Every Learner Everywhere

8 Practices for Building Student Engagement in Digital Learning Modalities

Although most colleges and universities will return to face-to-face learning in fall 2021, instructors in many courses will continue to use digital learning technologies in a range of remote, hybrid, hyflex, and fully on-campus modalities. As a result, faculty are looking for ways to increase student engagement with digital learning tools, whether in a remote asynchronous class activity, as part of a discussion board assignment between class meetings, or using polling software in a lecture hall. 

In Time for Class — COVID-19 Edition, Part 1: A National Survey of Faculty During COVID-19, conducted in summer 2020, 60 percent of faculty said student engagement was their top concern. But by the Time for Class — COVID-19 Edition, Part 3: The Impact of 2020 On Introductory Faculty and Their Students, conducted in November 2020, 74 percent ranked student engagement as their top priority going into spring 2021.

In a report from The Economist Intelligence Unit, Bridging the Digital Divide to Engage Students in Higher Education, echoed those findings. Drawing from faculty and student responses at higher education institutions in the U.S., U.K, Australia, and Germany, it found that maintaining student engagement was one of the biggest challenges of the sudden shift to remote learning, from the perspective of both instructors and students.

It’s no surprise then, that student engagement in online learning has been a frequent focus in the webinars Every Learner Everywhere and its partners have sponsored or participated in during the last year. The following are selected highlights from some of those webinars.

Be a visual presence — even without video lectures

With or without recorded videos of themselves, faculty can still create a visual presence, says Dr. Michele Hampton, Professor of Business Administration at Cuyahoga Community College in Transform Engagement: Interaction and Online Course Design. She describes the creative use of a speaking character to present certain parts of a course. The avatar resembles Hampton and “recites” an audio recording.digital learning avatar

Hampton consistently uses the avatar and other video messages in distinct ways to signal different kinds of information. In her case, the avatar acts as the electronic guide.

“When my students see the avatar on my course site, they know that she’s going to be providing an overview for what’s going to be happening for the week,” she explains. “I still have videos of myself on my course site, but when they see her, they know exactly what her purpose is.”

Build community among students

Encourage learners to communicate and collaborate with each other online, Hampton adds.

“Social interaction in the online coursework directly correlates with student achievement,” she explains. “Positive student interaction builds a sense of community and belonging, and this results in a positive attitude from students regarding their online coursework experience.”

Breakout rooms and virtual whiteboards can be powerful if they are used effectively, says Dr. Tazin Daniels, Assistant Director at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan in Creative Strategies for Equitable Engagement in Online Classes.

“Now that you built community, now you feel like you’re a team, you can compete against the other teams for the greater good of the group,” she says.

Diversify content

Choose course content reflecting the lived experiences of students, says Dr. Jessica Rowland Williams, Director of Every Learner Everywhere, in Fine-Tuning Student Engagement for Equity.

“Ensure throughout the course that there are multiple activities that require students to connect course content to their socio-cultural backgrounds and the socio-cultural backgrounds of others,” she says.

Diverse and relevant content bridges the gap between the course and students’ lives, Williams adds: “It’s easy for students of color and some low-income students to feel disconnected with the course material, and down the road that can impact engagement and motivation.”

Offer different modes to demonstrate knowledge

Allow students to demonstrate their learning their preferred way, Williams says. Fortunately, online learning modes can permit individuality. 

“We know that some students are more articulate in group discussions, while other students may have deep insights but prefer a one-on-one setting or are more comfortable writing in an online discussion,” she says.

Different modes of expression also permit students to highlight their individual backgrounds and lived experiences, as well.

“If we leverage those, it will deepen their engagement with the content and deepen their learning,” says Dr. Angela Gunder, Vice President of Learning at the Online Learning Consortium, in Designing with Quality and Engagement at the Forefront.

Provide frequent — and varied — feedback

Frequent assessments of student work serves as an effective engagement tool in the online learning environment, Williams notes. “As often as possible, provide students opportunities to receive feedback on how they’re doing in the class.”

In Online Teaching and Learning Through Disruption: Communication and Engagement at a Distance, Susan Adams, Instructional Designer at Achieving the Dream, says feedback can come in the form of an audio or video message.

Feedback isn’t one sided. Instructors can solicit the perspective of students on how the course is progressing. 

Set up a communication plan for student engagement

In addition to a course syllabus, develop a communication strategy to support engagement and that employs a variety of tools, Adams adds.

“You can send a weekly announcement sharing updates, reminders, and clear directions to orient them to the content of the work for the week,” she explains. Virtual office hours, in both drop-in and scheduled formats, give students different ways to contact you.

Also in “Online Teaching and Learning Through Disruption: Communication and Engagement at a Distance,” Jonathan Iuzzini, Director of Teaching and Learning at Achieving the Dream, says a communication plan must include a regular timetable of when you’ll reach out to students. 

“Let your students know how you plan to communicate with them,” he says. “What should they be looking for? What should they be anticipating and with what frequency? . . . . It’s also important that you tell students how often you expect them to check their email just in general, and then how quickly they can expect your response. Students come into this kind of dynamic with different expectations about how accessible an instructor or others involved in their learning experience should be.”

Promote dynamic and interactive learning

In Creating a Dynamic Learning Environment Online by Leveraging Technology, Wade Hyde, sales and marketing faculty at Dallas College, El Centro Campus, recommends using technology to encourage dynamic learning.

He is a proponent of adaptive learning courseware that personalizes student progress. “As they go through quizzes and have success, or maybe have problems, a message is generated accordingly,” he says.

Set expectations and adjust

Clearly stating what you expect of students at the beginning of the term is also part of fostering engagement. For example, if class participation is based on students joining in 11 chats during the semester, then that must be communicated to them upfront, University of Michigan’s Daniels says.  

Yet, she says, instructors should also recognize some students may have caregiving responsibilities or technical drawbacks, like a malfunctioning camera on their laptop, which can make meeting expectations challenging. 

She advises reaching out to students to learn their circumstances: “Creating an environment where students can share what their limitations are and how they might not be able to meet your expectations is . . . very important for instructors to embrace so that you can adjust accordingly.”

For more resources and practical recommendations, browse the toolkits and archived webinars.