6 Ways to Get Students Engaged in a Distance Learning Course

Stressed out woman looking at her opened laptop.

How do you get and keep students engaged in an online course?  This is a critically important question. 

Personal connection – that’s our answer. 

Promoting social interaction, staying in constant communication, and building collaboration into in an online learning environment is vital to student engagement.  

We are by nature very social creatures.  Interaction and the feeling of connection to others is an incredibly motivating force.  In fact, when someone feels a part of a team or connected to a person, they are far more likely to do the things asked of them or stick it out when things get tough.  

How is it that so many employees can successfully telecommute or work remotely?  Because there is so much technology at our fingertips that allows us to stay connected to each other, even over great distances.  

You’re an expert at teaching the content of your course, so let’s talk about ways to intentionally build personal interaction into the online classroom.

  1. Use Video
    • Webcams should be on whenever possible!  Students will feel far more connected to you and their peers, when they can see you. Using your webcam will humanize you and make a course more interactive.  Otherwise, they’ll be reading, watching videos, and completing assignments throughout the semester without ever seeing an actual human on the other end.  Let them put a face to a name, a lecture, or a 1-on-1 meeting.
    • Students will be far more engaged when they know you can see them too!  When their video is required to be on, they will be prompt and paying attention.  If you hold set class meeting times, make video sharing a requirement.
    • Worrying about proctoring a test?  Have no fear, just ask each student to log in to an online meeting and turn their videos on during testing time. 
  1. Schedule At Least One Class Meeting
    • Even if meetings are infrequent, have at least one touch point early in the term and ideally at periodic intervals where students log in to see that they aren’t in it alone.
    • When students see each other and the faces of their peers early in the online course, they are far more likely to participate in group discussions and forums.
    • Tools like Zoom (always free meetings for up to 40 minutes), WebEx, and Google Hangout make virtual meetings much, much easier than they may seem!  Usually, these programs are as simple as creating an account and sending /posting a link for students.
  1. Personalize Email
    • Email, email, email.  This is your go-to form of communication for individual outreach.  An old fashion phone call with your student is a fantastic option as well, but opening a dialog with students via email and regularly communicating with them is essential.
    • In addition to any necessary class-wide announcements, try to connect directly with students through personalized emails. The more you reach out to students individually, the more likely they will actively participate in the class
    • If you see someone falling behind or not completing assignments, email away!  They should know that someone is there and cares about their success.  Create a layer of accountability by connecting directly with everyone.
    • Some programs offer automation of messages that are sent based on activity triggers, like a late assignment or the day before a test.  You don’t need to lift a finger after you’ve set these up, and custom tags can even personalize messages with a student’s name.  They never have to know that the gentle nudge or congratulatory email was automated.
  1. Host Virtual Office Hours
    • Just because you won’t be meeting in an office, doesn’t mean you can’t host office hours in a video conferencing platform!  Students can log in and show up any time, so long as you are available for online chat.
    • One of the key metrics of student satisfaction with their professors surrounds availability.  You want the learners in your class to feel supported and offering your time in a virtual environment will do just that.
    • For those students that likely need some 1-on-1 attention but aren’t the type to schedule it for themselves, emailing to ask that they meet with you during a designated “office hour” may be the push needed to get them back on track.  Use technology to your advantage, keep an eye on activity metrics, and seek out those struggling students!
    • Use features of online programs like a whiteboard and screen sharing to help students work through their questions alongside you in meetings.  Creating a more collaborative experience during office hours will keep students coming back.
  1. Post Discussion Boards
    • Get students collaborating on their own schedules through online discussion boards.  Just about every major Learning Management System out there offers a discussion board feature, and you can likely award points for participation.
    • Post some open-ended questions, reflection activities, or ask students to share an example from their own experiences that is relevant to the topic at hand.  Get students thinking and engaging in a format that let’s them do it at their own speed.
    • Allow students to view and respond to each other’s posts.  Let them post new topics, too – they do this all the time on their social media feeds.  Make your online course the go to spot to ask for help from not only you, but others in the class.  You can always moderate the discussion, but getting students interacting with one another makes for a far more invested student. 
  1. Include Group Activities
    • Just because students are physically separated, it doesn’t mean that collaborative group sessions can’t happen!  Students will be far more engaged when they are involved in small group meetings for brainstorming, sharing, or projects.
    • Include group discussion times during class meetings where you can actively monitor the participation or ask for volunteers to coordinate study groups before a test and require everyone to join at least one meeting.  They can email you a screenshot to prove their participation.
    • Did you know that you can easily create break out groups during class meetings with some of the video conferencing programs out there? For example, Zoom is a free tool that allows you to have a virtual class “room” and then allow students to join individual breakout rooms.  This youtube video gives a quick introduction to the breakout room feature (note, it must be turned on in Admin settings of Zoom before it can be used).

Keeping students engaged through social connection with you and each other in a digital environment is one of the bigger hurdles that we see in online courses.  It is also one of the best places to invest your time to ensure a successful online experience!

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