May 05 2023

How to Design Online Classes for Higher Engagement and Retention

Making remote learning feel like the in-classroom experience remains a challenge in higher ed. Here’s how one instructor is making it happen.

 It’s no secret that attracting students in higher education is becoming more competitive. As costs continue to rise and economic patterns become unpredictable, students are more discerning about what they are getting in return for their money.

Many student decisions likely will come down to universities offering more engaging learning experiences, something that online programs need to think about. Student engagement is an area that online education, for all its benefits and flexibility, struggles with.

Since student engagement is a key factor in enrollment and retention, colleges and universities with online programs should do periodic audits of their online courses and assess whether they are doing everything possible to keep their students engaged. Here are some of the strategies that I have found to be the most successful during my years of teaching online courses in the communications program at Maryville University Online.

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Use Active Learning to Engage Higher Ed Students Online

In the keynote talks that I give, I sometimes say that there is literally nothing in any of my lectures that is not available for free somewhere on the internet. This might not be the most crowd-pleasing statement, but it is simply today’s reality. Dated video lectures and assigned readings are not enough to engage students anymore, if they ever were.

Active learning components are therefore important to include in online courses, and I make sure to do this with all of the classes that I teach. For example, let’s say I am teaching a lesson on search engine optimization. Rather than just have students read about SEO, I want them to actually practice SEO techniques using dummy versions of online content such as landing pages, blog posts, videos and podcasts. Instead of just explaining what makes a good Google ad, I want them to use a simulation that moves them through the entire process of creating ads, bidding for keywords and projecting their campaigns’ return on investment.

A couple of helpful tools for active learning are the metaverse and generative AI. Students are aware of the growing role of artificial intelligence in many industries and will increasingly look for learning experiences that integrate AI in some way. Having AI tools integrated will significantly boost the appeal of your program. And speaking of AI, an added benefit of prioritizing this kind of active learning is that it sidesteps the debate around students using AI to cheat on written assignments.

DIG DEEPER: How can generative AI be used in higher education?

Keep Subject Matter Current to Keep Students Engaged

There are some subjects, such as math, art history and philosophy, where the basics and fundamentals mostly remain the same year after year. Other fields, meanwhile, such as business, marketing, communications and healthcare — all of which are popular with students — are changing constantly. Therefore, what needs to be taught is constantly changing as well. It isn’t enough to create online course content and just use it year after year; you have to continually update it and create new content to reflect what is going on in the workplace.

Fortunately, there are ways to do this that don’t require you to change the core content of your course every year. You can still have a set of main lectures to which you simply add updated supplements, while taking other measures to stay on top of the latest news. For example, I send out weekly lists of curated links to the latest news and updates that are relevant to the courses that I teach. I am always reading and watching so that I can stay up to speed with what is happening in my field.

As an alternative or addition to such weekly lists, you could also create quick YouTube videos each week in which you summarize the latest developments your students should know. These do not need to have high production values because they are not meant to replace your core lectures, just supplement them with new and current information.

READ MORE: Learn how to create a sense of community in hybrid learning.

Build Community and Personal Relationships with Students

Communities and relationships form quite easily and naturally in physical classrooms, and we all know that replicating that is a major challenge for online learning. During the pandemic, it became apparent that building a sense of community online requires deliberate and sustained effort.

Among the tools that I use to facilitate community for each of my classes are Slack workspaces. Each workspace will have different channels, including discussion questions, polls, and information on careers and internships. The workspaces are not mandatory, there are no points involved and about a third of my students don’t use them at all. But for those who want that sense of community, the spaces are there for them.

Dustin York Slack Conversation

A screenshot of a Slack workplace Dustin York uses to help keep his students engaged at Maryville University Online.

Another engagement strategy I use is giving personalized video feedback each week. It depends on what kind of work we did in class that week, but the video feedback usually will be for the entire class at once. Again, these are low-key videos, unpolished and unedited, and I don’t upload them on any public platforms. In these videos, I’ll often mention specific students by name if they did something interesting or unique for their assignments. Sometimes, after big assignments are due, I’ll offer individualized video feedback for each student instead of written comments.

There are two big advantages to doing it this way. First, it actually can be less work for the professor than writing comments for every single student’s assignment. And because it’s generally easier to talk than it is to write, I end up giving more information and feedback this way in just one to two minutes per video than in a paragraph of written comments.

Second, and most important, when I get my anonymously submitted class evaluations from students, they tell me over and over that getting this kind of personalized attention from the professor, combined with the sense of community, translated to a more meaningful, motivating and engaging experience.

LEARN MORE: What’s new with microcredentials in higher education?

Help Higher Ed Students Increase Their Professional Marketability

At a time when students are increasingly career-minded in their approach to higher education and want more concrete workplace skills, institutions that are able to meet students where they are will be the ones that they gravitate toward. This is why I try to find as many ways as possible to link my assignments, midterms and final exams with things that increase my students’ marketability.

This can look very different depending on the major, but with the classes that I teach, I have students earn various industry certifications related to the careers they are interested in instead of a traditional midterm or final exam. Best of all, by the time they finish the class, not only have they accrued credits toward their graduation, they’ve already earned certifications relevant to their desired careers.

While none of these strategies on their own are a lot of work, the idea of doing all of them may seem overwhelming. Still, whether we like it or not, it is simply reality that students are more discerning about how and where they spend their tuition dollars, and rightfully so. Making the classes we teach as engaging as possible not only ensures that they get the most out of their education, it also positions our institutions to be as resilient as they can be for the disruptions that lie ahead for the higher education industry.

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