by Catherine Man

When students consider the choice between an online course and a conventional class on campus, they typically think of social atmosphere first. Often students report that what they miss the most about being in a classroom is being able to interact with educators and classmates in person.

Research has repeatedly shown that when students feel connected to their instructor and to classmates, they are more motivated to persevere with a class or in school. This doesn’t change with an online program.
Faculty can develop more effective online courses with this information, and by thinking more like students. Online instructors cannot rely on observing body language, facial expressions and the tone in voices to assess student engagement. They often adapt alternative tools at their disposal to encourage connection through communication. Blackboard offers a range of tools designed with this objective. The following are strategies instructors use to cultivate productive and social learning environments online.

Establish potential for social connection
When students can’t see each other visually, they may feel alone in a class. This feeling is compounded when there are no established means of communication in the class. This is a primary reason why instructors and instructional designers deliberately employ tools that increase social presence. Social presence is generally defined as the likelihood that users are able to cultivate a social and emotional sense of connection with others in an online environment.

Methods used to build social presence include:

  • Offer students opportunities to get to know faculty. Begin the course by posting information about the instructor that may be important for students to know (ie. teaching background, research interests, best times to message with inquiries)Inform students at the beginning the best ways to send the instructor messages or ask questions.
  • Responding to student inquiries and offering feedback regularly
  • Logging into the course and reviewing messages on the discussion forums as frequently as students are expected to
  • Design activities that ask students to collaborate and/or connect
  • Class wide introductions. Have students create their own blog or personal introduction on the discussion board. Schedule real time online meetings via video conferencing (using Blackboard Collaborate) so students can put a face or voice to each name in the course roster
  • Small group projects. Instructors can set up Wiki pages where students are expected to contribute writing.  They can also group students into project oriented discussion boards, thus providing each group will have their own space to discuss ideas and process

Establish rules of social conduct
Even prior to setting up activities of communication and collaboration, group guidelines for behavior must be established. This is necessary for the majority of classrooms as well as other group scenarios. This is no different for virtual spaces where users interact with each other.

Netiquette refers to general guidelines for behavior on the internet, which highlight using civil language, respecting other people’s time and privacy, and allowing others the benefit of a doubt when words appears to connote tone. The need for these guidelines suggest there is a tendency for online students to forget that there are sensing and feeling human beings on the other side of the screen.

Sometimes we need reminders when we engage in discussions, especially worthwhile ones that encourage participants to voice diverse opinions. Effective facilitators moderate group discussions without squashing voices. One way is by simply reminding participants about relevant rules of Netiquette when the occasion rises.
Instructors need to remember and heed these guidelines as well. The more they communicate messages to students, the more likely students pick up the respectful communication skills that are being modeled.

Create opportunities for students to use and apply newly learned skills with feedback
Regular use of assessment doesn’t have to be intimidating or overwhelming to students, provided the majority
are low-stakes and given with the un-derstanding that they present opportunities for student to practice what they learned. This may look like a brief quiz or activity after each content unit. Instructor feedback for the completion of each activity helps students to learn from their mistakes and that their instructor wants them to master these skills.

Offer relevant resources when needed
Offering support in a timely manner motivates students to move forward, and teaches them to identify resources that could be helpful. Timing is literally of the essence. Provide support or introduce resources too early and students may not recall that information when they actually need it. Too late and students already feel they have failed.

Some examples of offering timely support include

  • Post supplemental in each unit. Multimedia sources can reinforce content matter that is palatable to different learners.
  • Include the instructor as a resource. Adding extra “office hours” prior to a test or project due date lets students know you are available for help when they really need it.
  • Using the “adaptive release” option in a Blackboard course unlocks supplementary sections for students who meet specific criteria. The criteria can be programmed as indicators for students who demonstrate the need for extra support, or for those who have mastered the knowledge and/or skills at a faster rate.

All these strategies address the challenge of how to keep students motivated to the very end. Faculty can keep in mind that what is motivating for students in a classroom on campus can be adapted to increase motivation for online learners as well.

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