The online classroom can be challenging when it comes to engagement and presence. Students often enter the online classroom nervous, not just about content but about the practicalities of learning in the online environment. As an instructor, it is important to know that your students are motivated to attend your course and eager to learn the subject topic. Online classrooms optimized to success, regardless of the learner profile, will share these key traits and characteristics:
Initially, students need to feel a connection. They need to feel connected to you as an instructor, and they need to feel connected to your classroom. Connection draws them in and fosters a sense of belonging. Some pointers that help students feel engaged are first to recognize them as a person, and then to show you care about their success in the course. The big question is, Why is that important and how do we go about doing it? The “why” is because students are entering a new world when starting a new course, and they may feel guarded in asking questions and may suffer in their classroom performance. The instructor needs to know and demonstrate ongoing knowledge about their students. If students have a preferred name, remember and use that name. If they share personal stories related to their ability to complete coursework, take note and be sure to account for those situations in future interactions. When the instructor demonstrates care, students often find themselves trusting the instructor in helping them find success. Students are also more likely to want to succeed because they sense their instructor’s investment.
Creating a connection can boost student confidence and promote an effective classroom experience. Research has shown when online faculty share caring behaviors, it promotes student persistence (Smith, 2013). Gallup’s research also shared that when a student perceived their professor cared about them, they were more likely to become more engaged and feel more positive about their college experience (Gallup, 2020). It is interesting to note that students who have successfully graduated also tend to feel that their professors cared about them (Gallup, 2020).
However, some students don’t make it to graduation. It doesn’t matter what college or university system a student attends, it is usually the first few semesters that are crucial for a student to stay engaged and persist. One survey that was sent to students who had dropped out shared that the number one reason they dropped out early from their courses was because they did not feel connected.
The challenge to consider is how to help students feel connected, and specifically, how to do this in the online environment. The bottom line is that faculty will need to demonstrate they are invested in their students’ success and in turn be perceived by their students as caring.
As we connect, we need to ensure we are being consistent. It is very important to avoid students getting a “bad connection”—a la “Can you hear me now?” A key finding for Colorado Technical University (CTU) has been the importance of the consistency of the experience. This starts with creating a consistent course experience from session to session—similar due date cadences, course set up, location of items in the Learning Management Software (LMS), and terminology. When one instructor guides students to a discussion board and another a discussion forum, and the next requires a “first post” vs. a “primary post,” new students end up feeling lost and uncertain as to whether they understand how their courses work. If two classes both include a discussion activity and an interactive activity each week, but one faculty heavily weights the discussion while the other heavily weights the interactivity, students may become confused on how to prioritize. We have also found it critical to place important items in the same places in the LMS from course to course. If course materials are located within the assignment prompt in some classes but under unit resources in others, students become frustrated trying to keep track of where to go to get what they need. Think about “The Starbucks Experience,” where no matter where you are, you know exactly what you will experience if you walk into a Starbucks. That approach makes a significant difference for novice online learners.
Consistency is also absolutely critical from a technological perspective. Novice students may lack basic technology needed for a consistent online learning experience, including up-to-date devices and regular access to high-speed internet. Recently, our mobile manager shared that a student called in this year trying to get our app to open on a 2000 Mac computer, and our technology was no longer compatible. The technology you ask students to use should be a simple tool that provides easy access to content. Seamless and easily accessible are far more critical than flashy and innovative. Your university technology should not present additional barriers to access content. It’s also critical to orient students to your technology, your course design, and your university’s vocabulary, and to do so in small, easy-to-consume learning opportunities at their time of need—usually within their first year. Trying to cram everything they need to know to acclimate to your technology and your LMS in an early orientation will likely lead to frustration and content overload without real absorption of knowledge.
