How do you keep your students engaged in an online class?
Jodi: This is a tough question. I like to think my students are engaged and that is something I work at MORE than just about anything else in teaching online. I think more than content, who you are and grounding the students in a real person, real place and engaging them to the content is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing I do. The easier question to answer is what I don’t do to keep my students engaged in my online class. My personality is very much a part of how I teach, my sense of humor, my approachability, my openness, my willingness to be challenged respectfully, the concept that information is NEVER to be feared. I get to know each of my students. Our program has more than 250 students and for the most part I know each of our active students, or a little bit about each one. This is challenging, as many times I never meet them until graduation. For me, the engagement factor is evident in the number of students who fly in from around the country to come to our graduation party and to walk each Spring at Commencement. Sometimes we have more students who come for graduation than students who come from on-campus programs. THAT says a lot to me from an assessment perspective on engagement of students.
Sarah: This is certainly a big challenge and, in part, I rely upon students’ interest in learning to help keep them engaged. Like in all of my classes I try to choose materials that are interesting and relevant. I try to provide as many examples as I can through web links and YouTube. I try to give a variety of assignments that challenge students to think about the materials (and themselves) in a variety of ways. I try to make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction by making videos (mostly with PowerPoint and mostly without frills) where I discuss the material. Students often recognize my passion for my work and my subject matter so I think and hope that at least some of this passion comes across in the videos. I also try to make myself available via e-mail or phone for any questions and I try to give specific and detailed feedback to writing assignments.
What is the biggest challenge in teaching online?
Jodi: Knowing when a student isn’t getting it. You have to rely on a student coming to you. I reach out to students through journals in my classes, but that is relying on self-reporting for them to tell you they aren’t getting it or that they are struggling. I can, of course, tell by the work they are turning in what intellectually they are or are not getting. But the visual cues in an online class are absent. It is less rich in some ways and much richer in others.
Sarah: The biggest challenge for me is not being able to interact with my students in the same ways as I do in (and out of) the classroom. It is difficult to get on-line students to understand where I am coming from, to understand that I am flexible and open-minded and that what I most want them to do is to learn. I try to meet students where they are in all of my classes so sometimes it is difficult to get students to understand this when they cannot see me. I expect that every student will get something different out of my courses and course material depending upon who they are and where they are in their life and in their education. I like to challenge students and I do not provide all the answers. This does not always work as well in on-line classes where students are used to more traditional teaching methods, assignments, and feedback. For instance, I have a policy that anything that is posted on a discussion board or on a public blog will be responded to publicly. In some cases I will send a private message to a student but it is often necessary to respond to students’ posts publicly so that we might all learn from the experience. So, I had a student who posted some really racist comments on the discussion board and I very carefully explained the problems with the comments without making any personal attacks. We are all raised in a racist culture so the issue was not about the individual. However, the subject matter is complex and the issues are very easily misunderstood so some students did not understand. But the same thing happens in live classes as well.
I guess the other challenge is using the latest and best technology. Recent changes to Blackboard have allowed me to better design my courses. The first on-line class I taught was frustrating because I could not make the technology meet my vision. This caused some confusion for students. Also, I had never used the grading function in BB so students could not get the immediate feedback they wanted. I have since learned better techniques and have gotten more used to the technology but I am not a techie and often feel out of my element. In the future I hope to add some Skype or other technologies that will allow for more “face-to-face” opportunities.
Please come back tomorrow, where we’ll wrap things up and talk about the benefits Jodi and Sarah see in teaching online, and more.