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How to Engage Disengaged Students in Online Courses

Strategies for Using Data and Analytics to Get Students Engaged with Online Courses

female student bored on laptop

Online. Hybrid. Hyflex. Blended. The number of learning models available in higher education today is staggering. And while many cite the global pandemic as the catalyst that launched the myriad of new learning models into the mainstream, the truth is that higher education was long overdue for change.

Well before COVID-19 forced students to attend class from anywhere but campus, the demand for online learning was increasing. In their 2019 Trends to Watch report, Ovum recommended that institutions consider providing more “phygital” interactions across both personal and educational experiences. And according to Inside Higher Ed, in 2018, more than one-third of all college and university students took at least one course online.

For years, students have been demanding greater flexibility in how they learn. They want some classes in-person. Others online. And still others a blend of the two.

They want flexibility in where they learn. While many students enjoy learning in a traditional, on-campus lecture hall or a lab, others want more flexibility. They want to listen to lectures asynchronously from a coffee shop – or the beach! And regardless of where they learn, students want to engage with their classmates online, the same way they interact with their friends and family on social media. And while it’s true that the pandemic thrust higher education institutions into a state of emergency online education, today, students and faculty are more optimistic than ever before about online learning and the use of digital materials.

In the Digital Learning Pulse Survey: Pandemic Era Report Card, 43% of students and 36% of faculty gave their Fall 2020 online courses an “A.” And in spring 2021, these numbers improved even more. Nearly half of students – 47% to be exact – gave their spring 2021 courses an “A” grade, while 43% of faculty did the same.

And while many faculty and students were hesitant over the use of online, hybrid, or blended learning, these concerns virtually disappeared when the global pandemic took hold.

Today, over 70% of students prefer some courses to remain fully online after the pandemic. And 68% are in favor of courses that remain a blend. Fewer instructors wish to continue teaching their courses online – only 53%. Yet a slightly higher number – 57%– would prefer teaching in a hybrid environment (source).

How to Spot Unengaged Students

Clearly, online learning is not just here to stay. It’s poised to grow. And while the initial news about online learning is positive, there are other challenges to consider. Student disengagement is rising, leading to more students failing to succeed in their courses.

Instructors are often the first line of defense for identifying when student engagement begins to wane. Some signs are obvious. A student stops showing up for class. Or he fails to turn in his assignments on time – or at all.

But other signals of disengagement emerge over time. One of the most critical components of online learning is online discussions. They provide a sense of community, giving students a familiar way to interact with their peers and their instructor both during and outside class. Student-to-instructor and student-to-student communication forums also enable students to apply learnings to their everyday experiences. They can engage in an ongoing dialogue with their peers, even after class has ended. And they give instructors a way to provide timely feedback through Q&A, check-ins, and updates.

Student activity in online discussions provides clear and immediate data points that indicate engagement. And when student behavior changes – and this behavior change becomes a pattern – it should raise a flag to the instructor that a student’s engagement is slipping.

4 Signs of an Unengaged Student

  1. Skipping class
  2. Turning assignments in late – or not at all
  3. Little to no participation in online discussions
  4. Failure to collaborate with peers during or after class

When spotted early, immediate feedback from the instructor can be enough to help the student course correct. But other times, instructors need to lean in with more substantial feedback or intervention based on the evidence they’ve collected through this engagement data. Timely data about student engagement can help instructors focus their attention on the students that would benefit most from personal communication and feedback. But with all the discussions and online interactions happening across multiple courses and sections, how can instructors quickly and easily spot signals in the data that indicate which students are becoming disengaged? And more importantly, what actions should they take to keep their students on track?

As more courses go fully or partially online, data related to online student engagement will become more readily available. But instructors are struggling to find clues in the data that could indicate something is off. While data can signal changes in a student’s engagement, having access to a myriad of disconnected data points becomes a burden to instructors. Instead of focusing their energy and attention on meeting the needs of their students and the academic community, they are spending time looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack – the signal in the data that a student is heading off track. To be successful, instructors need data that is intuitive and easy-to-consume, providing clear signals that a student is off track

Imagine this scenario. A student starts the semester by attending every class and engaging in meaningful online discussions. She collaborates with her peers by liking their posts and commenting on their images. And she turns in all her assignments on time. But as the semester progresses, the student’s enthusiasm wanes. She still shows up for class, but she starts missing due dates. She stops replying to comments from her peers, and her participation in class discussions drops off as well. While once she actively added her perspective, now she barely responds.

The student’s behavior data clearly shows a pattern of disengagement. But unless the professor has an immediate, easy-to-understand view into how the student’s engagement changes over time, he may not realize that the student is slowly disengaging from the course – and from her peer community Until, of course, it’s too late.

But now imagine that the instructor has a visual view that shows activity data for his students on a daily or weekly basis. He can see which students are actively contributing to online discussions, which ones are meeting the multiple due dates he sets, and which ones are falling behind. And, he can analyze the performance of each student as it compares to others in the class. As engagement slows, alerts begin to appear, signaling to the instructor that certain students are starting to disengage, especially when compared to their peers.

 

Engaging Unengaged Students

Once the data highlights a disengaged student, the instructor’s next step is to re-engage the student by providing feedback. Immediately. Timely communication is key to reaching disengaged students before it’s too late.

Personal outreach is the best place to start. A personal email or phone call from the instructor goes a long way to showing students that they matter. The instructor can also share additional resource suggestions, such as study groups or tutors. Or, he can offer to meet with the student during virtual office hours or arrange an appointment with an advisor. If the instructor discovers that large settings are intimidating for the student, he can consider creating smaller group discussions that offer a more focused, intimate conversation instead of one where engagement occurs with the entire class.

In the online learning environment, tools that enhance online collaboration are key to keeping students engaged. Harmonize elevates the learning experience through world-class technology that improves student engagement and retention. From online discussions that mimic social media to the use of rich media such as images and videos, students can engage in a way that is easy – and familiar. Instructors can break down discussions by assigning multiple due dates to the discussion, giving students the ability to engage in a more consumable way

With Harmonize, you can deliver a vibrant, active online communication platform that engages students and instructors – and helps to signal disengagement in time to get students back on track in their course. Harmonize is in tune with your instructors and their call for timely student engagement analytics. And we’re dedicated to developing new solutions that deliver timely data so they can proactively respond to changing trends in the engagement levels of their students.

Keeping a student engaged and on-track in an online environment is no easy task. But when you arm instructors with the right tools and timely data, they can spot disengagement early and provide feedback to the students before it’s too late.