Engagement through technology

I once managed a course where students had to submit a variety of assessments for marking including industry placements, project tasks, written assignments and also participation in online forums. You may already know that when online forums are made a compulsory component of assessment and you have 'critical mass' you can really get some exciting peer learning happening. What I didn't expect is that many students would struggle to complete and even complain about having to write 500 word responses in their assignment portfolios for each subject, yet over a semester those same students would individually contribute many 1000's of words to the discussion forum tasks. I once did a word count on the students discussion posts to feedback to learners how encouraged we were about their participation and abundant contribution to the peer learning process.

Many of their discussion posts driven by sharing day-to-day experiences or through healthy debate with other learners around topics they were passionate about. The weekly forum posts were more often than not, well formed, referenced and a better indication of their understanding of a topic than the 'cookie cutter' responses in the assignment portfolios. The peer-to-peer audience and the Over-Time communication experience of the online forums was highly engaging and brought out the best in learners. Sometimes I had to moderate the forums, or fork out sub-forums for discussions that went too far 'off topic'. Some students got so heated in their debates we had to ask them to take the conversation elsewhere. Is your E-learning strategy generating so much engagement, discussion, connection, sharing and debate that you have to remind your learners they do actually have a life outside of your course? I've been there and there is nothing more exciting than witnessing true engagement through technology at play.

Teachers are not going to be replaced by computers. Teachers might however be replaced by other Teachers who are better at creating engaging learning experiences enhanced by technology.

Consider this, Teachers are not going to be replaced by computers. Teachers might however be replaced by other Teachers who are better at creating engaging learning experiences enhanced by technology. The biggest downfall of many digital strategies in Education is not the lack of quality content but the neglect of strategies to engage the learners with that content, with other learners or with relevant, accessible and familiar digital experiences. Engagement is often about saying 'No' to E-learning again and planning for the right Blended mix of self-paced, face2face and technology enhanced experiences. The first step in understanding engagement in E-learning is to understand what is already 'engaging' your learners and why.

"My name is Peter Sercombe. I've been working in both blended delivery education and pure online distance education for a number of years now. And there is one thing I have learnt from this experience. It is that faces make spaces.

One thing that you can loose when you start getting into online education is the sense of humanness about the education and the learning experience. It can feel very dry and almost robotic when it is just you interacting with a bunch of written material. So in my teaching and learning what I try to do is get in front of a camera as much as I can.

I do this to show my students that I am a human, that I have skin, a voice, a personality and to show them that the learning they are doing, is part of are part of a learning community and that they are not just by themselves out there. The one thing I would say to anyone getting into this space is that faces make spaces."

Peter Sercombe

Learner Engagement

Forms of learner engagement include: reading, browsing, choosing, comparing, describing, reflecting, planning, questioning, investigating, inquiring, analysing, evaluating and synthesising. The more complex or 'new' the learning tool is to learners the more you need to scaffold, prepare and guide the learners. Remain fully aware at all times that our best intentions with introducing new technologies can become a hurdle or at worst a brick wall to engagement.

Facebook, Google + Learners Expectations

I once spoke at a conference for Library Leaders in QLD called "Living in a Google World". There was a common theme in most of the talks that day which was the impact of the tech giants and their environments in which we largely inhabit have had on our expectations of what online experiences should be like. For library services the 'Google World' meant that people were expecting a more Google Like search experience when using catalogue services. For E-learning the 'Google World' means most of our learners experience content and community through either Facebook or Google products so their expectations of content layout, device interoperability, navigation, icons, visual queues for interactivity and much more will play out in their experience of your E-learning courses. The Tech Giants like Apple, Facebook (+Instagram), Twitter, Google (+Youtube) have the biggest share our user experience and therefore drive expectations on how digital services look and function.

In practical terms this means we can boost engagement through;

  • Allowing for some integration of services such as a Twitter Stream in your LMS
  • Designing templates and icons to at least feel like a modern UI
  • Not mimicking others but embracing trends in Social Media that are engaging

In the end it's about acknowledging that our learners are in digital spaces other than our own.

BYOD, BYOW and Portability

Bring your own device (BYOD) and bring your own wifi (BYOW) are disruptive phenominons to traditional educational models primarily because of Using technology in face to face teaching, not just distance learning.

BYO is not confined to devices anymore. I personally carry my own Wifi hub with me everywhere I go because I cannot trust the connection at my next meeting, client demo, keynote or workshop to be good enough anymore. BYOW is becoming more affordable also and many people I know are using their phone as the 'hotspot' to connect all their devices to the internet.

desktop with laptop books and mobile phone

The importance of Story

Story is a powerful medium in E-learning that can give the learner a reason to learn. Story creates a context for learning and helps the learner keep the outcomes of the training in mind.

Create opportunities for your learners to share their own story, be willing to tell your story first. Case scenarios are very powerful, but more powerful still is when you have your learners sharing and reflecting on real-life situations based on the key learning areas in focus.

When to use a story

  1. To illustrate - When raw content is difficult to understand.
  2. To entertain - When content has been dry or technical for too long. Good to wake people up but if the story is too long or the technique overused, it can remove your audience from your topic. That is why stories with this purpose are usually told at the start or end of a section.
  3. To make it personal - This can increase the sense intimacy or identification with the author, but watch out. A poorly told or unsympathetic story can ostracise you from your audience.
  4. To motivate - When you want to show potential outcomes.
  5. To demonstrate connections - After making several related points, a story can serve to show how they work together. For example, Alec had taught his class...
  6. To make it practical - Stories can show how a theory works in real life.

