Aug 17 2020

4 Key Blended Learning Engagement Challenges and How to Overcome Them

How can colleges and universities keep students engaged when combining online and in-person instruction?

When higher education first made an emergency pivot to remote learning, post-secondary stress hit an all-time high as students, instructors and administrators struggled to embrace entirely online educational frameworks. Though many schools initially planned to restart in-person classes in the fall, ongoing public health concerns have negated any hope for a return to the old normal this year.

Only 24 percent of colleges are opting for fully in-person classes. Others are leaning toward online learning. A growing number, however, are choosing a middle track: blended learning.

This mix of in-person and online instruction could potentially offer students the best of both worlds: social safety and student success. It can only happen, though, if faculty members can successfully engage students — and maintain that engagement over time.

Here’s a look at four key challenges that prevent students from staying engaged during blended learning, and some practical strategies to promote student engagement.

1. The Risks of Outdated Technology Infrastructure    

Today’s college students are Generation Zers, and thus more capable and comfortable with technology than any preceding generations. As noted by ITProPortal, these students spend seven hours a day online on average. Around 95 percent prefer to use mobile devices to communicate, watch videos and browse the web.

Instead of expecting students to travel back in time technologically, higher education institutions need to meet students where they live.

This would likely require upgrading IT infrastructure to allow mobile learning. And campus networks could benefit from a Wi-Fi 6 and 5G upgrade. This will help give networks the capacity to keep up with Gen Z’s bandwidth needs.

In addition, some schools are using cutting-edge videoconferencing hardware that allows off-campus students to view high-quality lectures. This makes it easier to ensure consistent engagement with multiple learning styles.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here are 4 ways to elevate your college’s blended learning experience.

2. Meeting the Changing Expectations of Today's Students

Between spring and fall, student expectations have rapidly changed. They were willing to give the spring semester a pass. After all, an unprecedented pandemic had gripped the world. Every higher education institution was doing its best to shift courses online. But a recent EDUCAUSE survey makes it clear that students are expecting much more from their universities this fall term.

This is especially true for first-year college students. While 40 percent said they managed to engage with their remote classes “fairly well,” 60 percent said both teaching styles and engagement levels could use improvement.

The survey also found that students “expect to get their money’s worth” from these classes. They expect improvements in not only the quality of online learning but also social engagements and academic connections.

For colleges and universities, this requires an in-depth blended learning strategy that combines both structure and flexibility. Students want specific directions and due dates. But they also need instructors to understand that learning part-time from home and part-time on campus will require some leeway in scheduling.

READ MORE: Here are 4 strategies that boost engagement for STEM students.

3. Strategies to Increase Student Engagement

According to Courtney Minden, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Babson College, engagement starts before students set foot on campus or log in to online classrooms.

“Speaking from an admissions perspective, one of the biggest barriers to student engagement in a blended environment is ensuring the right content is available to students in an accessible way,” she says.

When Babson began the transition to remote learning in March, the school also started preparing a fall engagement strategy that included online events. “We put together a robust virtual engagement strategy that has been instrumental in engaging our incoming class of 2021,” Minden says.

Capturing the interest of students before they attend their first classes is the key to engagement at large.

Think of it as setting a tone: When students encounter value-added content from the first moments they connect with the school, they can begin to expect the same quality in their classes.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to increase college success for underserved students.

4. To Avoid Losing Interest, Maintain Ongoing Communication

Although course content is critical to student engagement, ongoing communication is also crucial.

If new and returning students cannot easily connect with instructors, advisers and classmates, they can feel isolated, which reduces overall engagement.

Minden notes that Babson conducts monthly and weekly virtual panels with students, faculty members and alumni to improve a sense of connection for students. This tactic also helps faculty members diversify perspectives in the classroom.

“We’ve also leveraged social media to publish timely and engaging information to admitted students on a platform where they’re engaged and comfortable,” Minden says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to promote online access with hotspots, laptops, and planning.

The Importance of Investing in Blended Learning

Blended learning systems have been on the education horizon for a decade. But due to a lack of technology and pressure to adopt a new learning system, not many colleges or universities have taken advantage of blended learning’s potential.

While the pandemic created a huge push toward blended learning, some still hold out a lingering hope that schools will return to business as usual once the health crisis subsides.

But as we enter a new reality where fully in-person learning no longer seems feasible for the foreseeable future, hybrid solutions are the best option for ensuring quality instruction. To ensure blended learning courses can deliver and engage at scale, campuses must overcome key challenges surrounding evolving student expectations, interests and new technology needs.

Check out our infographic to learn more about the most pressing issues facing higher education and the technologies universities are employing to address those challenges, no matter what.