engagement in online learning spaces

it’s been a long time since i was officially a student. okay, not a really long time, but long enough that i felt a big difference when i started this course. my first thought was “ugh, i’m not in a position of authority here. i don’t like this at all.” but then i realized how freeing it was to not be responsible for those friendly reminders of the course requirements and deadlines. and of course it’s been really useful to reconnect with that feeling of “i don’t have enough time to do everything for this course so i need to prioritize.”

which is kind of the key to engagement, isn’t it? students who prioritize the work they do for a course automatically appear to be more engaged than those who don’t. in the classroom, they’re the students who answer questions more readily, submit assignments on time, and serve as a continuous source of encouragement to course instructors simply because they show up (and by show up i don’t mean simply occupy a seat – i mean participate and engage). in an online course, showing up means posting, joining webinars, and responding to prompts. it means making the time to engage in what can often be an asynchronous conversation with other students taking the course, which is a really counterintuitive experience (at least for me – i hate waiting for responses).

and that’s something that has struck me this week, as i’ve thought about student engagement. so many (or maybe even all) students are natives of the face-to-face world when it comes to learning (even if it is increasingly likely that the digital literacy among students will be high), and taking our square-peg approach to classroom learning and trying to fit it into the round hole of online learning is such an overwhelming task!

for this topic, the internet explorers decided to focus on promoting student engagement in the first part of an online course, since that’s what we could all relate to as being particularly challenging. looking back on my engagement during the first topic, i remember frustration and a desire to do better. it’s there in my first post: we weren’t very good at getting things going or making decisions, and this hurt our productivity at the beginning. but we realized things weren’t working and made a real effort to get on a better track. those of us who made the time to be online regularly in the early part of the course immediately felt like we weren’t alone, and as more people came onboard, our group dynamic became friendly, productive, supportive, and all the right kinds of challenging.

our facilitators didn’t have it easy: schedules didn’t line up and internet connections were uncooperative, and it meant that our group’s initiation was bumpy. there were a number of early meetings that the facilitators couldn’t attend because schedules conflicted, and that meant that they weren’t able to give us the support we probably needed. we lost one group member early and another only recently because they simply couldn’t get over that huge initial threshold. we had to figure a lot of things out by trial and error, and while (as i said in my first post) i could kind of see this being a sort-of deliberate trick to push us to take responsibility, that’s not what was supposed to happen.

so how do student prioritization and teacher support relate in an online learning environment if we want to get better student engagement?

it’s actually really simple: students prioritize mandatory tasks, and teachers have all the freedom in the world to make engagement mandatory. so make engagement mandatory!

okay maybe not so simple.

i co-teach an online course that has mandatory participation in discussion forums, and participation can be really patchy. not that students don’t participate and then try to get credit anyway – that would never fly – but it’s clear that many of the students do the bare minimum and sometimes long after the discussion for that module has died down. i think part of the reason is that the course is pass/fail. i’m totally not a fan of pass/fail courses because it’s so easy to just think about the bare minimum. for me, the possibility of earning credit for not just passable performance, but excellent performance, makes all the difference in the world. when all i get is “yes, you passed” (which, to me, signals that i earned as little as 50%) it doesn’t motivate me, and i’m totally going to tend toward bare-minimum performance. that’s what i did the two times i was able to take a course pass/fail in undergrad and it sucked.

i don’t fault the students for taking a strategic, “what do i need to do to just pass?” approach. we’re all busy and we have a lot to juggle. i find myself struggling with mandatory tasks in this course, and feel that i should probably have participated more in the main ONL152 community, but i didn’t feel that i had the time.

here’s the thing about that, though: i have been active, engaged, enthusiastic. i’ve done so much participation stuff i barely recognize myself (i wasn’t much of a joiner as a student, and didn’t often embrace leadership roles). but it has all been in my PBL group.

this wonderful group of weirdos that makes me want to do a good job because i feel a sense of responsibility to them. because i know they feel that same sense of responsibility. because our conversations are lively and productive and we make decisions in a way that makes sense. because we have created a space where engagement is necessary and rewarding. we all prioritize the group work because we have recognized its importance for the course and cultivated a teamwork approach that gives us more than any of us could get alone.

so about that mandatory engagement thing. it’s more nuanced than just “you must complete the following things to pass the course.” it’s actually about creating evident value in engagement and showing students that they will gain real benefits from it. it’s about front-loading the mandatory engagement with reduced flexibility (yes! reduced flexibility in an online course!) in order to push the students into the course. it’s about getting them connected with a manageable number of peers and creating a sense of mutual responsibility and trust. that’s what the internet explorers have concluded for topic 6, and in true teamwork fashion, i stand by my team.

