Four Do’s and Do Not’s for Engaging Students in Online Learning

I've been an online instructor for more than 10 years. In that time I have learned a lot about online curriculum, online student engagement, peer to peer interaction in the online classroom, and more. But what I have most worked to develop is my own personal method for engaging students in online learning. So, while most of this website is geared towards students looking to make use of online learning, I want to take some time here to give online instructors a few suggestions, or at least build upon their own knowledge, about engaging students in online learning. I hope that even the most experienced instructor will find something interesting to build upon in my following list of Do's and Do Not's.

1.    Do be friendly.

OK, this one sounds really obvious, but read on, because it is not always. It is important for the online instructor to remember that online learning makes it difficult for students to understand teacher's emotions and mood. For some reason, when a message is posted in an online course that is neutral in tone, students are much more likely to put a negative tone to it than a positive one, if they have no specific reason to think it is positive.

For example, imagine that you posted in class, "Be sure to post your papers by 5pm PT, no exceptions." This seems pretty simple and straight forward. Certainly it is not impolite in any way. However, any time you have "no" in there, it reads negatively. By adding just a little more you can be more clear and seem more friendly. Perhaps post, "Please post your papers by 5pm PT. Remember that it is important to learn to adhere to dates, thus late posts are only excepted in case of severe family emergency. " Yes, it is wordier, but it explains more and reads "nicer."

2.    Do be present.

The biggest fear that most new online students have is that they will not have good interaction with their teacher; it is imperative that you be very present; ensure that your students "feel" your presence in the classroom. You can do this in a few ways. One great way is to write a classroom-wide posting every week which introduces the material, or provides your own additional insight into what they are learning in the readings that week. You can use this to personalize the content and to let the students feel engaged with you, their instructor. You do not want your students to think that online degrees are a joke; so be active and help them learn.

3.    Do not be too involved.

While it is important that you communicate with the class as a whole, and with each student individually, on a regular basis so everyone feels your presence, you also do not want to overwhelm conversations. In discussion areas avoid interacting too much. I have done some research on this in my own classes as have some of my colleagues, and we have actually seen that if we are too active in discussions it seems to shut the conversation down. I'm not sure if people feel intimidated or if they simply think the instructor will cover everything, but they seem to post less if instructors post too much. I think a good rule is that every student should get one response from you directly each week. Much more than that and you risk shutting down peer to peer conversations.

4.    Do be timely.

Feedback is only effective, and appreciated, if it is timely. The best way to do this is to set your own guidelines for yourself, then to communicate those guidelines to your students. In this way, you will know you are going to be held accountable and be more likely to stick to yourself imposed schedule. Let your students know the first week how long it will take you to reply to their questions, discussions or assignments each week, then be sure you stick to it.

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