Engaging students online
Moving teaching online means that we have to engage students in a different way than would happen in a face to face teaching environment. There are many tools and approaches you can use to support student engagement in both synchronous and asynchronous delivery. Below are some key ideas to consider for enhancing student engagement online.
Interaction and communication
The nature of the interactions between teacher and students (providing feedback, answering questions, or guiding students) is one of the most noticeable differences between face to face and online teaching. Students may particularly miss the direct personal communication with peers and teachers, and getting communication right can be key for supporting student engagement.
Feedback & communication
In synchronous learning activities such as webinars or live chats:
- provided immediately whenever required. Use of video allows visual cues. Online delivery needs to proactively make opportunities for feedback so integrate more questions, discussions, quizzes into webinars as well as space for more informal chat and discussion between students and between teachers and students.
- given some time after a learner has asked a question (may need several iterations and can take some time). Peer feedback can also allow learners to aid each other without having to wait for the next input by the teacher – you may need to think about how to incentivise students to provide peer feedback asynchronously, for example asking them to comment on at least two peers’ forum posts before they will receive tutor feedback.
E-mail – use institutional account (secure, quick, easy to archive). Consider just using email for individual communication that is more private in nature (follow the set response times as per your institution). Direct personal email communication will be particularly important for students who are less able to access synchronous learning activities, such as international students or those without suitable equipment or study space.
Announcements (via learning management software - automatically sends emails to the students) - communicate dates, assignments, readings. Regular module announcements can be highly beneficial for online learning and establishing a very visible presence for you as the tutor. Send a summary at the start of each topic or week outlining the syllabus and activities to be completed and any deadlines. Provide a quick summary review of work that has been completed the previous topic or week.
Tutor presence on the VLE – you will need to make your presence as the module convener or tutor much more explicit for online delivery. Record an introductory video for the module, or perhaps even a short overview for the start of each topic or week too. Create a forum for general questions or discussion. Be active in responding to comments and following up on student work on the VLE as far as you can – although this can be time consuming so bear in mind what you will have capacity to respond to when setting up activities.
Virtual office hours (set up office hours and keep a virtual video meeting software open). Students can then drop in and ask you questions.
Social media - Your existing social media channels may also offer a direct conduit to your learners. However, it is worth bearing in mind that these will also be followed by non-students, thereby potentially broadcasting any messages to a wider, public audience.
Motivating and supporting
Face-to-face environment: your personal enthusiasm for the subject will be keeping learners motivated and attentive!
Online environment: Without the personal interaction you have much more of a challenge to motivate students. You will likely have learners who are generally very self-motivated those who are less self-motivated, learners who are more comfortable with online learning, and learners who are less certain of how to interact. You could consider:
- providing a structured set of tasks in the opening stages of the course, with discrete outputs, which enable you to see very quickly which learners are completing the tasks on schedule and in the manner that you desire.
- follow up individually with those who are not engaging in the expected manner.
- offering advice on how students should approach the tasks and their online learning experience – set explicit expectations for how students should participate and what will qualify as acceptable ‘attendance’ on the module.
Developing skills and confidence
Often both teachers and learners needed guidance and training in communicating online and opportunities to develop skills and confidence. Do set aside time to play and familiarise yourself with the tools you expect to use – you will also become familiar with common technical issues your students may face in doing this. Give students opportunities to try our and test these tools at the beginning of the course too. Because learners can feel isolated and unsupported, as an online teacher you may need to have an even greater emphasis on pastoral support. Initiated via online communications, this support can help reduce that feeling of isolation for learners.
Maintaining control of a class
Within the face-to-face classroom, individual learners can disrupt the lesson or distract other learners, but this can usually be dealt with in real time by the tutor quite simply.
For synchronous online teaching, you can combine your existing classroom management skills with the features of the environment. For example you can control whose microphone is enabled at any given time to avoid any one learner dominating discussions, or take a more active role in moderating discussion by calling on students to speak. You can use private chat with students to raise any issues directly with them during the session.
For asynchronous teaching, discussions, inappropriate or tangential comments can be moderated or, if appropriate, challenged publicly, as with a face-to-face teaching setting.
Dealing with lack of engagement
- encourage students to connect with you.
- keep a (general) record: who is (not) attending, (not) participating and (not) accessing information (if possible and applicable to your context).
- try emailing documents/ assignments to students in addition to having it on the platform.
- if a student doesn’t reply to your emails or does not submit an assignment, then reach out individually.
- when responding to students (discussion forums or emails), use their names (as much as possible).
Consider setting ground rules / online etiquette expectations
In webinars, you can provide a set of ground rules (ideally, at the beginning of the session). Depending on your ILOs and context, students should be told how they will be expected to engage in the session, for example:
- Voting in polls
- Written discussion by entering text in the chat area
- Talking in discussion groups
- Entering text in the interactive whiteboard
Explain the purpose of recording these engagements – for example:
- to assess how effective the webinar is
- to record your attendance
- to share any good discussions after the webinar
You may include notes – for example:
- You must engage with all activities to be marked as attended
- You do not need to know all the answers, you may answer that you do not know or select NA in polls
- Please note that all chat is automatically recorded – even private chat
Interactivity in webinars
Online lectures: tools for interactivity (these ideas draw on the tools in Blackboard Collaborate but can also be used in other platforms)
- Student response systems (e.g. Kahoot or Mentimeter) – used to chunk or break up lecture, or at start and/or end
- Poll integrated into the platform
- Show of (virtual) hands
- Sharing screen – videos, etc
Online seminars: tools for interactivity
Same as for lectures, plus
- Breakout rooms (in Blackboard Collaborate) – enable small group discussion, consider how you will use handouts / online documents to support small group work
- Google forms – set up in advance and post a link for: peer feedback (students write feedback for each other and you collate and distribute this after the session), surveys (set up and get students to complete before or during the session. Summary results can be shared via screen sharing), evaluation (for quick evaluation of teaching and to see how students are finding the new format).
- Students annotate slide/ whiteboard
- Student presentations - students can be made ‘presenters’ in Collaborate in order to present to the group
Interactive online teaching guide
View the full Queen Mary Academy guide for supporting the development of interactive teaching online below. This guide explores synchronous and asynchronous activities and how they can be combined, considers student engagement online, communication and interaction with students, and moving assessment online.
Visit our QMplus page for asynchronous learning and teaching for more ideas on designing interactive asynchronous activities and examples of good practice from colleagues.