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Student Engagement in Online Learning: What Works and Why

With these best practices, you can employ an effective mix of synchronous & asynchronous online learning activities that have improved student engagement in online learning and contributed to better retention.

happy female student on laptop

Whether it be barriers to participation, like juggling multiple responsibilities and the lack of face-time with instructors, or the sense of isolation online learners may experience, students who participate in online education tend to struggle more than those in face-to-face courses. As a result, online courses typically have a 10-20 percent lower retention rate than traditional courses. As institutions continue to expand their online or hybrid course offerings, it has them looking more closely at how to improve student engagement in online learning, what works and why?

Institutions now have an opportunity to create more attractive and engaging online and blended learning environments. With this set of proven best practices, institutions can employ an effective mix of synchronous and asynchronous online learning activities that have improved student engagement in online learning, and contributed to better retention.

Best Practice: Create Inclusive & Engaging Course Discussions

Research indicates that participation in discussion forums is related to better course outcomes in both traditional courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The problem is that most online discussions rely on the LMS as a standard way for students to interact in discussions. These forums are typically text-based and can be challenging to extract deep engagement from students. They are also difficult for instructors to track and assess student participation.

But in a recent pilot study conducted by WGU Labs, the College Innovation Network (CIN) found strong promise for increased course engagement and improved learning outcomes at Piedmont Community College, when different online discussion tools were used both in the classroom and asynchronously. These tools allowed instructors to pull on a broader set of discussion techniques to increase student participation.

In addition to ensuring your online and distance education courses remain in good standing, think of RSI as the fuel for engaging — or reengaging — students in your course.

Emotion-based, Multimedia & Student-facilitated Discussions for Better Student Engagement in Online Learning

One of the levers instructors can pull on is emotion-based prompts. To illustrate course concepts or materials, instructors can use prompts that reference current events and social justice issues to solicit response from students.

This gives all students the chance to articulate their opinions, understand competing perspectives, and compose thoughtful responses — including those who tend to be naturally shy or need to feel the discussions are a safe space. To signal course discussions as safe spaces, enable anonymous posts when identity is not important. Students are more likely to participate, and it’s a way to help students discuss difficult topics as well as figure out how to resolve conflict.

Similarly, you’ll spur student participation in online discussions when you encourage different mediums of response.  Instead of long, text-heavy threads, consider how much more interesting and engaging discussions will become when you introduce multimedia options. With video, image, annotation, audio & captioning, and text, you allow for a wider range of responses and empower students to express themselves in the ways they’re most comfortable.

In addition to being more inclusive of how students learn, student-facilitated discussions are another way to encourage interactivity in online courses. This technique prepares students to be knowledge-producers and actively engages them in the learning process through exploratory discussion.

Studies even show that peer-led discussions enhance community and encourage other students’ participation, while also being beneficial for learning outcomes — generating innovative ideas, motivating students to participate in the discussion, and providing a risk-free and relaxed atmosphere for discussion. It empowers students to take ownership of online discussion assignments while developing facilitation and discussion skills, and serves to redefine the instructor’s role from daily discussion manager to facilitation coach.

Finally, explore other pathways for communication, such as polls and course Q&A, to ask students where more discussion focus is needed and what else you can do to create a positive learning environment. Creating online discussions that are relevant to today’s students, more inclusive of diverse learning modalities, and that can drive connection through peer learning are effective ways to build better student engagement in online learning.

Vibrant, multimedia grid-like discussion boards in Harmonize. Vibrant, multimedia grid-like discussion boards in Harmonize.

Best Practice: Encourage & Guide Online Collaboration

In an online learning environment, it can be challenging to facilitate group or student-to-student collaboration without the right kinds of tools. Yet, the benefits are far ranging.

During collaboration, students receive attention from their peers, which has shown to increase a student’s level of engagement and participation in the learning process. A meta-analysis of 1,000+ empirical studies showed that peer-assisted methods outperformed traditional methods, with small-group collaboration increasing students’ ability to transfer their learning to new contexts. Here are some effective ways to guide students in collaboration in online learning activities.

Peer Reviews, Small Groups & Milestones

Southern Arkansas University Tech, which has experienced an 80 percent improvement in online student participation, uses the learner-centered strategy of peer reviews, and couples it with opportunities for students to provide feedback and also work 1-on-1 and in small breakout groups with each other through virtual chat portals.