Being consistent allows us to place our students’ focus on course content. Research conducted in partnership with Every Learner Everywhere has shown that students moving from in-person to online classroom formats find connecting with content more difficult online. In the first year, students must quickly sense the value of their course content, and they must feel bolstered in their ability to successfully engage with and learn the content. As such, it is vital that course content be appropriately leveled and designed for novice higher education students. Courses leveled too low leave students disengaged and unsure of the value of their classes, but courses leveled too high often feed into student insecurities about their ability to succeed. Students drawn to online education generally face competing priorities, and many need to fit their education into and around other major priorities. Creating content chunks that are easy to consume and can be tackled in spurts of studying rather than in long study sessions often increases chances of student success in early courses.
The content should also feel relevant and applicable. Online instructors should not assume students will automatically transfer knowledge from the classroom into real-life application scenarios, even in cases that might feel obvious. As such, faculty should foster application opportunities to drive home the relevance of content and skills being learned. This element is particularly important in first-year courses and especially in early general education courses. CTU utilizes a series of student avatars whose demographics and background model those of a typical CTU student in first-year courses. These avatars are presented with real-life scenarios where they can apply course concepts. Students are also asked to help the avatars apply course concepts in scenario-based assignments.
Additionally, the opportunity for community must be a clear goal for online classes and programs. Colleges have long known that creating effective community ties students to the school and enhances learning. Yet, community in online classes is often treated as an afterthought or dismissed as impractical. In actuality, community is just as critical in online spaces. One of the primary reasons students cited lower satisfaction with online courses in the previously mentioned Every Learner Everywhere study was lack of opportunity to engage and collaborate with peers (Morris 2020). Online students often sacrifice local community time in order to fit online classes into their lives. And, even worse, disadvantaged college students often discover widening chasms between themselves and their personal community as they move through their education.
As such, developing opportunities to create community space and foster relationships between students becomes vital to student health, retention, and engagement. CTU has found success in fostering community through the use of video platform tools for synchronous sessions between students and faculty, along with offering Zoom capability for group projects in higher level courses. Additionally, CTU has partnered with a company called GetSet to create a student-led community, similar to a social media platform but only accessible by CTU students. More than 55% of our student population utilizes GetSet on an ongoing basis, with over 60% of associate students, 57% of bachelors students, and 56% of doctoral students on the platform. More than 40% of our new students utilize GetSet before they start their first course session, posing questions to continuing students and meeting peers. GetSet is a place for students to connect with peers who have similar interests, stories, and/or goals. Students who engage in GetSet have a 200 base point percentage (bps) improvement in retention compared to those who do not utilize the platform. Building their virtual community connects them to the university, their program, and enhances their learning.
Finally, we must consider compassion. How many emails have you received with an email signature similar to “We’re here to support” or “Let me know how I can help?” And, how often do you perceive those to be figurative gestures rather than sincere offers? Online students often choose the online environment due to juggling multiple priorities, this includes hectic work schedules, demanding home lives, and/or challenging health situations. At CTU, we use an instant messaging system that allows for quick contact between faculty and students. With the introduction of this platform, we found that students were more often sharing personal stories and challenges with their instructors. Too often, faculty were ill-equipped to support students, either unsure of how to support students or viewing their role as strictly academic. They may also perceive the offer of empathy and flexibility as equating to lessening the rigor in a course.
Rigor and compassion can and should go hand-in-hand. For many online students, appropriate prioritization means that assignments may be late or need to be made up so they can care for family members, their own health, or meet unexpected work demands. These students often need empathy and understanding, but more than that, they need classroom support and guidance, with practical suggestions of how they might rework their upcoming deadlines and due dates, or guidance on what to prioritize in their coursework. CTU has provided both asynchronous and synchronous training sessions on this type of support and includes it in the new faculty orientation course as well. Sometimes the only helping hand our students may receive in times of serious need is the virtual hand of their faculty.
Student engagement is key to driving success in the classroom. The online learning environment creates different challenges to ensure students will show up and be an active participant in the classroom. By addressing the 5 C’s (Connection, Consistency, Content, Community, and Compassion), faculty will be able to demonstrate how they care about their students and allow for a better student experience.
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