How to engage students in online learning

Imagine yourself staring at a blank screen with nothing but a not-so-pleasant, monotonous music running in the background. Every now and then someone is scribbling something on the screen. But this blatant attempt at visual stimulation feels like a never ending documentary at best. Given a chance you’d happily ditch the session and go watch a movie. Thanks to the pandemic, online education made it much easier to do the same. Many students of all age groups are turning to gaming on mobile phones or doing some other work during online classes to avoid boring lectures. Students are not to be blamed for trying to get rid of this boredom though, given the extremely negative impact prolonged boredom tends to have on the human mind. But learning isn’t supposed to be a boring activity. At the very core of principles of learning lies the responsibility to tickle human curiosity. When that fundamental trait in students is not touched upon, learning in itself feels like huge work rather than an engaging activity.. 

It is not the educator’s fault that the students feel bored, many of today’s educators were once loyal pupils of the traditional classroom setup when technology was not as accessible as it is today. However, holding up their virtue of empathy that comes as part of being a teacher, many educators are making tremendous efforts to make their classroom engaging. They are willing to adapt to the growing technology surrounding the education space but the lack of a ‘how to’ guide makes them feel lost in a labyrinth full of diverse technological advancements. The laptop, mobile phone and tablet have become part of everyday life and have revolutionised education. Technology plays a key role in fostering innovation, creativity and connection among students, faculty and staff. The development of new ways to engage students using technology has resulted in a wide range of experiences and opportunities. 

Here are a few ways technology can be an aid to engage students online and enhance their learning experience. 

1) Flipped Classroom – This term has garnered much attention during recent times.  A study by ‘faculty focus’ on the benefits of flipped classrooms, found a significant classroom engagement (74.9% participants) among students. In the same study, more than 80% faculty reported that students are more collaborative and 76.61% said they ask more questions. The idea behind a flipped classroom is very simple. The learners go through the learning material beforehand, and during the classroom they apply what they have learnt, discuss the ideas, conduct debates on them etc..,. This way it turns around the idea of homework by encouraging students to conduct their own research with the help of recommended course material. 

Guidelines for effective utilisation of Flipped Classroom

1) Direct students towards effective sources for research

2) Encourage students to prepare their own material through collaborative effort 

3) Prepare bite-sized video lessons for learning

4) Give puzzles for them to solve and ask them to explain the rationale behind their solutions

5) Give group projects

2) Gamification – Gamification in education is not just a trend, it’s an effective technique to increase student engagement. A study conducted by the University of Louisville showed that using gamification techniques decreased student absenteeism by 29%. In simplest terms, gamification means applying game-like elements to any activity. One of the reasons why young people love playing games is because they provide them with immediate gratification in the form of rewards. But it doesn’t end there, rewards work only till the player is hooked onto the game, after a certain level, it is the player’s sense of autonomy and need for mastery that drives them. Thus by gamifying the learning process, teachers and the administration can not just engage students in the learning activity but also nurture their intrinsic motivation to achieve more. Gamification also creates a sense of community among learners as they work together to reach goals and solve problems.

Guidelines for effective utilisation of gamification

1) Rewards in the form of certificates, badges etc.,

2) Motivate students through positive narration

3) Encourage autonomy

4) Eliminate dependency on rewards by nurturing intrinsic motivation

5) Creating healthy competition within the classroom

6) Giving regular feedback on performance to each student personally.

7) Create playful and achievable obstacles in their learning path. 

8) Create problems with divergent solutions. 

3) Spider Web Discussion – This is an offshoot of the Socratic dialogue method. In the Socratic method, the dialogue proceeds through forming theses and antitheses around a topic (theses is the plural form of thesis). Whereas, in the spider web discussion, a teacher collects ideas from all the students and forms a spider web of ideas, connecting one to another forming an idea web of sorts. 

Alexis Higgins who introduced this method of spider web discussion through her book, the best class you never taught also uses the word ‘Spider’ as an acronym for –

Synergetic – It is a team oriented process and involves the participation of everyone. 

Practice – It is an ongoing process and gets better with each session. 

Independent – The teacher’s involvement in the process is minimal to 0. He/She acts only as a facilitator for the process to occur.

Developed – The pooling of many ideas in one place leads to better understanding as well as different perspectives of a topic. The process as a whole leads to growth of every student involved.

Exploration – The whole idea of discussion facilitates students to explore a topic through many perspectives and sources.

Rubric – A grade should be awarded to the group as a whole as a yardstick to measure their performance. You can check the examples here – Spider Web Discussion

Curiosity is a fundamental human trait though it varies in degrees from person to person. The onus is on teachers/mentors/parents to nurture and equip this basic human quality in children so that they can do their part in the advancement of civilization for as long as possible and pass on the torch to the succeeding generations. 

We should encourage the use of technology in schools. Teachers can leverage their instructional abilities by using learning apps for teachers and education apps for teachers. Tech in classroom is an important part of the education system at this moment.