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The Benefits of Centralizing Your Courses’ Online Tools for Student Engagement

Today’s college students & instructors have a deluge of account logins and different online collaboration tools to use. While intended to enhance teaching & learning, when used separately, they’re far more likely to overwhelm.

centralizing apps

A student’s e-campus account. Email & calendar. Financial aid & billing account. VPNs. Learning management systems. Zoom, Teams, or Webex plus any other digital learning tools, like discussion boards, Q&A, polling, video, chat applications, and more. Whether learning fully online or on campus, today’s college students and instructors have a deluge of account logins and different online collaboration tools to use. While intended to enhance teaching & learning, when such tools are used separately, they’re far more likely to overwhelm students and instructors.

In addition to tech fatigue, it also means that students end up leaving a large amount of learning data on these different technologies that, if centralized, could more effectively predict students’ academic performance and allow for pre-intervention of at-risk students. In this article, we’ll explore the most critical online collaboration tools for students, and why institutions should look to centralize their use of these tools…hint, it’s all about better student engagement in online learning!

Top Online Tools for Student Engagement

We’re not saying cut back on your use of online collaboration tools for students. In fact, the opposite! Studies show that tools that enable student participation in online collaborative learning activities support  better course outcomes. This partly explains why there’s no shortage of online collaboration tools for students on the market — many of which serve a singular function.

However, the most effective ones foster connection and community, are inclusive of diverse learners, and centralize many of the functions critical to supporting student learning online, including:

  • Discussion boards
  • Video, image, and annotation
  • Q&A, chat, and polls

So let’s take a quick dive into some of those tools shown to more deeply engage students in their online or blended courses.

Discussion Board Tools for Connection & Engagement

Powering online and blended course work, the online discussion board is proving to be a powerful digital collaboration tool. It fosters a sense of community and encourages peer-to-peer interaction, which research demonstrates improves learner engagement and achievement.

Discussions can take the form of debate or reflective sharing — led by instructors or students themselves — giving all learners the opportunity to expand upon and clarify their understanding of key ideas. It moves beyond the more passive learning forms of reading or listening and allows students to actively engage with their peers and instructor.

A good online discussion provides a collaborative learning experience that supports deeper connection and understanding. This increases levels of student engagement and can help students improve their ability to transfer learning to new contexts. Discussion boards are effective in creating social presence and community online. Presence and community foster emotional connection — and these elements are key to improving engagement.

Harmonize's Discussion Board Harmonize's Discussion Board

Video, Image & Annotation Tools for More Inclusive Learning

Video and image creation, and the ability to annotate them, provide an immersive, flexible, and engaging  experience. Multimedia is a fun and easy way to help people understand and engage with information in new ways. Consider that video is the number one source of information for 66 percent of people, and more than 55 percent of people report using video to learn new skills. It’s important to include multimedia for students.

The use of video has also been linked to better cognitive results and learning outcomes, compared with more traditional teaching methodology (Chi, 2013). In fact, research has shown that video annotation encourages students to concentrate more on the critical parts of a video, resulting in better learning performance. Plus, videos and images with annotation help create connection through visuals for students who may never meet, work to supplement reading assignments, and give students and instructors an easy way to provide feedback.

Q&A, Polls & Chat Tools Encourage Interactive Communication

The process of question & answer is a foundational aspect of online teaching that is often treated as an afterthought. In fact, the new federal RSI guidelines even specify the importance of providing forums to respond to questions about the content of a course. Too little Q&A, and you’re asking for disengagement.

With a tool that allows you to conduct both polling and Q&A boards with students, you can support better collaboration in online learning. In a study that analyzed online Q&As, results showed students interacted more on a voluntary basis with each other as well as with the instructor, supporting both their own process of inquiry as well as other students’ process of inquiry.

Similarly, polling allows students to share their perceptions and interact with each other, and also serves to help instructors gauge understanding, shape future course content, and kick off new topics in engaging ways.