When NOT to use a story

One oft taught rule of writing is to "murder your darlings" (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch). Even if the story you want to include is a cracker, there are several reasons why it may be best to let it die in obscurity. It will be mourned only by you.

When considering a story, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it relevant? Does it achieve its purpose? If it is to illustrate a point, does it promote clarity or confusion?
  2. Does it command too much attention? Will people remember the story or the point that the story is meant to reinforce?
  3. Does it detract from the point? Sometimes a point is made with enough impact on its own. Adding a story can weaken it by making it appear as though it cannot stand without supporting evidence.

Why an App does not Equal E-learning

This new Cloud Syncing Note Taking App from company X is going to revolutionise the classroom. Really?. It doesn't take long to realise that there is initially a fair amount of what I would call over-confidence in the benefits a new devices, App or that latest LMS will bring to the learning experience. There are smart tools, and automated processes but the key ingredient is still the educators who use the technologies on hand to enhance the teaching and learning experience. The SAMR model can help us identify what impact a technology or strategy is having.

The four levels of the SAMR model:

  1. Substitution: the computer stands in for another technological tool without a significant change in the tool's function.
  2. Augmentation: the computer replaces another technological tool, with significant functionality increase.
  3. Modification: the computer enables the redesign of significant portions of a task.
  4. Redefinition: the computer allows for the creation of new tasks that would otherwise be inconceivable without the technology.

In the end it's about using the Appropriate Technology. Knowing what the appropriate technology is can take expertise and wisdom from experience.

3D Learning

I struggled for a long time to describe the terms 'teaching' and 'learning' together as separate as our goal is to achieve both. The Maori word ako means both learning and teaching - there is no difference. 2Dimensions, as in a single line between two points, you at one end the learner at the other. You both send a message and hope it's received. 3D learning is about more than knowledge transfer, it's about carefully creating a common space but this can be scary for many educators as the complexity of relationships makes it hard to know who's teaching who. Exactly.

E-learning is best when it moves beyond two dimensions into a three dimensional space. 3D E-learning involves three or more points, the learner has interaction with peers, the teacher, external content and conversations, and suddenly you have created not just a one way portal, but a space to learn.

diagram showing that a three way relationship between teacher and peers create a space for learning

Critical Mass

Imagine you are planning a wedding reception and you are trying to decide if the dinner guests should be seated at 10 or 15 to a table. You want the best number of guests per table to make it an engaging and fun experience people meeting for the first time and old friends alike.

Online communities also need to reach a 'critical mass' of participation to become a living, vibrant and self propelling space of learning. I'm not going to say you need more than thirty people in a course, or fifteen or more people in a discussion forum for a sense of community to start buzzing, the numbers do often matter and it will depend on the learning group mix, the motivation of the individuals and the nature of the training.

When I was running an online course for 200+ Youth Workers, we had personality types that liked to engage, discuss and thrash ideas out. We still found that having too many people in a discussion forum cohort lowered motivation, but too little and learners did not get the instant feedback and affirmation they are used to in online communities.

You will find the 'critical mass' required for your online communities over time through experimentation. Getting people talking online can sometimes require splitting large cohorts into smaller groups where the discussion can feel safer and more personal overtime. Don't leave your learners sitting alone at the wedding feast.

Stages of a Group

Every group goes through a formation process and understanding each stage of a group can help you better support learners but also foster higher levels of engagement. This is called Stages of Group Theory (by Bruce Tuckman in 1965).

The key stages are Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing, and you can foster engagement through your E-learning strategy in the following ways;

Forming - Offer ways for learners to personalise their online profile with photos and interests and encourage them to write a bit about themselves for others to see.

Storming - Create problems for the group to solve and help foster group 'rules of engagement' and activities that help build trust.

Norming - Step back and observe how the group supports itself and take opportunity to reinforce and encourage what makes the group thrive.

Performing - The group should be travelling well now, but a good opportunity to encourage and delegate leadership roles to learners who show commitment to the group. Eg. Make someone a Forum Moderator, ask someone else to summarise the group discussions as a blog post.

The final stage or stages, that are not always focused on is what's called the adjourning (reflection and celebration) mourning (group closure) stage. These stages are about finishing well, consolidating learning and preparing the group for the disbandment of the group itself. In the past I've shared group photos and feedback comments in an online montage, walked groups through a timeline of the journey they have been on together, and asked learners to upload a video reflection about what they learnt in the course.

Go and...

  1. Evaluate your training program against the stages of group framework, by writing out the stages Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Mourning as headings - and write under each heading how your are accommodating for the needs of the group at this stage through your Blended approach. You may find for example that you are not allowing for enough Storming (Intense Discussion, Debate, Problem Solving, Reflection) in the early stages of your program so the group can build a stronger connection with each other and the program.

  2. Is your E-learning course just a two way street or have your created common spaces for learners and teachers to build community, ask and answer questions and learn in a social context? If you haven't at least setup a Forum space and make it a compulsory task or step for learners in your program to get that 'critical mass' that leads to positive banter.

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