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Are Your Virtual Students Engaged?

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Let’s face it. Engaging students during online learning can be really frustrating.

Over the years, I’ve developed many ways to involve students in virtual class discussions, but something always gets in the way, whether it’s email, a television show or family responsibilities. “Hold on professor, I have to go check the chicken in the oven for dinner. I’ll be right back!” was one instant message I received from a student in a virtual synchronous class.

As a result, in my eight years of teaching a virtual synchronous course at Villanova University, I’ve identified three main challenges to learner engagement during online instruction: accessibility to technology, distractions in the learner’s environment and fear of the online learning environment.

Accessibility to technology: Challenge: The University of Illinois Online Network states, “Before any program can hope to succeed, it must have students who are able to access the online learning environment. Lack of access, whether it be for economical or logistics reasons, will exclude otherwise eligible students from the course.”

Solution: Troubleshoot the technology with students before classes begin, and inform students that a fast Internet connection will avoid many technology issues.

Distractions in the learner’s environment: Challenge: Without a live, face-to-face experience, students can mentally check out and become distracted by and involved in other things in their home or office.

Solution: Incorporate video into the virtual classroom experience. Melissa Gagnon, an eHow contributor, said, “You can choose to give a live lecture using software or programs that enable video chat along with a webcam. … Class discussions can be done in synchronous class time, using video chat or text chat formats. … Upload videos, articles and other supplemental materials to your class site. This supplemental information can be viewed and used to reinforce taught material.”

Fear of the online learning environment: Challenge: Some students are intimidated by a live virtual class and are less willing to share their viewpoint as a result. Others won’t respond to instructor questions for fear of giving a wrong answer.

Educational website creator Benjamin Evans from Onlineschool.com said, “Many students find it hard to interact with a computer rather than a real human being and need to experience genuine reciprocity with teachers and classmates.” Liz Burns from the Educating Alice blog reinforced the importance of reciprocity when she wrote, “Of course, we teachers do need to support all our students, provide safe ways for them to speak up, to help those who are reticent to feel confident to make the occasional comment.”

Solution: I’ve found that building trust in the classroom is key to engaging the shy or anxious student. Assisting students to understand their learning goals and class expectations also is beneficial to their learning and comfort.

While the benefits of the traditional model of learning such as face-to-face classroom instruction are many and well-documented, many argue that change is needed.

In an April CNN article titled “College Is Free!” about the advent of massive open online courses, William Bowen, former Princeton president, said: “We are at a pivotal moment. Two forces are combining: extraordinary technological progress with economic need.”

When it comes to continuing education, the economics are particularly significant. While most won’t dispute the importance of an undergraduate degree to career success, leadership often has to be persuaded to invest in training, especially when profits are tight. So when training is approved, it really needs to count.

Take steps to ensure any training your company offers is facilitated by someone who understands the need to build relationships with students and create a safe environment in which they feel free to make mistakes. Hold students accountable for participating in online classroom discussions. Focus on one model, graphic, topic or concept at a time. Use humor and stories. Incorporate videos and other visual aids. Encourage students to learn from one another.

Taking these steps will be beneficial to your employees, your organization and perhaps your future training budget.