Guest Blog Post: Four Strategies to Creating Engaging and Diverse Learning Experiences in Your Online Courses

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Karla De Lima Guedes, Senior Teaching Fellow and a PhD researcher at the University of Southampton.
Vanessa Mar-Molinero, Senior Teaching Fellow and Coordinator of the Online Pre-sessional English Programme at the University of Southampton.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to rapidly change how we organize and deliver our course content, what delivery formats we use, how we engage with students, and how students engage with our courses. We have a passion for online and blended education approaches, and enhancing teaching and learning in higher education. Because of this passion, throughout this period, we have been implementing changes by creating online courses, overseeing other staff, teaching online, and gathering feedback from students and staff. One lesson we have learned from this experience is that a key to online learning success is student engagement.

Student engagement can increase student satisfaction, enhance student motivation to learn, reduce the sense of isolation, and improve student performance in online courses (Martin and Bolliger, 2018). Several studies have pointed towards a link between student satisfaction in their learning experiences, how they perceived their learning, and how they engaged with their learning (Bryson and Hand, 2007; Dyment et al., 2020; Moore, 2014; Muir et al., 2019). At this point, you might be asking yourself, “If this is so vital, how can I enhance student engagement in my online courses?” Below are four practical strategies you can implement to enhance student engagement in your own online courses.

Student Self-Efficacy (SSE)

Create learning environments that can foster students’ self-efficacy in online learning. This means building a learning environment that facilitates learning and provides opportunities for students to develop their confidence and ability to use and interact with technology. We do this to get students to easily engage in the proposed online learning environment. Research has shown SSE levels are positively correlated with students’ perceived level of satisfaction and engagement (Bandura, 1995; Gunawardena et al., 2010), cognitive and emotional engagement factors (Pellas, 2014)​, and overall academic outcomes (Taipjutorus et al., 2012).

Students with low levels of online learning self-efficacy can become frustrated, overwhelmed, and demotivated—and are more likely to achieve low grades and drop out (Taipjutorus et al., 2012). Most of us have a variety of students in our courses with varying levels of confidence and experience using computers, the internet, and online learning. Therefore, it is crucial to support students in increasing their levels of self-efficacy online regardless of their starting point. Some of the methods that you can quickly implement to foster student self-efficacy include:

  • Having a clear and detailed orientation of your virtual learning environment (VLE) that is easy to navigate.
  • Having a simple and straightforward course design that is consistent and user-friendly.
  • Employing a clear and simple narrative which directs and guides students through the course content and tasks/assignments.
  • Setting clear expectations of what you want students to do, how and when they can do this, and what outcomes they are likely to achieve.

Learner-Content Interaction​ (LCI)

For effective learning and retention, you need students to interact with the course content to contribute to successful learning outcomes and course completion. Interaction makes the learning experience engaging, more worthwhile, and valuable for the learners. When we talk about LCI, we refer to the interaction between learners and the content to be learned so that learners can engage with, elaborate on, or reflect on the course content. Research has shown that learners who spend more time interacting with online course content are more likely to achieve higher grades than those who spend less time with the content (Zimmerman, 2012). So, creating interactive opportunities online is key to students’ engagement and consequential learning success. Some of the strategies that you can implement include:

  • Providing information on expectations, including clear expectations on student participation.
  • Regularly monitoring students’ participation and ease-of-access to support.
  • Creating a multimedia environment by using media tools and interactive videos.
  • Designing an environment that allows all three types of interaction (Learner-learner, learner-instructor, and learner-content (see Moore (1989))).

