How Do I Establish an Engaging Atmosphere in my Online Classroom?

October 22, 2018

By Emily K. Keener (Instructional Design and Learning Technologies)

Watch for These Online Engagement Crushers

In last week’s MidWeek Mentor session on creating engaging online classrooms, Deidre Price explained how to keep online classrooms warm and welcoming, well-oiled, and worth repeating. Price described what you can do to avoid a sterile online atmosphere that functions more like an informational website than a learning community, and how to transform your online classroom into lively space that students want to revisit again and again. (Haven’t seen her video yet? Login to your Magna account and watch it here). In this post, I want to share five seemingly harmless, yet sometimes engagement-throttling elements to watch for as you design online learning environments.  

  1. The absence of “you” language.  
    Because we expect students to write academically and we want to model that writing in our communication, sometimes we avoid informal “you” language, sticking instead to scholarly alternatives like “one” or “students” or “colleagues.” Certainly “you” can stand aside when the goal is to model formal writing and argumentation - as you describe expectations and showcase examples in an upcoming research paper assignment, for instance. But in announcements and in places throughout your course where you are talking directly to students, the informal “you” serves a purpose. It is a foundational word in community building. “You” (and “us/we/I/me”) tells students “I see you, fellow human. I am here with you.”  It’s not something we need to think much about in a face-to-face classroom, but without the connections that come more naturally in a physical space – eye contact, laughter, frustration, and various shows of emotion - we have to be much more intentional building online classroom community. Ultimately, these relationships are what lead to the great discussions, open dialogue, moments of self-reflection and “A-HAs” that are at the heart of learning. You can’t have a relationship without “me and you.”  
  2. Inconsistencies. 
    Unless a course has never been offered before, you likely won’t be creating an online version from scratch. Stellar assignments, test banks, and syllabi from previous semesters can be repurposed and reimagined and often uploaded seamlessly into the online realm. But when reusing is part of your workflow, a thorough editing process should be, too. After all, the last thing we want to do be doing in a live class is fixing and clarifying inconsistencies. (Common example: the syllabus contains a few due dates from last semester, but the Blackboard course assignments are up to date). Not only does this waste valuable instruction time, students’ interest and motivation can quickly wane if in the first days of class they are sifting through conflicting due dates and assignment expectations trying to piece together an unsolvable puzzle. Help students start out engaged and in an optimal frame of mind for learning: check the class from top to bottom for any inconsistencies in when things are due, how they will be submitted, and what you expect of them each week. It’s always worth the time. 
  3. A “set it and forget it” design.  
    Date released announcements and content folders can be a HUGE benefit in course prep, but they could also be a red flag in the course design. Is every element set to “run itself” without much intervention from you?  Do students have any way to interact with you and with each other while the course is going on? If not, then a community does not exist. Rather, the course might be closer to an automated self-help system with an email support lifeline … and who feels connected to one of those? Balancing the “front-loaded” prep work and date released content with your real-time communication and facilitation of student-to-student interaction is what leads to engagement. A course set to run itself might run in a different direction than anticipated, and if engagement matters to you, you should always be an active member of the course.  
  4. Unchecked communication points. 
    While it’s important to open lines of communication – maybe via a “Q & A” discussion forum or virtual office hours link – an unchecked mode of communication does more harm than good. It’s important to understand every point of contact students might be using to interact within the course – the discussion board, an email link, a video link, etc. – and to have a plan for either monitoring or disabling these communication routes. For example, in Blackboard students have access to a variety of communication tools, including a largely unused “Course Messages” option, from the default student Tools menu. If a message came through via this medium, most of us would miss it. To avoid situations like this, hide or delete unused tools from your course before it starts. Similarly, if you have set up a discussion board for students to ask common course questions, be sure to check it regularly or hit the Subscribe button to get an email alert on new activity. Promoting specific means of communication and always replying in the time frame you specify goes a long way in building trust and engagement in an online class.  
  5. Broken links and missing content. 
    Just as editing is important for catching inconsistencies, it’s also a vital part of catching broken links or missing content files. Yes, a link here and there might break while the course is going on and you can always fix it on the fly but opening a class before it has been vetted for content functionality diminishes the work you have done and ultimately creates an environment of skepticism right from the start – it’s not a good sentiment for promoting engagement. Use Blackboard’s Link Checker to get a head start on verifying the validity of course Web Links, but also make checking content a part of your page-by page pre-semester editing process.   

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