoming week of the course.
To compete in the crowded online learning space against the likes of Coursera and EdX, colleges and universities, LinkedIn and Lynda.com, and dozens of other for-profit organizations entering your market, your association’s online courses must offer a distinctive and engaging experience. By adding these engagement elements to your online learning programs, you’ll create a learning experience that stands out in the marketplace.