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The Secret Sauce of Engagement: Creating Successful Online Programs

The EvoLLLution | The Secret Sauce of Engagement: Creating Successful Online Programs
In order for an online course to be truly successful, these offerings must be designed with student engagement consciously built in.

Colleges and universities across the world have started to look to online courses and programs as a mechanism to create greater access to offerings for prospective students, and the modality has grown spectacularly in popularity over the past decade. However, many institutions are still having trouble creating offerings that are truly engaging, which is leading to questions about the quality of the online method of education. In this interview, Allison Rossett shares her thoughts on the five key ingredients to engagement in the online space and reflects on some of the key mistakes institutions typically make when launching online offerings.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do students benefit when an online educational experience is built with engagement in mind?

Allison Rossett (AR): It’s hard to imagine any teacher, instructor or professor getting themselves involved in an educational experience and saying, “I don’t care if I engage them, I’m just going to spray this content at them and worry not at all if it doesn’t touch them or move them.”

Obviously, in a world where we’re moving towards more asynchronicity, more student choice, more independent learning and, of course, more online learning—all of which are directly involved with each other—students get to choose. If they’re not engaged, they won’t choose you. They won’t choose your class, won’t choose those assignments, they won’t choose that reading, they won’t choose those assessments and reflection exercises.

In this new significantly online, independent and asynchronous world, we have to build engagement in and it isn’t automatic. An instructor who is great in the classroom won’t necessarily be great online. What’s more, great classroom instructors are often not mindful about what makes them great. They don’t know how to package the secret sauce of engagement.

Evo: When it comes to the online space specifically what do you think constitutes the secret sauce of engagement?

AR: I want to start by defining engagement as attentiveness to something accompanied by a positive feeling. When engaged, the students read, they post, they react, they try, they question and they keep coming back to the material and to their peers and instructor.

The secret sauce to engagement is composed of five essentials. Number one, in my view, is the “right stuff.” When you’re teaching material, it is obvious to the students if the instructor has carefully selected material because of its importance, relevance and usefulness given their concerns and interests. To put it another way, it’s obvious when the material wasn’t simply plucked off a shelf because the instructor themselves studied it in the 1970’s or 80’s. You want to be teaching the “right stuff,” you want it to resonate for the students and that might mean—even if it’s not obvious—that the instructor has to spend some time demonstrating the links between the material and whatever is important to the students. The first ingredient in the engagement secret sauce is careful selection of meaningful material and outcomes, and, if it’s not obvious, a plan for how to make it matter to students.

The second element of the secret sauce is a guidance system. Students who flop around, can’t find their way, can’t make the videos play, don’t know what to do first and next, who don’t know where they are in the course, they drop out, they get lost and they are unmotivated. In a situation with a strong guidance system, students know what the outcomes are, they know what the expectations are, they know what the standards are. A classic, familiar guidance system is a syllabus but online it has to have more detail, it has to have more examples because it’s asynchronous. Not everybody is online at the same time, which means they they can’t always ask questions. You have to think carefully about, and plan fully for, how you’re going to keep students from being lost in the material and how you’re going to help them when they do get lost.

The third element of the secret sauce of engagement is being active in the zone of proximal development. This goes back to the Vygotsky scaffolded learning theory, which states that learning happens in the ZPD (zone of proximal development)—the area just beyond our current capabilities. Learning has to build on what students already know and then push them a little bit further. That is what good instructors have always done. This is critical for online courses because students will not value material they have already mastered. Conversely, if we ask students to do something way beyond their abilities, it will affect their confidence and if their confidence is reduced, their motivation and engagement are reduced.

The fourth element of the secret sauce is building relationships and community. Students aren’t alone in the classroom and they shouldn’t be alone when they’re online either. Professors and instructors need to consider how they can help students use each other, how they can help students give each other feedback. Students should have conversations with each other and rely upon each other. I’ve taught enough to know how students get crazed on the subject of having group-work partners that don’t work well, so you have to have a feedback system that provides early warning signs if students are dropping the ball or being “free riders” when they’re part of groups of three or four students. In essence, you want to create a habit of community.

The fifth and final component of the secret sauce is helping our students look to references and online performance support. Doesn’t matter whether they’re studying to be doctors or nurses or lab technicians or criminologists; every profession is creating reference materials that people refer to at the moment of need. We want to build rich resources into courses and we want to allow people to take exams and to do projects as they rely upon and use those resources.

Evo: To your mind, is it more expensive to develop and deliver online courses that meet those five conditions of engagement than universities might be willing to spend?

AR: We’ve run into that question of cost repeatedly. You can’t just tell somebody who teaches nursing or astronomy to simply put their course online. Just because they’ve taught it for 15 years at the university doesn’t mean they are going to be able to put it online.

An engaging online course is so much more than a webinar. Webinars can be a piece of the course but you have to invest in analysis so you get the right stuff so you can offer thought-provoking activities and materials.

In a physical classroom, you can look out at the classroom and you can see who’s engaged. When I’m teaching online, I don’t know if students are online and reflective unless I have a system that captures their engagement and involvement. That means I have to plan it in advance and that requires help from teaching assistants, instructional designers and others. It’s a job! It’s not easy but the results can be great.

One of the things I have to say about working on designing an engaging online experience is that, for instructors, we often get a fresh view of our professional lives. It’s a gift in some ways, but it’s not cheap.

Evo: Along the same lines, how do institutions benefit from delivering engaging online educational experiences?

AR: The benefits of offering engaging online programming for institutions are relatively clear. Do they want their students to thrive and prosper? Do they want to keep their students or lose their students? Engagement plays a key role here.

If I were a student who signed up to take a course online and the course was dreadfully dull with nothing but reading, I would want my money back. These kinds of poor offerings don’t take advantage of any of the online possibilities. Universities want to be known for being effective at what they do and if they’re going to offer online instruction they have to recognize that they’re not just giving access to more people, to their instructors, to their experts, to their faculty, not just a way to get more students. It’s a way to create learning experiences that serve more people and if they don’t see it as engaging learning experiences and just access to an instructor then all they should do is provide a telephone. Students who enjoy online learning and social connections can become permanently engaged with their institutions and professors—for many good reasons.

Evo: What are some of the most common mistakes people make when trying to develop engaging online courses?

AR: A big mistake is to see online learning as mostly about technology, not instruction. Some instructors see online courses as a PowerPoint presentation, where they put up a slideshow with an audio track. That’s grim. They think they can do online on the cheap, and that tends to be a widespread thought. Let’s be honest. When administrators think about MOOC’s they tend to think, “Oh my God, one instructor and so many students!” MOOC’s translate to dollar signs. It’s a business model, but these offerings cannot be effective if you really aren’t pulling the engagement levers. If you’re not guiding carefully, if you’re not making expectations very clear and very vivid and linking them to the students concerns and needs and if you’re not connecting students with each other, the online course will not be successful. The biggest mistake here is thinking the transition from face-to-face to online instruction is going to be easy, and not building it up with a great design or taking advantage of the secret sauce of engagement.

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