A Short Course on Engaging Students Online

I start teaching a one week short course with some friends at the Office of Open Learning @ UWindsor tomorrow on student engagement. Can’t think of another topic that has come up more in the last year or so, nor one that is more pervasively ignored in our general discussion about education. It’s right up there with “what is learning” for topics that will basically end your conversation about the system.

And yet. Here we are. I want to get some thoughts clear in my head before tomorrow and, well, that’s what this blog is for :). For someone who randomly lands on this blog, then, please understand that this is a collection of thoughts and not meant to be a fully coherent narrative.

Engagement: What do we mean by engagement?

I’ve decided to use this handy framework put together my Phillip Schlechty about the various levels of student engagement. The elaborations are, of course, mine.

  1. Engaged – Intrinsically motivated
  2. Strategic Compliance – Grade motivated for achievement
  3. Ritual Compliance – Grade motivated for ‘just enough’
  4. Retreatism – Passively resistant
  5. Rebellion – Actively resistant

The key here is separating conversations about motivation and compliance. I want to have people think about whether they are, in effect, only interested in compliance or if they are willing to reach for engagement. You could almost put a hard line between the 1 and 2 on that list, as they are almost totally different visions for what education is for or what learning is. (note: we have returned to ‘what is learning’ again. Sorry.)

Engagement is way harder. It involves trying to design an environment that allows for genuine curiosity. For failure. For student investment. This also requires that you meet those students where they are currently and help them walk towards that goal. A good curriculum design is not enough.

Students: What do students look like now?

This has been a point of emphasis for me for the last year. I’ve had an incredible opportunity to work with a few dozen CoOp students on education projects and we’ve gotten lots of time to work on thinking about learning. They’ve been good to share their thoughts with me… and I kind of feel like we’re not always taking their current status into account.

According to StatsCan, full-time participation in university in 1950 was about 6%. We’ve increased from 19% to 30% since 1995. I keep moving through this data, and its really not clear to me how many of those are international students… the statscan data is take from the Labour Force Survey etc… One way or the other we have WAY more people in higher education than we used to. Lots of people (statistically) who can afford to go to a university, can apply to a university, with an expectation that they will get in. We still have too many barriers for entry, but there are definitely fewer than there used to be.

Broadly speaking, students go to university because students go to university. When I used to do recruitment, someone once explained to me how they had watched the decisions of the high school hockey captain impacting post-k12 decisions more than anything else. I’ve worked with hundreds (upon hundreds) of new students at university, a LARGE percentage of them are taking a degree because they were told to, because they picked what their friend picked or almost at random. That’s not to say there aren’t focused students who come to do exactly one thing, there are, but given that 30% number, we’re looking at a large number of people who don’t have an intrinsic motivation to do their studies. They aren’t starting ‘for a love of biology’ but because their mom told them to do sciences so they could get a job (not true) and they liked their high school biology teacher (a story i’ve heard, weirdly, several times).

Those students are also coming out of an increasingly (my belief, a thing i also keep hearing) structured high school system that is focused on strategic compliance. That strategy, often, is the attainment of high enough grades to get a guaranteed scholarship.

They are not coming to university with an intrinsic motivation to learn.

These kids are also working paid jobs more than their predecessors, are currently living through a pandemic and live in a world of information abundance… leading us to…

Online: The internet changes things too right?

Well… it does and it doesn’t. I don’t think the existence of the Internet changes what it means to be engaged in your learning. I’ve written extensively on this blog about the impact of the internet on what might be important to learn. I think the biggest difference with engagement is on the tools of compliance.

Our face 2 face schools are very effective tools for compliance.

  • It provides distraction (interest) free environment.
  • It allows for effective surveillance
  • It allows for controlled (content) inputs
  • It’s easy to do stuff like put people into groups

It’s also, frankly, a lot easier to keep people’s attention. If I’m stuck in a room with nothing else to do and you see me peek at my phone, I’m probably just going to pay attention to you. That doesn’t necessarily mean you were doing a GOOD job of engaging me, it’s that, given the environment, there wasn’t really anything else for me to do.

What online learning forces us to do is come to terms with our f2f tools of compliance and convenience. Does it make it harder to keep students engaged? I mean… maybe. What it does is force us to think about what we’re trying to get done.

So… are they kids or adults?

I got a pretty serious negative response on twitter when i suggested that I was going to make this separation in the course. I was only going to make it to try and prove the point that teaching is teaching, regardless of how old a student is. We have things to learn from the k12 research and things to learn from the adult-ed research, and, frankly, they should probably be combined. If we take the Malcolm Knowles description of good andragogy [sic – that means ‘man learning’], i’m probably good with it.

  1. There is a need to explain why specific things are being taught (e.g., certain commands, functions, operations, etc.)
  2. Instruction should be task-oriented instead of memorization — learning activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed.
  3. Instruction should take into account the wide range of different backgrounds of learners; learning materials and activities should allow for different levels/types of previous experience with computers.
  4. Since adults are self-directed, instruction should allow learners to discover things for themselves, providing guidance and help when mistakes are made.

You can just go ahead and swap in ‘learners’ instead of adults and that’s probably most of what I want to say about designing for engagement.

Designing for engagement NEEDS to include lots of thoughts about the learners. Not some imaginary group of elites who have been filtered by interest and socio-economic privilege into your class, but your real actual students. This article, sent to me on twitter by @doctorkayleigh does a nice job of talking about it.

Students are way happier when they are intrinsically motivated

I totally think it’s possible. Not all students. Not all the time. But I think we can have an effective education system based on intrinsic motivation. The problem, for many, is that you can’t MAKE people intrinsically motivated. You have to encourage it.