Are We Doing Enough to Engage our Online Students?

By Dr. Maria T. Gallardo-Williams, Teaching Professor and Director of Organic Chemistry Labs, Department of Chemistry, and SoTL Faculty Fellow, Office of Faculty Development

Once, before the pandemic, only a select group of instructors had to worry about engaging students in their online courses. These days, with most of our course offerings being online or at least offered in a hybrid version, most of us find that online student engagement has become a priority. However, replicating in-person interactions in an online course doesn’t always work as intended, and it may leave both faculty and students feeling frustrated.

One feature of most learning management systems that can be leveraged to solve this issue is the humble discussion board. Left unattended, there will be limited interactions on them, but if we include some engagement features in the course design architecture, we can all benefit from the opportunities for interaction that will arise (1).

At the beginning of the course, introductions can be handled by posting appropriate prompts to the discussion boards. From asking students to post a picture of their pets, find hidden Easter eggs in your syllabus, or share memes that describe their feelings about the class, there are many ways to personalize an introduction. If you are interested in video introductions, Moodle has a feature that allows students to upload short videos that can be used for this purpose, or you might want to try Flipgrid instead. Make sure to lead the way by posting your own introduction (2). Remember that your online presence will set the tone for the rest of the class, so this is a good time to show enthusiasm for the subject and for the time you will spend online together. A good introductory activity will go a long way towards the social presence of students in the class (3), which has been shown to be a key component of a successful community of inquiry (4).

Discussion boards can also be used to showcase class work: student reflections, short writing activities, poster sessions, can all be handled in a public discussion space. Student questions received via email or during virtual office hours can be posted to the discussion boards (after removing student identifiers) and answered openly so other students can benefit from the answer. Once you start to use the boards as a place to show and share work, you will find that it is naturally engaging and attractive to students and they will gravitate towards it. Your (or your TA’s) diligence in replying to student questions in this space will show students that you respect it and are invested in it, engaging their cognitive presence as online learners. Your online teaching persona will be a crucial component of these interactions (5).

The last dimension of engagement online is the development of a teaching presence for your students. Without a teaching presence, engagement will be limited, so it is important to offer opportunities for participants to engage in peer-to-peer exchanges that can result in meaningful conversations. Peer review activities can be used for this purpose: students can be asked to critique parts of each other’s work, while adhering to rubrics that facilitate the interaction. Creating teaching materials (such as problem-solving videos or descriptive presentations) can be also a way for students to share the things they have learned in an asynchronous manner, while at the same time increasing their feelings of engagement with the material and with the class community at large.