PAPER: ENGAGING STUDENTS
As universities continue to offer more distance education courses, they face the challenge of translating on-site best practices into online courses in order to enhance student engagement, improve student persistence, and optimize student retention in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programs. This paper will describe how we adapted proven face-to-face classroom engagement techniques related to group discussions and labs into online courses in applied engineering, computer science, and media at our university.
Group discussions are key for student engagement in STEAM classes; scheduling synchronous group discussions in an online environment can be challenging, but it is possible with our ClassLivePro technology, part of the eCollege learning management system that allows instructors to gather students into a large virtual chat room or divide them into smaller groups in separate rooms. Within these smaller group chat rooms, each student has audio, video, and whiteboard access to discuss ideas and document notes during the session. The instructor can jump in and out of each group’s concurrent chat room sessions in order to encourage and guide students during the discussion. Once complete, the instructor can pull the whiteboard notes back to the main online chat room and reconvene the whole class for individual group reports. Student self-assessment of this activity was overwhelmingly positive.
In the applied engineering department, a class in scientific problem solving (EGR 320L) was taught to both online and onsite students in Fall 2013 using the same course material. Twenty-one students took the lecture and laboratory course onsite, meeting twice a week with the instructor for 4.5 hours in each class for two months. Twenty-eight students took the online lecture and laboratory course in the same time period. The students were a mix of computer science and engineering majors; the online students took the course asynchronously from multiple locations throughout the United States plus one military student serving in Afghanistan. The online course utilized live webcam-broadcast laboratory demonstrations as well as hands-on laboratory equipment that was shipped to each student to create remote labs and adapt hands-on laboratory learning to online courses. Live synchronous chat sessions, asynchronous threaded discussion questions, and other tools and technology were used with the online class to try to inspire and engage students in the course material. Student self-assessment of remote laboratory activities was overall positive, with many suggestions for improvement in the future.
Overall, including approximations of onsite social norms into the online environment can help improve student engagement, learning, and persistence. These techniques and tools can be as simple as the use of emoticons and persuasive punctuation or as personal as posting instructor portraits. The inclusion of induction activities like Google Jockey at the start of live online chat sessions can increase student engagement, sense of ownership and risk-taking potential, thus allowing for a closer approximation of the rich interplay afforded in face to face learning while leveraging the endless resources of an online setting.