In the wake of Covid-19, engagement has become a critical component of online teaching and facilitation as all levels of education are still adapting to working remotely.
What works for postgraduate students may not necessarily work to the same extent with undergraduate students. What works with one discipline may not with another. Primary and post-primary require a very different approach and not everyone has an appropriate device or good level of connectivity to access online classes. There is no one-size-fits-all.
In the midst of such challenges what can we do to try and engage our students online?
During the rapid move to online teaching in March 2020 many considered offering live video content to students. Since then there has been a lot of debate about whether this is the best approach.
There is no doubt that live video classes can be great when production values are high. But many teachers report that broadcasting a live lecture does not work well because, for many working from home, there is no separate quiet space to broadcast from and broadband is patchy.
There is also a lot of research on student evaluations of teaching which highlights that female teachers are judged much more than their male colleagues when it comes to how they dress and present themselves.
The majority of teachers are women in this country and with the schools being physically closed many have more caring responsibilities and less time for hair and makeup!
Another issue with live video is the chance of uninvited guests. Recent reports in the media detailed how, across a number of schools, some students had shared their codes for live classes on social media platforms allowing strangers to enter the live sessions.
In some cases where this has happened the school had to cancel live video lessons. There are also privacy issues associated with students having their cameras turned on during a live class.
For teachers at primary and secondary schools, the “camera-on” versus “camera-off” is much more of a pressing and nuanced issue than for students at third level, as schools have to consider child protection concerns.
While there are many advantages to using live video, sometimes recorded video or an audio podcast can often be the better choice for both teachers and students when it comes to content.
A podcast supplemented with a Word document or PowerPoint can provide much more detail than a live class.
Typically, a 45-minute class can become a 15- or 20-minute podcast after a heavy edit. Editing is important because discourse markers which sound fine in a physical classroom with the content of space and other props do not work so well in a podcast.
Likewise, slight pauses made in a class for emphasis or to give students a few moments to reflect just seem so much longer in a podcast. For teachers the benefits of creating audio podcasts include less onerous production values when compared to what is required to produce good video content.
The benefits for students include more freedom in terms of where and how they can listen to material and many students with limited connectivity may find it easier to download a small audio file rather than having to live stream a class.
Asynchronous vs synchronous
Online engagement can take many forms including asynchronous and synchronous engagement using online discussion and live chat in an institutional Virtual Learning Environment.
There has been an increase in the literature over the last decade highlighting the importance of online engagement of students. We are in a golden age of online resources but we must be cognisant of what we are expecting of students and we must recognise that students have many demands on their time outside of study.
Engaging students online through directed feedback can work quite well in a discussion forum or chat session. Audio feedback is another option that can be used to deliver feedback quickly to students. Introducing students to a weekly discussion topic early in the semester can be a successful method of fostering a culture within the class group for students to engage in discussion with their peers.
Learning analytics enable teachers to track student activity but this raises the question; should we track this activity?
While there may be merit in tracking some aspects of online activity it is also recognised that trying to measure this activity can be problematic. Online engagement is about more that the mere accessing of course materials. Student participation in online asynchronous discussions and synchronous chat sessions can be hugely beneficial but what happens when some students do not want to, or cannot, engage in these activities?
Some research suggests awarding marks for these activities. However, tracking and assessing online engagement is complex and developing a grading rubric can be challenging.
In Ireland, connectivity adds another layer of difficulty to building in assessed participation in online discussion. There have been several surveys in Ireland over the past 12 months or so relating to Irish people’s satisfaction with broadband. Many of these published survey results have reported a high level of dissatisfaction with the level of connectivity.
It is also important to note that many students have to balance caring duties; this has been termed the “lifeload” that many students have to juggle alongside their studies. This was particularly evident during the school closures associated with Covid-19 in 2020 and now again in 2021.
It is difficult for many to engage and participate in meaningful online discussion. Likewise, many faculty and teachers also had to juggle caring responsibilities with their online tasks. Therefore, we must be realistic in our expectation of online student participation.
Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn is course director of MA technical communication and e-learning lecturer in technical communication and instructional design at University of Limerick.