Engagement in an online class is essential to creating an effective learning environment for students — students need to engage with course material and their peers, and you as an instructor also need to be seen to be engaging actively in the course. Your engagement and feedback - which can be somewhat improvisational and organic in an in-person class - often needs to be much more intentional in an online class.
To make an online class feel active and alive, students need to be regularly checking in and engaging in a variety of ways—whether through sharing images, writing, participating in informal chats or forum discussions, or many other options. Fostering engagement in online classes is very similar to how you would do that in person - students need to see a reason to connect to the curriculum (they need to know why this class is important) and they need opportunities to connect with you, the instructor, and their peers. The ideas below are some ideas of promoting active engagement in online classes.
Participation in an online class can look quite different than it does in a face-to-face class. Online, it might not be enough to just show up for class - students might need to participate actively in a Zoom discussion or post regularly to Moodle forums. Or maybe they can participate through activating and monitoring the Zoom chat during lectures.
It will be very important for you to state your expectations for participation clearly and directly—ideally in your course outline, but certainly in some centralized space that all students can and do access regularly. It is also useful to incentivize participation directly: assigning course credit to different types of participation can ensure that students know what they need to do in order to succeed in the class.
For example, if you want students to post written critiques in a forum or blog, tell them how many they need to do and how long (roughly) each critique should be. This doesn’t need to be a top-down decision: you can decide as a class what the expectations will be. But once they are decided, they should be communicated clearly to everyone somewhere that students can refer to throughout the course.
For those using Moodle, it is also helpful to point out to students (again in your course outline) that you can see how and how often students are engaging with the materials on the site: if you set a variety of tasks for a week and you can see a student only checked in with Moodle for 20 minutes once during the week, you will be able to see that.
Strategic uses of feedback are key to promoting persistence in online classes and avoid the dreaded “drift” - where a student who was doing well for the first few weeks of a term “drifts away” from the online class, disappearing behind a black Zoom square or falling silent in Moodle forums. While you don’t need to comment on every forum post, or nudge every quiet student on Zoom, regularly making your interest in and care for their learning visible to students can go a long way. The ideas below are some suggestions on how to use feedback to keep students engaged and motivated to learn.