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Books in Translation

November 2012 | Volume 54 | Number 11
Academic Vocabulary Builds Student Achievement Pages 2-3,6

How to Engage Online Learners

Stacey Curdie-Meade

Increasingly, online education is becoming an accepted part of the K-12 educational landscape. Although studies consistently show that online learning outcomes are equivalent, or even, in some cases, superior to those of traditional classroom settings, the virtual environment does present unique challenges for both teachers and students. For students who struggle in the physical classroom, potential difficulties such as a sense of isolation, the lack of visual cues, and technical issues can be particularly vexing; however, these challenges can be overcome by leveraging the unique advantages online learning offers.

Time Is on Your Side

Online learning can give students the time they need to think, process, and perform. The asynchronous nature of online learning provides more time for processing information and formulating responses than students are typically afforded in face-to-face discussions. Students appreciate the ability to gather their thoughts and edit their words rather than being put on the spot or drawn off topic by others' comments before they have a chance to speak. This opens the door to deeper levels of engagement and critical thinking. Students can also take as much time as they need with course materials, returning to review them repeatedly if necessary.

Asynchronous learning allows for more flexibility, so students can spend time with course materials when they are best able to cognitively engage with them. Rather than learning on demand, at a specified time and location, students have a greater degree of autonomy over their learning, controlling the time, place, and manner in which they interact in the virtual classroom.

Introverted students may find the partial anonymity of the online classroom allows them to express themselves more freely and, as a result, they can participate more openly in this forum. Pre-adolescent and adolescent children often struggle with self-esteem issues and feel self-conscious about speaking out or drawing attention to themselves in class; however, in a virtual environment students feel relieved of the burden of being judged on the basis of how they look, what they wear, or how they speak. They have more freedom to express themselves.

Encourage Discussion

Classroom teachers thinking about moving online often lament the loss of visual cues and fear they will lose the ability to track student understanding without face-to-face interaction. In fact, just the opposite may be true. In the classroom, teachers are limited in the time they spend with students each week and in the amount of information they can gain from students in the classroom setting. Online, student participation is permanent, traceable, and much more visible.

Discussions are perhaps the most powerful example of how online learning affords a greater degree of transparency regarding how students think and learn. In a group discussion, the classroom teacher hears from a representative population of students in the class and likely uses body language cues to gauge whether group members are following along. While the classroom teacher can never really know with certainty which students are focused on the topic at hand and which are wondering what they are going to have for lunch instead, well-structured online activities require total participation, and for students to make visible the thought processes that inform their contributions. T he online teacher can see the complete thought processes of each of the students in the class. In addition, this information, rather than being lost after the moment, is preserved for future reference.

To generate an atmosphere that fosters discussion, teachers can use introductory discussion boards to discover students' interests and gain a better understanding of students' prior knowledge and preparedness. You can mine those discussions for useful information. Also, gear assignments to student interests where possible and provide materials appropriate for all levels of preparedness in the class.

Use Data to Make Learning Transparent

Online learning provides teachers with the opportunity to generate "learning analytics." According to EDUCAUSE's 2011 Horizon Report, "[The term] l earning analytics refers to the interpretation of a wide range of data produced by and gathered on behalf of students in order to assess academic progress, predict future performance, and spot potential issues." At its simplest level, this means that if you are using a course management system to deliver online learning, you can track what students do (or don't do) in your course. You can, for instance, see when and how often students access the course as well as which resources students have interacted with and for how long. You can also easily track discussion posting activity and view reports which can both individualize and aggregate this data to provide pictures of both individual and group progress.

You should use data analytics to prevent students from slipping through the cracks. If a student has not accessed course materials or participated in discussion for a period of time, discuss your concern with the student. Reaching out in this way assures students that their online instructor is paying attention and that their contributions and participation are not only noticed but also valued. Early intervention and redirection can prevent students from falling behind.

Use discussion boards, e-mail, and scheduled synchronous help sessions to offer assistance to students and to engage them. While these forums serve to support students needing help, they also afford teachers insight into the nature and scope of how students are struggling. It's important to respond promptly to student inquiries and make a point of noticing any trends in the questions being asked; doing so can help you in making improvements in instruction.

If a single student is having a hard time with a particular concept, reach out, just as you would in the physical classroom, by offering supplemental materials or activities. Invite the student to participate in the next scheduled help session or arrange a separate time to call or chat online. If a number of students are struggling with the same concept, use this knowledge to revise or supplement the learning materials and activities for that topic.

Also, provide a forum where students can post their questions to the class, and encourage students to answer one another's questions when they can. Students like helping one another and are often relieved to see that others have the same questions they do.

In addition, most course management systems offer a quiz module which can be used in a variety of ways. For instance, self-check quizzes can be set up to provide specific feedback based on incorrect answers and to allow for multiple attempts, encouraging mastery of learning. Monitor results for both individual and group understanding.

These strategies are effective means of revealing the progress and participation of each student in an online class. Making learning transparent and using the resulting information to individualize instruction are key strategies for assisting students who need extra help.


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