early structure matters, and it’s worth sacrificing flexibility for it. giving the students the proper initiation into the trickiness of online working will allow them to adapt the initial structure to suit their own needs, which reduces their need for support as the course progresses. we need to stop thinking of online students as “already literate” and realize that every time they join a new online course, they have to learn a new way of working, or at least be prepared to make significant changes to their established approach.

and in that sense maybe it’s not so different from classroom teaching; we’re not just teaching a subject – we’re inviting students into a way of thinking, a way of working, a way of solving problems that is adapted to our discipline and our context and is always dependent on the setting.

engagement in online learning spaces


it’s a pretty expansive idea. transparency, access, intellectual property (or not), sharing freely. we want openness because it offers greater opportunities for more people to engage with fewer barriers. it makes perfect sense. i think that for academics, however, openness is feels like a dangerous word because it implies giving up our ownership of our own material.

in the unforgiving world of publish or perish, where earning tenure is paramount and proving our worth is equated with our success in convincing journal editors that our work is worth publishing, holding on to what we have developed and making sure that everyone else knows it’s ours is pretty damn important. this goes for research, mostly, but it also goes for our teaching materials. universities are paying greater attention to pedagogical skills than ever before, and that means that academics need to showcase their teaching skills as well as their research prowess.

some academic teachers write textbooks to cement their place of authority. self-published books (especially of the e-variety) seem to be more and more frequent, probably because they are easier to publish yet can still be of very high quality, but critical minds will likely wonder at their credibility. with the need for increased skepticism when considering source material retrieved online (pseudoscience is a troublesome beneficiary of this, and the recent outbreak of measles in Canada as a result of the anti-vax idiots is a tragic example of grossly inappropriate scrutiny of source credibility) and increased focus on teaching students to think about the credibility of different types of sources, self-published works always rank lower and peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be at the top. the big academic publishers still hold tremendous authority, and rightly so. fraught as it may be with imperfections, the peer review and editorial systems used in academic publishing still present the greatest chance for a published work to truly be of high credibility and subject to proper scrutiny.

the issues plaguing the world of academic publishing are numerous and complex. moves to offering open access publication exist, but new journals that are 100% open access have awoken concerns about the quality of vetting: stories of fake papers being accepted for publication aren’t hard to find. but the peer review system in subscription-based journals has its challenges as well. the peer review system isn’t a silver bullet, but neither should it be eliminated as an important step in getting good work published.

of course, we may not have the same approach to our teaching material as we do to our research, if we do indeed work as researchers. teaching might not even be that important compared to our research. we may not have any concerns at all about making our teaching material available to anyone who wants it. but for those of us whose place in the academic world consists mostly of teaching activities, we might not have research publications to rely on, or we may be trying to work our way up to earning research time; in this case, our teaching material can be precious.

so openness becomes tricky. we keep our own teaching material and use it to document our teaching activities, to be sure, but if we’re interested in upping our h-index to prove that our work is impactful and of interest to other teachers, don’t we need to put a copyright on it? how do we show that our work has impact in the pedagogy of our field if other teachers don’t cite our work in a trackable way? this is as true of old-fashioned chalk-and-talk teaching as it is of modern, tech-driven approaches, and it’s worrisome.

but this desire to pursue reward and recognition for our teaching kind of clashes with a student-centred teaching philosophy, doesn’t it? if we believe the pedagogical idea that student learning is at the centre of teaching, then the teacher’s ownership of teaching material is less important than the possibility of other students benefitting from an excellent lesson. teachers should share, freely and widely, so that the collective wealth of pedagogical tools grows.

well, no. they shouldn’t just let anyone take anything at any time. i don’t buy the idea of complete communistic generosity here, just like i don’t buy the idea of complete protectiveness.

we need to aim for a middle ground.

a good teacher can’t run on intrinsic motivation alone, just like a good student doesn’t slog through a university degree “just for the experience” – they want the degree! as academic teachers, we need to publish our work so that we can track its impact and ensure that we build our teaching portfolio.

i believe that all academics should publish in all areas of their jobs, teaching and research alike. i see the peer review system as an opportunity for rigour, and a way of ensuring that what gets out there is the result of good work. we should work hard and earn recognition for our efforts. but we should also understand where ownership is important. something about the teaching culture of the academic world makes it acceptable to use teaching materials without attribution even though we would never dream of stealing the work of other researchers. it’s no wonder that some teachers are reluctant to share, because they have seen first hand when someone takes a lesson or activity and passes it off as their own.

we need better integrity when it comes to teaching materials if we want to promote openness in this highly competitive environment. if we make use of the creative commons when preparing teaching materials while at the same time using good citation practices when borrowing from published works, then we can build a system in which we promote free sharing while protecting our own creations. we pay it forward, as it were, and if we hold each other responsible for giving credit where credit is due, then perhaps we can find a happy middle ground.