Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.
I have taught
on-line classes for over five years now, and have accumulated a good
deal of experience in working with students I have never met face to
face. I have taught more than 70 sections of three different
Philosophy classes in the SUNY and CUNY system to over 2,000
students. They have ranged in age from 18 to 70. Some have been
traveling while learning. Others have been confined to their homes
or hospitals due to illnesses. Some were in military field tends in
the Middle East as part of a reserve unit. Some have been women with
young children asleep nearby as they worked at the computer. Some
have been members of the workforce, staying past their assigned hours
to make use of their employer’s computers. Some students have been
brilliant, others less so.
With all of them, as with my
traditional classes, taught over twenty-five years, my aim has been to
do the best that I can for them and to assist them to learn and
develop their intellectual skills. So, how to get them involved?
Well, engage them! Engaging learners means interacting with them.
The more interaction, the greater the satisfaction. The greater the
satisfaction, the higher the academic achievement. This article will
outline a few strategies that instructors considering on-line classes
may wish to consider as means to engage the learners we teach.
Engagement is not to be mistaken
for entertainment. We engage our students to help them focus and
direct their intellectual efforts. We want to attract learners into
experiences from which they can learn and become educated. We want to
challenge learners to expend effort, even to struggle; to take them
past a comfort zone to a place where they can grow as intellects and
as individuals. There are a number of ways to do this for students on
Communication with the On Line Instructor
Your first, best, tool is the
old-fashioned telephone! Require a direct telephone conference
with your student during the first week of the semester. Talk to your
student about the class, and about his/her special concerns. Require
a second telephone conference during the third week, to discuss the
student’s progress and your continuing expectations.
There are also many types of
e-mails that can be sent to students. Some of these are
formulaic, such as an initial e-mail of greeting, that outlines
protocols in the course, such as acceptable language, and other
on-line etiquette; a course assignment, or grade and class status
reports. The instructor may wish to keep boilerplate samples of each
and use them through the semester as needed.
E-mails can be used to reach out
to students who may be having difficulties, such as participation
problems, excessive absences, or who may be showing a need for
The instructor may also use
e-mail to send corrected student assignments, lecture additions,
handouts, and class notes. Students and instructors may also use
e-mail to request and receive clarifications, extra assistance, and so
Engaging Students through
Encourage virtual classroom
communication by creating an Ask the Professor area in the
discussion section of your website, where students may post questions
pertaining to your course. You may also wish to create a Student
Café or Chat room where student to student communication
occurs directly, about class-related, and non-class-related matters..
Participate in the on-line
discussion of course material with your students. You may also
wish to assign students responsibility for beginning on-line
Promote Learning Communities
where students work with one another to master the material in
Engaging Students Through
Make your lecture an on-line
conversation. As your students read through the “lecture” sections
of your on-line course, create points at which your students may
respond to questions, or examine a linked website and report back.
Follow up your lectures with
assignments that range from simple written essays to case studies and
group problem solving activities. Be available as a “coach” to assist
students with these tasks. Assignments that have students interacting
with other students or with the instructor are more engaging than
those where the learner works in isolation.
Students should be asked to
assess various aspects of the course—from the instructor’s
contribution to those of fellow students. Try to conduct assessments
in the middle of each term, when there is still time to make changes,
as well as at the close of the course.
Engaging Students Through
Instructional Design Itself
Students may also be engaged
through the physical design of your instructional website.
Changing the appearance of the website on occasion to highlight useful
points or herald new assignments lets students know you are there.
You may also wish to consider the ways in which you organize your
course on line. Repeat your messages at various points on your
website. Dates that activities begin and end should appear in more
than one way. Some learners prefer that activities for each learning
unit or course module appear together. Build in a method for Special
Messages to the class as an indication of your virtual presence as
well as a vehicle to assist the class. Think about using additional
visual media—music, or film—through your on-line website. Short video
clips as prompts for group work or case studies appear to work well in
capturing and focusing learner attention.
The design of your course can
also assist with assessment. Your prompts for student assessment
should appear at conspicuous and logical points in your course
content. Instructors responses to the mid course assessments provide
a powerful form of engagement with learners. The class takes on
something of the feeling of a partnership, a common effort in which
the learners are engaged in making some determinations about what is
going on with their learning.
A fully online class offers many
different ways in which the online learner can be engaged by the
instructor, both inside and outside of the class website and the
course management program. The more opportunities your offer your
students for such engagements the more likely it is that your learners
will become and remain involved with the class, their classmates, your
course and their academic program.