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As online coursework continues to grow in demand from learners across numerous demographics, an important topic surfaces for academic institutions: engagement. Specifically, higher education institutions are aware of a connection between engagement and academic persistence. We recently gathered a panel of thought leaders to discuss this very topic.

Colleen Flaherty, Editor of Student Voice for Inside Higher Ed, acknowledges the increase in online learner demand based on recent research while also identifying important steps toward successful implementation, citing, “Other reports still indicate and predict a growing demand for online education. And, according to one source—survey research from Eduventures and Quality Matters—two-thirds of institutions are adding online-only programs at this time. So, that same report recommends that institutions meet this growing demand by [1] incentivizing and retraining the instructional workforce, [2] building an infrastructure to support the new learning environment, and [3] ensuring the new course models can support and deliver on students' expectations.”

Online education is not one-size-fits-all

Flaherty also points out the need for varied and strategic approaches, noting, “Like students themselves, virtual learning is not a monolith. There are different kinds of online learning, from high-flex to hybrid and synchronous to asynchronous, and those overlap.”

Justin Ortagus, Ph.D., Associate Professor & Director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida, echoes this reality as an impediment to quality data and studies surrounding the efficacy of online coursework, emphasizing, “Why is [online success] hard to measure? One is the types of students who are enrolling disproportionately in online courses are also the same types of students who are less likely to graduate or to do well in the course in the first place. So, that's really complicated to parse out what we call ‘selection bias’ and making sure that you're trying to make a causal claim that it's the online course that is leading to a negative or a positive outcome.”

Because online coursework oftentimes attracts individuals who have high outside priorities such as jobs, children, and other time-consuming responsibilities, that can, inevitably, make academic persistence harder to achieve, thus skewing some data. With this in mind, the importance of engagement to compel these individuals to remain active and continue toward degree completion is all the more relevant.

A need for a new mentality

Evie Cummings, Ed.D., a strategic leader and experienced higher education administrator, sees this bias extend beyond research study structure and impact the actual efforts of online coursework implementation at the institutional level, adding, “Online is not the known, when traditional higher ed opens up its doors to be more welcoming, there's this subconscious or, perhaps, conscious policing of the ‘new thing.’ And to some extent, that's reflected in the focus of a lot of research [...] ‘Is online good?’ Or, you know, my analogy is it's like the traditional person training for a marathon who was wealthy enough to have the chance to train full-time, and now you have folks who are busy, active-duty, raising families that maybe want to do some treadmill at night, and they're trying to get healthy. They don't have full-time to train for a marathon, and we're policing, ‘Aha! Is the treadmill as good at training?’ I think we need to provide space within higher ed, within our psyches for different approaches.”

Karen Cangialosi, Ph.D., Director of the Every Learner Everywhere Network, extends this need for an expanded view of diverse approaches to online teaching, as well, positing, “There's a wide range of what good teaching looks like. And it's always interesting to me that we think that there's this diversity of teaching, but, when we're online, somehow it's this monolith. So, for me good teaching starts with building trust with my students, creating a strong sense of community in the classroom, centering student humanity, fostering a sense of belonging, acknowledging and honoring the diversity of students, and asking them what do they bring to the table? Creating flexible approaches to assignments, easy and free access to learning materials, using active and interactive learning, promoting student agency. All of these things can be done in online spaces.”

Humanizing to engage

Kizito Mukuni, Director of Online Education at Fayetteville State University, reiterates this need for humanizing the coursework in order to build engagement and persistence from learners, stating, “One of my first response I always give faculty is, number one, you have to humanize your online course. And what I mean by that is that an online course is not simply: you put your PDF documents over in Canvas or whatever LMS you're using, and then students just go on there and then look at that. No, [with an] online course you have to be more intentional. So, you have to involve various strategies…like humanizing the course. One of strategies which I recommend is instructor presence…This could be regularly responding to questions, logging into the course, building that rapport with your students, having that relationship with them, [and] providing that feedback.”

Cangialosi adds to Mukuni’s foundation, “When students have choices, when there's flexibility, when you're cognizant of who they are as people, one of the most powerful questions that a faculty member can ask to a student when they come into their class is, ‘How are you?’ Just like you care about them. A lot of people talk about the pedagogy of care. And so, when you're cognizant of what that student's needs are and you give them flexible choices, whether it's online, whether it's in person, I think we have to stop looking for some holy grail of technology that's going to create belonging. Like, it ultimately comes back to the humans that are in these spaces and that we teach who we are and we bring who we are to this conversation."

Personal touch and technological capability

Ready to learn how you can seamlessly pair technology with humanizing efforts to build engagement in your online student populations? Reach out to a Class team member today, and let’s drive your learners’ persistence to new heights! Want to check out the entire discussion from our panel? Find the full recording here.

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

Jason Bedford

Jason Bedford is the SVP of Education at Class, and is a passionate educator and technologist. Having held executive positions with leading EdTech companies, he's worked hard to drive innovation with global educational partners and support their mission of equity and student achievement. Before EdTech, he was an educator in Wake County Public Schools.

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