According to a recent report by the Institute of International Education, Inc. more than 90% of higher education institutions in the U.S. are taking a new and different approach to learning this semester, either in a pure virtual or hybrid learning model.

The continuation of distance learning has prompted institutions to transition from the emergency process initiated earlier this year to creating sustainable online and distance learning practices .

As students and faculty embrace this transition to online learning, coursework in many cases must be modified and redesigned to provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know while learning at their own pace. As we have worked closely with many institutions during this shift, we have seen firsthand that intentionally designed online learning has the capacity to create meaningful, interactive experiences between faculty and students - and these connections play a large role in maintaining student engagement for the distance track.

Our recent Global Benchmark Study on the State of Student Success and Engagement in 2020 found that hands-on instruction (47%) and experiential learning (46%) are just a few of the methods students value.

With the expectation that learning will remain online for the foreseeable future, many educators are still evolving a course they may have delivered for years into a comprehensive online experience.

Balancing rigor, relevance, and relationships.

In our ongoing work to support educators during this transition, we have identified three common threads that all successful online courses share:

Communication: important announcements are easy to find, faculty can be contacted if needed, and feedback is provided to personalize learning.
Empathy: Courses are designed to address the social and emotional needs of all learners and provide multiple opportunities for interaction.
Consistency: courses are structured cohesively to improve navigation and user experience.
These fundamentals undoubtedly present educators with a balancing act, but together they form a foundation for student and institutional success.

Kona Jones of Richland Community College calls the above " designing for kindness " and considers it an important part of reformulating coursework. "When students feel their instructor cares about them as a person and their success in the course, it creates a foundation of trust that fosters meaningful interactions and learning." In addition, she adds, "It's important to note that' kindness 'doesn't mean 'easy.' You can still have an extremely rigorous course. Your course can still do some amazing things with students and expect phenomenal things from them. "

Dr. Sean Nufer, director of teaching and learning at TCS Education System, suggests thinking about three Bs : be human, be present and be adaptable. "If you're new to online teaching, think about what you're doing in your personal settings to foster relationships between students and between you and students. Make sure you continue to do that. "

Building a foundation for engagement

The following best practices offer educators practical ways to create online learning that is engaging, effective, and builds a foundation of trust, support, and empathy with students.

#1 Create a strong introduction

"I want my courses to feel as inviting as possible," says Kona. "In Canvas, I use a welcome page to let students know where I'm coming from and where I want our course to go."

Kona says it's a good idea to create a page to introduce yourself and let students know the best ways to get in touch. "I also like to describe how the course is structured. So I post a walkthrough of how I call the course as it is online. I talk about what the course is, what we do, and where you can find useful resources. "

Kona recommends using the exemplary approach to show students the useful things you'll want to know when you enter a new course yourself. A "Getting Started" checklist can also be helpful.

Use this as an opportunity to empower students to take responsibility for their learning, reminding them that it's okay to make mistakes and that they shouldn't be afraid to experiment as they learn.

#2 Build fluid communication and feedback loops.

A foolproof way to get students to engage with your online course is to be active, present, and responsive in the online channels you plan to use - whether it's your discussion boards, your online office hours, or your preferred communication methods.

Model the behavior you want to see. "And if you notice a student hasn't checked in for a few days," Sean says, "frame it as a positive if you check in." Ask if there's anything you can do to help them. "You want to be supportive and express care and concern." From there, you can initiate an action plan and help them stay on track if needed. Phone calls are a good way to reduce the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies distance learning, he adds.

Surveys are another useful tool. Kona uses information from an introductory survey to guide her interactions with students and to lead with kindness. "I want to understand where students are coming from and what's going on in their lives," she says. Her survey asks students practical questions, such as what kind of technology they use, how reliable their Internet access is, and whether they have access to a printer, but also personal data that helps with classroom interactions, including how they pronounce their name and What are their preferred pronouns, for example.

A regular feedback mechanism is also important. "This feedback exchange is one of the most important ways I can ask students how things are going and help them get the information and resources they need," Kona says.

Another way to design for kindness, Kona says, is to make sure everything students need for the course is available to them and they can access it. "When you create your online course structure, you should add a section where all course materials are stored in a consolidated location and place those resources in the section week by week."

#3 Rethink the lecture

"With online learning," says Sean, "it's time to stop lecturing." They are better in face-to-face teaching situations. "

Instead, he suggests recording lectures in micro-lectures of 3 to 5 minutes and breaking more complex topics into multiple videos. "Lectures are best when they are very small," he adds. "It can be very discouraging for students to see that they have to watch a long online lecture."

Instead, Sean recommends finding interesting ways to replace lectures. "One way is to create infographics for students. There are several online platforms that are great for creating infographics ," , he adds, including visme, Piktochart , Canva and Microsoft PowerPoint, among others .

Alternatively, students can create and present their own infographics.

"Case studies are another good alternative," he adds. "And the science behind learning shows that frequent, low-stakes quizzes have a very positive impact on students."

#4 Use peer-to-peer communication and collaboration.

Creating assignments where students collaborate to learn and teach each other is another successful distance learning tool. Use your video conferencing tool to set up group meeting rooms where students can collaborate and review progress.

Sean adds, "One of my favorite methods is scientific discourse in the form of debates. Try to get students to discuss each other's concepts of the topic instead of an hour of lecture. This is a great way to improve critical thinking and collaboration. "

"The peer review process is a great feature in Canvas," Sean says. "It's a great way to get students to collaborate from an academic standpoint, and it can help them look at class content from a different perspective than the professor and not the student." The peer review process becomes doubly helpful if the student intends to become a teacher himself.

Adapting to this new learning environment does not happen overnight. Institutions that can gain traction by providing faculty with tools and skills to help them design their coursework for an online learning environment will position themselves to increase student engagement amid continued uncertainty.


For more tips and strategies, check out our Student Success Series, which features our State of Student Success and Engagement Study . So far, we've examined the importance of career readiness, interactive learning experiences, and faculty quality. Next, we will examine how socioeconomic differences affect student engagement.

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