Active Learning (AL)

Active Learning is a constructivist approach where students are encouraged to engage deeply with the course material by thinking critically and independently, as well as building knowledge and understanding in response to opportunities provided by their tutor or course content (see Vygotsky, 1978). What promotes AL can be different for each learner. Hence, it is recommended that learners are exposed to various learning methods and are encouraged to engage with knowledge in various ways.  Some of the approaches you can implement to foster AL in your online courses include:

  • Designing activities that can move from surface knowledge to deep, conceptual understanding.
  • Using online tools for interaction, such as discussion forums and wikis.
  • Promoting an exchange of ideas through synchronous and asynchronous activities.
  • Providing timely and constructive feedback.
  • Creating a student-centered learning environment.​

Learner-Instruction Interaction (LII)

Foster frequent and high quality Learner-Instructor Interactions. When learning online, students are likely to be interacting with a variety of online learning resources, and this interaction often happens more frequently than with, or instead of, a live tutor. This may lead students to feel disconnected and unsupported and become demotivated and disengaged. Research indicates that online courses with high levels of LII have a positive impact on student engagement, satisfaction, and learning (Bryson and Hand, 2007).

To foster LII in our online courses, we looked at this in terms of social presence and student access to the instructor, how promptly the instructor responds to questions, how valuable and meaningful feedback is to students, student access to staff via multiple channels, and instruction communication style and organisation skills. As a result of this, we found the following strategies to be helpful to increase LII perceptions:

  • Be welcoming, positive, and friendly. Enthusiasm from the teacher equates to enthusiasm from the student.
  • Set clear expectations for the students, in advance, on how, when, or why you want them to engage with you as the instructor.
  • Avoid superficial interactions that do not encourage meaningful communication.
  • Spend time framing the learning activities before students taking part to save time from clarifying or chasing up non-participation or non-completion later.
  • Show students you are tracking their contributions and engagement (e.g., acknowledge or further develop a suggestion they made in a discussion during class).
  • Be clear about deadlines but also add room for flexibility. It is realistic to expect specific tasks to take students longer to work through than the tutor planned for.

Final Takeaways

Organisation, easy structure, clear goals, and understandable expectations are key to facilitating online learning and engagement.​ The methods presented above have been tested in different environments, but only you can know what works by analyzing your context and engaging in feedback with your students. The overall key to success in engaging students online lies in having a clear idea of what you want your students to achieve and how you can get there—together.

References

Bandura, A., 1995. Self-efficacy in changing societies. Cambridge University Press.

Bryson, C., Hand, L., 2007. The role of engagement in inspiring teaching and learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 44, 349–362. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703290701602748

Dyment, J., Stone, C., Milthorpe, N., 2020. Beyond busy work: rethinking the measurement of online student engagement. Higher Education Research & Development 39, 1440–1453. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1732879

Gunawardena, C.N., Linder-VanBerschot, J.A., LaPointe, D.K., Rao, L., 2010. Predictors of Learner Satisfaction and Transfer of Learning in a Corporate Online Education Program. American Journal of Distance Education 24, 207–226. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2010.522919

Martin, F., Bolliger, D.U., 2018. Engagement Matters: Student Perceptions on the Importance of Engagement Strategies in the Online Learning Environment. OLJ 22. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i1.1092

Moore, J., 2014. Effects of Online Interaction and Instructor Presence on Students’ Satisfaction and Success with Online Undergraduate Public Relations Courses. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator 69, 271–288. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077695814536398

Moore, M.G., 1989. Editorial: Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education 3, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923648909526659

Muir, T., Milthorpe, N., Stone, C., Dyment, J., Freeman, E., Hopwood, B., 2019. Chronicling engagement: students’ experience of online learning over time. Distance Education 40, 262–277. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2019.1600367  

Pellas, N., 2014. The influence of computer self-efficacy, metacognitive self-regulation and self-esteem on student engagement in online learning programs: Evidence from the virtual world of Second Life. Computers in Human Behavior 35, 157–170. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.02.048

Taipjutorus, W., Hansen, S., Brown, M., 2012. Investigating a Relationship between Learner Control and Self-efficacy in an Online Learning Environment. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning 16, 56–69.

Vygotsky, L.S., 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Zimmerman, T.D., 2012. Exploring learner to content interaction as a success factor in online courses. IRRODL 13, 152. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v13i4.1302