Finally, don’t dismiss the power of your course chat tool. In a recent study, chat data from an online course indicated that 89 percent of participation involved meaningful interactions, revealing that active online chat participation led to better engagement.  Text-like chat tools can create a space where students can interact and talk with one another. It’s easy and instant, enables small-group or 1:1 peer reviews, and provides students with the opportunity to ask questions or share perspective with other chat participants — especially important for naturally shy students.

The problem with chat tools — like multimedia, polling, or discussion board tools — is that if the tool is not part of the system hosting your online course, you’re inviting students to disengage. They’ll leave the course to (maybe) log into another system to complete a poll, make a video, or chat with classmates — creating a risky opportunity for students to disengage from course material.

One Online Collaboration Tool for a Better Learning Experience

That’s a lot of tools, a lot to keep track of, and a lot of potential barriers for students and instructors alike. But what if you had just one app to replace all of these? One with all of these functions built-in, connected to one another, and seamlessly integrated with your LMS. You’d be able to reduce, if not eliminate, many of the barriers that prevent students from participating in your courses, and create a collaborative learning environment that better engages students. For example:

  • Single Sign-On to your LMS would allow complete and total access to all of these tools in your courses. No additional URLs or logins to remember.
  • A cohesive class experience, where all the course material and the tools needed to engage with that material, the instructor, and other classmates is readily available in the same place, is a better user experience that helps students more easily discover and engage with course content.
  • Rather than having to pick and choose which tools to incorporate, having them all available from one centralized app in your course creates a more inclusive online learning experience that takes a diversity of student learning styles into account.
  • Similarly, when you put all these tools to work in your course, you’ll increase the student-to-student and student-to-instructor interactions in your course — leading to more regular and substantive interactions and better course outcomes.

The bottom line is that having access to the right online collaboration tools for students is paramount to effective online learning. When you choose a technology that centralizes all of these tools, you’ll be able to foster an inclusive, connected online learning environment that gives students both a voice and presence and powers online collaboration.

One Online Tool for Student Engagement & Better Teaching Experience

This holds true for instructors too. In an attempt to achieve all of these benefits, many institutions rely on a variety of disconnected digital learning tools, some of which aren’t fully integrated with the LMS — creating tech fatigue from the additional training and management of these tools, as well as making it more difficult to take full advantage of a tool’s capability.

For example, consider the heavy lift required for grading students when all of these tools are disconnected or not integrated with the LMS. When instructors at Brown University started using Harmonize’s suite of LMS-integrated discussion & collaboration tools to evaluate student participation, it drastically reduced many of the time-consuming tasks often involved with assessing student work and allowed more time for instructors to provide constructive feedback.

Instructors often had to dig through 60-page discussion threads, as well as search through activities in other systems, like WordPress and Google docs. This meant additional hours and the manual task of entering grades in the LMS. With a consolidated, comprehensive set of tools, instructors can:

  • Easily see students’ posts, alongside subsequent responses and contributions to the course, which provides a more holistic view of how well students are developing — the streamlined grading experience allowing them to focus on giving feedback.
  • Eliminate manual work, like copying & pasting into a plagiarism checker or transferring grades, to save time.
  • Identify and keep at-risk students engaged.
  • More easily address RSI — regular & substantive interaction requirements.

Instructors agree. At Fayetteville State University, 100% of instructors indicated feeling better equipped to evaluate participation when they used Harmonize’s discussion & collaboration tools. When you have a single suite of connected tools working together, that integrate with the LMS and allow you to build more engaging online courses, you’ll end up having something so much more powerful: the right kind of information.

With behind-the-scenes analytics built into your course activities, instructors and administrators can quickly understand how students are progressing toward goals, and what course activities are working. You can see who, how, and when students are participating in courses, which students need more attention, and which topics worked best. These kinds of student engagement insights can help instructors trigger customized outreach to specific students — promptly and proactively re-engaging them in discussion and working to get them back on track. It’s an easy and effective way to help instructors improve engagement and retention in their courses — but not possible when the data doesn’t exist or is scattered among several disparate tools.

Harmonize is a full suite of online collaboration tools for education that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to increase student engagement. It’s everything an instructor needs to improve student engagement and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks. If you’re interested in seeing how Harmonize can create a more enriching online learning experience, let’s talk.

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