During a recent faculty workshop, we were asked to share thoughts on challenges and concerns regarding online teaching. Almost in every response, there was a reference to challenges associated with student engagement in an online environment. The following is a list of common themes shared by the participants from the workshop about the challenges they face when teaching online:

  • Finding ways to engage students
  • Keeping students motivated
  • Lack of student interactions with each other and with the materials
  • Difficulty to identify areas of students’ struggles with the course content

Do any of these sound familiar? And, what makes it challenging to engage students in online courses?

Identifying the barriers faced by students and faculty in online courses will help provide a framework for addressing issues associated with these barriers.

As referenced in 10 Web 2.0 Strategies for Engaging Learners (Tektrekker, 2008), barriers to online engagement are divided into the following three categories:

  1. Social Barriers
    • Feeling of isolation
    • Lack of interaction
    • Absence of social cues
    • Lack of instructor presence
    The following are strategies that can help address the social barriers in an online environment:
    • Establish contact with the student as soon as the course is open. This may be achieved by posting a welcome announcement (show excitement), a welcome video or audio message, and/or an introduction in the course discussion board
    • Incorporate team activities throughout the semester
    • Let your voice be heard and your face be seen through frequent communication and feedback
    • Post regular announcements on upcoming campus events and highlight those that can be attended virtually
    • Consider a blended approach to some activities and assignments (e.g., provide a face-to-face option for final projects/presentations)
  2. Administrative Barriers
    • Missing clear direction on how and where to start
    • Lack of timely and effective feedback
    • Lack of academic and support resources (or unawareness of the existence of these resources)
    • Lack of learner readiness
    The following are examples of strategies that can help reduce the administrative barriers in an online environment:
    • Provide clear directions to students on what to do to start the course. “Information posted at the beginning of the course provides a general course overview, presents the schedule of activities, guides the learner to explore the course site, and indicates what to do first, in addition to listing detailed navigational instructions for the whole course.” (Quality Matters Specific review Standard 1.1)
    • Provide timely, balanced, measurable, specific, and personalized feedback on all assignments and graded activities - take advantage of the Canvas video or audio features for comments
    • Provide a list or links to the institution’s student academic services (e.g., tutoring at the VMASC, Help with writing at the UWC) and support services (e.g., DSS, Student Counseling)
    • Provide opportunity for students to assess their readiness for online courses through completion of a questionnaire. Clearly communicate the time commitment, the required technical skills and online course expectations
  3. Leaner Motivation Barriers
    • Lack of interest
    • Procrastination
    • Feeling overwhelmed
    • Lack of self-direction
    • Frequent missing of deadlines
    The following are strategies that can help address the learner motivation barriers in an online environment:
    • Provide a variety learning activities and allow learners to “select” one rather than having a single learning activity that all students have to complete
    • Provide real-life and meaningful examples and scenarios
    • Provide multiple means of representation, Actions and Expression, and Engagement to meet the needs of diverse learners (incorporate the principles of Universal Design for Learning)
    • Divide large assignments into smaller chunks that build upon each other and contribute to the completion of larger assignments
    • Establish regular touch points to check on progress and provide guidance as needed
    • Send frequent reminders on upcoming deadlines

Online Learning Consortium: https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/
CAST: http://www.cast.org/
Quality Matters: https://www.qualitymatters.org/