Fostering Engagement and Community

In an online course, it is easy for students to feel isolated. They are, in most cases, physically isolated from their peers, so intentional community-building is necessary to help counter feelings of remoteness. Another priority – in all courses, not just online ones – is to keep students engaged.

Active Learning while Physically Distancing

Louisiana State University has created a matrix of active learning techniques and ways to adapt them to different instructional modes such as face-to-face, physically distanced classrooms, online-synchronous, and online-asynchronous.

Active learning, in which students interact with course material, the instructor, and one another, is well-documented as being more effective for learning than more passive approaches, in which the role of the student is limited to listening (and/or reading) and remembering course content. So the goal is to get students engaged with class lessons – and engaged with each other. Fortunately, these two priorities pull in the same direction. Many instructional approaches, such as those outlined below, both create community and actively engage students. Consider employing one or more of the approaches below in your online courses:

Facilitate a Class Discussion

Creating class discussions in Canvas allows students to respond to you and each other asynchronously (i.e., not in real-time). You can provide a prompt that asks students to discuss course material, reflect on how key concepts are linked to other fields of study or to their own experience, or share their works in progress, among other things. Another option for asynchronous discussion is Yellowdig, which is designed to emphasize student-to-student interaction over student-to-instructor interaction. The instructor offers a set of pre-selected topics but does not otherwise provide prompts or push student conversation in any particular direction. Student contributions are also auto-graded: The instructor specifies the scoring rules, and Yellowdig keeps track of students’ ongoing point totals. Whichever approach you choose, consider these tips for creating and facilitating online discussions.

Offer Synchronous Class Sessions

Consider holding a synchronous class session to kick off the semester where you can answer questions about the course and let students introduce one another. Build in a course wrap up session to address questions and concerns about final projects, and exams. Hold short review sessions after tests or challenging lessons to address or further elaborate on concepts. Bring in a guest speaker to engage students and bring in a new perspective. And, finally, consider giving your students a leading role in the synchronous session: just as they can give presentations or lead seminar-style discussions in class, you can do the same in a virtual session.

Turn Videos Into Assignments

To make your instructional videos more engaging, consider making them assignments. Canvas allows you to make the viewing of videos a graded assignment. You can also embed questions in your video. Students will be required to answer these in order to earn credit for the assignment or to proceed in the video. You will, in turn, receive information from them. Depending on what questions you ask, this could be information about how well they understand a particular idea, their experiences with something, or their opinions on a particular matter. Setting your videos up in this way is a bit more engaging for students than a more passive viewing with no interaction between students and the video you have recorded.

Provide Opportunities for Group Work

Assignments that either allow or require students to collaborate with one another help to counter the isolation that students might otherwise feel in an online course. The benefits of group work still apply in online courses, but the logistics may be different compared to a face-to-face course. Assignments completed collaboratively often do not differ much between these two modalities.

For group work previously completed in class, you will have to decide whether to complete the activity synchronously or asynchronously. Small group discussions can be a powerful activity, as they combine the best of active learning – having students work through a lesson instead of having it delivered to them by the instructor – with easy-to-facilitate collaboration. Perhaps the simplest way to replicate these in an online course is to schedule one or more synchronous class sessions and then assign small groups of students to a discussion in Zoom breakout rooms. You, as the host of the Zoom session, can circulate among the different breakout rooms to check on the conversation. If they are answering detailed questions or working through a problem, you can check on their progress. You could also easily turn these discussion prompts into a discussion board where students can interact asynchronously. While these interactions may seem less intimate, it allows participation of students that may not be available during the synchronous meeting time.

If the collaboration happened outside of class, you may need to be more direct about giving suggestions for effective collaboration. Teamwork is a difficult skill that takes time and effort to develop, so make sure that you give your teams plenty of practice working together. Consider adding some low-stakes team-building exercises to help your students get to know one another. If you will be having teams complete large projects, be sure to check in at appropriate intervals to ensure all team members are participating and that the team is on track to successfully complete the assignment. Encourage (or better yet, require) each team to write a communication plan detailing 1. How they plan to communicate, 2. How often they are expected to communicate, and 3. How they will handle team members that are not fulfilling their expectations. Individuals are more likely to fulfill obligations that they have agreed to in writing.