Jul 09 2020

Best Practices for Engaging Students Online

Norma I. Scagnoli, a higher education instructional design expert, shares her advice on how to humanize online learning.

In light of higher education’s long-term shift to online teaching and learning, student engagement is more vital to retention than ever before.

EdTech recently attended an instructional design webinar where we asked about the best research-based strategies for maintaining student engagement during online learning. The webinar was hosted by the Gies College of Business’s Office of eLearning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

There, we spoke with Norma I. Scagnoli, a former instructional designer and current senior director of e-learning at the Gies College of Business, about the lessons learned after UIUC launched its first online MBA program, called iMBA, in 2016.

EDTECH: The iMBA concept was highly successful and forward-thinking. Can you talk about how it has evolved in recent years?

Scagnoli: The iMBA online program started in January 2016. And now, we offer three master’s degree programs that follow a similar model. We have more than 50 courses in the three programs, and more than 700 students have since graduated from the program. We have more than 3,000 students in our online graduate programs. We have also created a catalog of content and videos that we share with our college, our campus and the world through Coursera.

EDTECH: What are your thoughts on incorporating virtual reality or augmented reality to engage students during online classes?

Scagnoli: We are exploring some AR/VR environments for that purpose. We offer a few courses, like Global Business Horizons, Sustainable Innovation for Subsistence Marketplaces and Sustainable Business Enterprises, that incorporate the recordings of field trips. They are recorded with 360 cameras to create immersive videos. Unfortunately, learners may still need some sophisticated hardware to have a really good experience with AR/VR, so we hope that a “killer app” that can make AR/VR more ubiquitous will come out soon.

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EDTECH: How do your instructors strengthen student engagement in entirely online courses?

Scagnoli: We built that engagement by following the Community of Inquiry Framework. This model was created by online learning experts such as Dr. Randy Garrison and Dr. Norm Vaughan, who research distance education and blended learning. This model focuses on cognitive presence, teaching presence and social presence to keep students engaged with online content.

Scagnoli: The cognitive presence centers on critical thinking activities and collaborative problem-solving, as well as the construction of meaning that occurs through these interactions. The cognitive presence, for us, is reflected not only in live interactions but also in online discussions that happen asynchronously through a forum. It offers different opportunities for feedback, which happens through assignments. The rubrics are built in the system so that students get immediate — or close to immediate — feedback when they complete their assignments. You want to use every opportunity to promote critical thinking and trigger more class interactions and discussions. Of course, live sessions with breakout rooms and having students give presentations on how they resolved problem-solving activities are good ways to achieve this.

Scagnoli: The Community of Inquiry model also involves teaching presence. You might think of teaching presence as the instructor being present in the classroom, but teaching presence goes beyond that. The teaching presence is reflected in how the instructor presents the projects, his or her expertise and how the class is designed and organized. One class may be very different from others, even though they may be teaching a similar discipline. But the instructor presence — the teaching presence — is projected in the way he or she organizes the class. With every instructor it is different, so we give that space to instructors. It’s about the way they distribute the content, the way they create instructions for assignments. Some instructions for assignments are more colloquial than others. It’s not cookie-cutter.

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Scagnoli: The third leg of this Community of Inquiry Framework is social presence. If not intentionally built, social presence may not happen. And research has proven to us that social presence is really what makes the course and the program stay together. This is where students see each other and the instructor as real people. That is why we have built our courses in a way that allows the instructors to project their personal characteristics, and for the students to do so as well. For example, you can have students share pictures of where they are taking the class. Over the summer, the program launched a contest for students who were taking summer classes. We asked them to share a picture of the location where they were attending the live sessions. Since some students were traveling, one showed a picture of the laptop on a table at a hotel swimming pool, while another showed a tablet with the background of an ice rink. This student was taking the class while his son was at hockey practice. It’s not just about the content; it is also helping them feel connected.

EDTECH: How has this model impacted your retention rate?

Scagnoli: This model that we use has given us fantastic results. This is shown not only in course surveys but also in the retention rates. We have 89 percent to 93 percent retention rates in our courses, which is very relevant for online education — especially online education for adult learners. Most of our students are working full time. They have busy lives and busy family lives yet they are still engaged in the courses and programs.

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