Be it a brick and mortar classroom or a virtual classroom, the biggest challenge for an instructor is to keep the learner ‘engaged.’ In a physical classroom, this challenge may ease marginally as engagement as a behaviour is directly observable through grades, class participation and attendance. However, you will agree that the scenario is quite different in a virtual setting, as engagement cannot be observed but only predicted, assumed or inferred through activities such as – discussion forum posts and comments, consumption of digital course material and performance in assessments.

Through an analysis of these online learning activities, we can classify learners in three buckets :

  • Active Learners
  • Passive Learners
  • Disengaged Learners
An engaged MOOC learner

An engaged MOOC learner

Active learners, as the name suggests, show their presence on the course explicitly by engaging with all the pedagogical methods adopted in the course in the intended way. Passive learners, on the other hand, are silent learners who complete the courseware but prefer not to show their presence on the online platform to their peers. Disengaged learners show almost zero activity both on discussion forums and in content consumption, but continue to stay enrolled in the course.

A clear understanding of learner engagement is very crucial as the success of any course can only be measured through its impact on the learner, it is for these learners that the course has been produced and offered. This understanding can help us take necessary steps in terms of pedagogy and technology to make the online course more effective.
In terms of online course pedagogy, the various artefacts used in the online course production should be engaging; for instance, keeping in mind the attention span of the 21st century learner, the length of videos should preferably be not more than five minutes. The videos should include more than just a talking head – relevant visual elements should be added to help learners relate to and remember key concepts. Enough thought provoking instructor driven discussion threads should be initiated to ensure that the learner is involved with and takes advantage of the rich community of peer network that is formed in an online course.

Technology being the enabler of dissemination of online courses, enough attention should be given as user experience is heavily dependent on it .The LMS used should enable both the learner and instructor to facilitate smooth knowledge exchange.

The role of instructor and course staff is most crucial in enhancing learner engagement. The instructor is looked upon for not only imparting knowledge but is also viewed as a role model and coach for learners.

The course staff plays a significant role, as the course custodians who define the boundaries of learner experience; moreover, they can also take up the role of a motivator and constant study buddy. Course Teaching Assistants or TAs are encouraged to constantly interact with the online learners to recognize them for good discussion postings, to give suggestions to help their learning, and to applaud them for sharing special insights or questions on the forum.

The success of any online course depends on how actively engaged a learner is and every single effort taken in this direction is bound to enhance learner engagement.

What have your experiences been in an online course – as an instructor, course staff or learner? What has worked well in the past and what hasn’t? Please do share.

[This post was written by Vijaya Tripathi – Pedagogical Research Associate, IIMBx.]

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