For example, in an online speech course, students are required to write a narrative speech and submit it for peer critique. Through prompts set by milestones or multiple due dates, students provide at least three posted comments on a certain number of students’ speeches. As an ongoing activity, students strengthen their evaluative skills, practice articulating constructive feedback, and become receptive to feedback.

Setting clear expectations for students, milestones can help guide students through collaborative learning activities — keeping them on track and engaged with one another, while simultaneously working to create a stronger sense of community as they work together.

“The feedback students were providing was at least 10 times better, and the number of comments per speech more than doubled when set milestones for them. We also found that anonymous posts elicited more constructive feedback, which is helping our students better iterate their work before final submissions and grades,” said SAU Tech instructional designer Traci Rushing.

Students at SAU Tech also participate in small-group collaboration projects. That collaboration is powered through chat portals. The key here is familiarity.

“It looks and feels like text messaging — a familiar medium of communication for students. However, rather than taking the students out of the course to a mobile texting app, we use tools that are connected to the course in order to keep students engaged in the relevant material.”

With the right tools, instructors can easily incorporate a wide range of collaborative activities, including facilitating discussions by section or groups, breaking students out into groups by topic, and supporting student-led discussions. This approach to online collaboration encourages more student-to-student communication and continues to honor the asynchronous communication needs of most online learners.

Milestones or multiple due dates in Harmonize set expectations and guide students through a series of interactions. Milestones or multiple due dates in Harmonize set expectations and guide students through a series of interactions.

Best Practice: Keep it Social

This leads us to a critical component of improving student engagement in online learning — how to create a strong sense of connection and community. The key is to keep it social. In fact, students increasingly want their instructors to incorporate and use social media as a part of their learning.

So any technology an institution employs to facilitate online courses should foster social connection and be easy to use. Tools with a user experience that mimic familiar, real-life experiences have the highest usability — think features like tagging, notifications, and social media-like interfaces. If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with in their personal lives, they are likely to explore it more deeply.

Tools that provide a social media-like experience, with content creation, sharing, and reaction capabilities — make it both recognizable and easy to use, which lead to increased student participation and engagement. Eastern Florida State College Online is one institution that takes advantage of this approach to motivate students.

“Like social media, we use instructor-student tagging in our discussions. The mention lets a student know I’m there and that I will respond with feedback. It’s a way to get students’ attention and demonstrate that their contributions are valued. Our students feel like someone’s really there for them,” notes Andrew Lieb, Collegewide Chair at EFSC.

Brown University also experienced increased student participation by incorporating social elements. James Foley, Director for Digital Learning & Design, says, “We elevated our course discussion experiences for students. With features that keep students engaged, we used a tool that made it flexible for all users and had the kind of built-in social engagement that increases student participation.”

Based on the way students interact today, a social-based approach can help students in an online course feel better connected to each other even if they’ve never met. It creates a sense of community that doesn’t rely on a physical space, and it fosters a level of comfort that allows students to engage with one another and instructors right out of the gate.

Best Practice: Leverage Student Engagement Insights

Imagine what you could do if you could implement all of these practices right from one application! When you have a single suite of tools that integrate with your 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.

The final key to increasing student engagement in online learning is being able to track that engagement. Traditionally, it’s been hard to know which students are engaged and which are not. And sometimes, by the time an instructor gets a good sense, that student has dropped off entirely. That doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

With analytics built into your discussion and collaborative learning activities, you’re able to quickly understand how students are progressing toward goals. You can see who, how, and when students are participating in courses. You can see which students need more attention and which topics worked best. Serving as an early-warning system, 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 but effective way to help instructors improve engagement and retention in their courses.

Harmonize's Engagement Insights serves as an early-warning system, so instructors can trigger customized outreach to potentially struggling students. Harmonize's Engagement Insights serves as an early-warning system, so instructors can trigger customized outreach to potentially struggling students.

One Tool to Improve Online Student Engagement

The bottom line is that having access to the right tools to power effective online learning is paramount. Making sure the technology is inclusive of different learners’ styles, fosters social connection and community, and is designed to help instructors track student participation could spell the difference between student success or attrition.

To do all of this, some institutions rely on a variety of disconnected tools that aren’t fully integrated with the LMS — creating additional barriers for instructors and making it more difficult to create a cohesive learning experience that engages students.

Harmonize is a suite of digital discussion and collaboration tools that integrate seamlessly with your LMS to facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement online and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

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