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5 Ways to Engage Learners Online

In my previous post, I discussed 5 Ways to Motivate in Hybrid Learning, many of which will be relevant to help engage them too - the two ideas are not separate. Researchers at Washington University, argue that:

“Research has demonstrated that engaging students in the learning process increases their attention and focus, motivates them to practice higher-level critical thinking skills, and promotes meaningful learning experiences. Instructors who adopt a student-centered approach to instruction increase opportunities for student engagement, which then helps everyone more successfully achieve the course’s learning objectives.”

Reasons to Engage Learners

The reason for engaging learners is actually twofold: it increases the students’ focus and motivates them towards this, and it helps teachers achieve their outcome of learners learning! Finding ways to engage students is not about gimmicks, using the latest tech tools or going off-piste from the curriculum so that learners only study what they are interested in. Don’t get me wrong - in an ideal scenario, I would love to be able to work with learners on their areas of interest (this would be intrinsically motivating and engaging) but we all know there are constraints of examination specifications and National Curriculum requirements. That said, there is a brilliant short piece from Maastricht University that suggests in order for students to be engaged in learning, there need to be three components at play:

  • “Affective engagement refers to students’ feelings, sense of acknowledgment and belonging, through their relatedness with peers and staff.

  • Behavioural engagement follows from students knowing what is expected of them, what they can and should do, and feeling encouraged to take initiative.

  • Cognitive engagement refers to the intrinsic motivation and interest students have in their study, as well as the extent to which they use self-regulation strategies such as planning, goal setting and self-monitoring.”

These three elements are key in the 5 ways to engage online learners that I suggest below as well as in the motivational ways listed in my previous article.

1. Foster collaboration

Researchers at Cornell University suggest “...educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning.” Another wonderful friend, hero and pioneer, David Price OBE, has written a book, The Power of Us, which articulates the vital notion that we do not need to work in silos, but rather, together everyone really does achieve more! Goodreads summarises his book this way:

“Global thought leader and author David Price takes us behind the scenes of some of the world’s most innovative organisations – from BrewDog to Patagonia - harnessing the power of collaboration and diverse thinking to effect real change, and demonstrates what we can learn from them. He also looks at our communal response to big societal upheaval, especially around the coronavirus pandemic and shows how these developments can lead to radical change.”

You can hear more from David about the need for collaboration beyond just the education sector in Episode 93 of the Edufuturists podcast. (Indeed, many of the things I suggest here are sparked from this conversation with David.)

So, in our virtual classrooms, let’s give students the opportunity to work together on projects - collaborative slide decks or essays, group presentations (where everyone has accountability and responsibility within the group), team quizzing, not just individual competitions where there is a sole winner.

2. Develop communication

Dr Trina Jorre de St Jorre, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, suggests,

“Communication has always been important in the workplace, but with improved technologies, growing globalisation and the increasing complexity of modern workplaces, it’s even more important in terms of understanding who we’re communicating with and how, when and where we’re engaging with other people and organisations.”

Effective communication is a staple part of every classroom, even the virtual one. Students have to verbally respond to teacher’s questions; schools might require learners to have their cameras on and give eye contact to the person speaking on screen; a written response to an exam question will require communication in structured sentences and paragraphs. All of these and many more besides, are ways that students communicate; the key differentiator online is that people can hide behind a keyboard or screen. In the virtual classroom, we have a responsibility to develop students’ communication skills in all areas to keep them engaged and motivated. Indeed, it is how a student communicates that is often the best measure of progress. Give them opportunities to speak, write and present in a variety of ways. One great way for students to get their thoughts across is an old tool, Mentimeter, and there is, in fact, a lovely blog on their site by Olivia Hanifan that discusses this very topic!

3. Train curation


There is nothing more frustrating than spending time finding something you know is there but you don’t quite know where! For students, multiple clicks and inaccessible information may demotivate them in the online environment. This is why it is really important to train them in the art of curation: the action or process of selecting, organising, and looking after the items in a collection or exhibition. File naming conventions are a pet peeve of mine; I cannot count the amount of times I have frustratingly had an ‘Untitled document’ submitted! Not only documents but also folders, webpages, images - curating these in an organised and orderly manner can save seconds, which saves minutes, hours and days. Every person has a different method for this but a lovely article on TechRepublic resonated with me. I also love how Wakelet is a fantastic tool for supporting learners (and teachers) to have their links and resources in one central place. If you haven’t used Wakelet, you really are missing a trick. This might not be about motivating and engaging learners per se, but it will certainly help not to demotivate or disengage.

4. Encourage critical thinking

As a Religious Studies teacher, this is an element close to my heart. So many times I have had to push and push learners to share their opinions on complex issues and to justify their positions in light of criticism. As many of our learners progress through the educational process, asking questions of why and what for, looking for and at unconscious bias and how judgments are made, as well as critiquing the origin and methodologies of ideas and research will become increasingly important.

Many of my students have a fixed mindset when it comes to religion, philosophy and politics; I often revel in helping them become more malleable and agile, whilst even strengthening their positions in many cases. In the virtual space, many young people may feel more comfortable justifying their opinions behind a keyboard, which can be both positive and negative. We need to generate chances in our classroom where we deal with real issues, look at authentic sources and then let students formulate their own opinions that are then challenged through peer- and self-reflection.

5. Inspire creativity

Child playing and building with toys

Creativity, or inventiveness, is crucial to young people’s development. Children aren't designed to be automatons on a production line at the exam factory, and nor are the teachers that help them day in day out. They are created to be individuals, living on purpose, in purpose and with purpose - lifelong learners with curious minds. The wonder that a young child has as they see animals for the first time, or dig in the sand for treasure, or dress up as princesses and pirates with oversized clothes - this spirit is often drowned out in the physical and virtual classrooms as they ‘grow up’. Sir Ken Robinson, in the oft-mentioned TED Talk, ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ - asked this question with an answer that many of us sadly already know. Indeed, his daughter, Kate, has continued her father’s legacy of putting creativity and innovation at the centre of curriculum design in her work with HundrED and latterly as Director of Nevergrey - the corporation’s name pretty much encompasses the notion.

XP School in Doncaster is an outstanding example of why creativity matters in learning. One of the habits they develop in learners is to make work that they are proud to share with a genuine audience, building a sense of responsibility. There is a focus on creating ‘beautiful work’, which is highlighted through their website and builds on the Expeditionary Learning model from Ron Berger and High Tech High in the US (check out some of the Student Projects and tell me that they don’t inspire you!).

It is to this end that I acknowledge that not every educator is a graphic designer, nor is every student naturally creative in presenting their work (although I believe every person is indeed creative in some way). I have found that Canva is a fantastic tool for both the online and in-person classroom to help students (and teachers) make their work truly beautiful and thus build that intrinsic motivation and engagement by producing something of which you can be proud.

Ben Whitaker, headshot

Ben Whitaker is a Google Certified Trainer & Innovator who delivers training across the UK and Europe on behalf of a number of providers. In June 2019, he was appointed as a Curriculum Manager at Burnley College after working as Chief Education Officer for Project Digital, a dynamic partnership between Burnley College and +24 Marketing to deliver digital apprenticeships in the North West. Their aim is simple: to plug the digital skills gap. Ben was previously Assistant Principal: Head of Sixth Form, having taught Religious Studies & Sociology for 12 years. He is an experienced examiner for four of the main examination boards and writes articles across the education spectrum. Ben is co-host of the Edufuturists podcast. One of his proudest achievements is that he trained his own parents on G Suite and they actively use this in their own classroom practice.

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