Seven out of 10 academic leaders agree that online learning is critical to the future of education. That’s why the number of students enrolled in online courses will only continue to rise. But the use of online courses has also presented new challenges for teachers and administrators, especially when it comes to keeping students focused and engaged.
A recent survey found that 74 percent of college students report significant, worrisome procrastination directly related to online distractions. There’s little doubt that education taking place purely in an online environment will naturally exacerbate such problems.
While there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to helping students maintain their focus, there is an opportunity for educators to identify digital features that students are naturally drawn to, and mimic these within the online classroom. Doing so could turn digital distractions into powerful tools that capture students’ attention and improve learning outcomes. Here are four ways to examine your online learning approach for student success.
The first step is to baseline each students’ capabilities and then establish ways to measure progress over time. The easiest way to do so is by employing online assessment techniques proven to work successfully in a virtual classroom environment.
For example, the nature of an online course makes it possible for instructors to easily poll the classroom, conduct quizzes and hold synchronous video Q&A sessions that help measure how they’re progressing. An added benefit is that they also help to keep students engaged if executed appropriately.
How these tools are used in the classroom is also important. Students shouldn’t be given open book or multiple choice tests in an online classroom. Instead, it’s often better to give timed “self-check” quizzes and short-answer essay questions to prove they’ve either mastered a concept or need work on the subject. Also, instructors should ask Q&A questions that encourage students to speak and present live, as well as shuffle or randomize test questions to discourage peer-to-peer cheating.
Using these tools and strategies can allow educators to prepare personalized lesson plans, work with students to improve upon and meet certain learning goals and give students more responsibility in driving their own educational outcomes, all of which enhances student engagement.
In addition to using ongoing assessments to keep students engaged, a key factor for success is to provide a variety of ways for them to learn. This requires instructors to identify how students like to learn and then create personalized learning experiences that match student preferences. Based on these preferences, educators can offer a variety of assignments and create a balance of learning techniques that keep students actively participating and engaging in the online class.
One way is to give students the option to work in breakout groups for some projects and work independently on others. The University of Maryland University College recommends online learning educators incorporate a variety of traditional learning elements into the mix, such as role playing, peer-to-peer learning groups, guest speaker sessions and more.
Similar to how students do on the job training in internships, educators can enhance learning outcomes by giving students a glimpse of a real world situation that aligns with what they’re learning. For example, Central Lakes College communications professor Kari Frisch found that her students enjoy the variety of learning styles she uses when instructing online courses, especially the videos of her interviews with experts in the communications field: “The students love that. When they can hear my voice asking the questions or see me in the video, it’s one degree of separation.”
While variety draws the students in, it’s also important to tap into their natural affinity for face-to-face communication and community. Since students are inherently social and tend to crave social support, providing a live video tool for peers and instructors in an online course is arguably one of the most important factors in engaging students and preventing the zone out effect.
Studies on visual-based instruction show that video lectures can even outperform in-person lectures, making students feel more engaged and connected to their classroom on a personal level. In fact, 90 percent of students believe that video improves the learning experience. This makes perfect sense when looking at what resonates with today’s students.
In addition to video interaction, students crave other ways to collaborate. According to a 2013 Educause study, college students feel more connected to what is being taught when they are chatting with peers and instructors during lectures, participating in real-time polls where they can see instant results, reading electronic textbooks and video conferencing live with their class. Online learning environments equipped with live, face-to-face interactive tools encourages more alert and active participation by “turning the camera” onto students and keeping them in front of instructors and peers during class discussions.
For further engagement, educators should also consider using technology to give students more flexibility regarding when and where they learn. Doing so allows students to learn more freely and get work done when they are most focused. This can be especially helpful for students who are challenged with getting up for that dreaded 8 a.m. class.
Research from the University of Michigan found that the amount of sleep a college student gets is one of the strongest predictors of academic success as it plays a key role in helping students fix and consolidate memories, plus prevent decay of memories. Studies on high school students – our future college attendees – reveal that starting at 8:35 a.m. or later reduces the risk of mental health and improves attendance, grades and standardized test scores.
Considering today’s college students are totally tech engaged and spend an average of 14.4 hours daily interacting with technology, flexible online learning environments provide students access to the classroom through their device of choice at any time. This gives late risers and early birds alike a way to participate when they’re most rested and alert.
While there is no silver bullet for keeping students engaged in the online classroom, there are many simple things educators can do to improve their chances of success. By incorporating some of these techniques and tools into a digital curriculum, instructors and students both have the flexibility and accountability to achieve success in their online studies.
Rony Zarom is CEO and founder of newrow_,an interactive video platform purpose-built for large groups to interact face-to-face online from anywhere, on any device. The company’s advanced collaboration and multi-streaming technology is trusted by the world’s top online classrooms, corporate training programs, brands, and governments. A serial entrepreneur, Zarom also successfully built and sold a telecommunication company that helped bring Internet service to Israel. In addition, he founded Decima Ventures, a venture capital company that invests in U.S. tech companies with an R&D center in Israel, and founded Unistream, a successful non-profit junior MBA program in Israel.