Increasing Student Engagement in Virtual Programs

By: Eric McGee Jan 25, 2021

Increasing Student Engagement in Virtual Programs

Every college and university wants students to be engaged. Engaged students persist. Helping students stay meaningfully involved during online learning has become a pressing issue as schools turn to online learning to maintain social distancing. The techniques and tools that work for in-person learning need to be reimagined for the online space to increase engagement in virtual programs.

First, it helps to understand what influences student engagement. Students engage when they can interact with instructors and classmates. They need to be able to focus on coursework, and that work should be challenging, but not overwhelming. Feeling supported by teachers, advisors, and technical experts goes a long way toward increasing engagement. Of course, you can’t fully control any of these elements, but you can influence many of them through enrollment management, course design, and student support services. 

Enrollment: Preparing students to engage in online learning

It’s hard to engage with a class you can’t even access because of unreliable internet or inadequate equipment. Which is why increasing student engagement in virtual programs starts before students even enroll. Make sure every interested student knows which technology tools they need to succeed. From the earliest conversations, enrollment advisors should help students to minimize technology challenges. 

Designing mobile-friendly courses can help. It’s safe to assume most students have at least one in their home since about 81% of Americans have a smartphone. With a built-in microphone and camera, a mobile device can be an all-in-one solution for students to access virtual classrooms. 

For some students, online learning is a new experience. If they are distracted by the process, they are less able to engage with the content being taught. Prepare students by sharing LMS walkthroughs, written tutorials, and video resources that can help orient them to the digital learning space. You might even offer students the opportunity to schedule a one-on-one or small-group orientation session. Small-group sessions have the added benefit of helping students to build early connections with classmates. 

Course design: Balance synchronous and asynchronous work

Students only fully engage when they can focus. Unfortunately, screen-based learning often feels less immediate. Outside the controlled environment of a classroom, pets, partners, children, and household distractions can pull attention away from course work. Asynchronous course elements offer students flexibility, so they can work when distractions are low. 

But synchronous opportunities are important too. They create a space for students to build relationships with professors and classmates. The structure of synchronous class time influences engagement as well. 

Several studies have found that students can pay attention to online lectures for about 15 minutes before their attention wavers. So online courses should break up lectures with group-work, Q&A sessions, or other elements that invite students to engage rather than passively listening.

It’s harder to achieve the conversation and interaction of an in-person classroom online. But it can be done. Chat tools and break-out rooms where students can engage in small group work can make a big difference. 

Student support: Provide multiple support channels

Online learning can feel isolating. Students don’t see their instructors or classmates face-to-face. Relationships are harder to build. Meanwhile, personal and family challenges (including an ongoing pandemic) may leave students feeling overstressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. The right support services can mitigate some of these challenges and keep students engaged. 

Online programs can offer several types of support to learners: 

  • Academic – Academic advisors can check in with students regularly to identify challenges and offer support. This might include scheduled emails that offer study tips before major tests, or phone calls during enrollment periods to help students select classes for the next semester. 
  • Personal – Most online students are juggling multiple responsibilities including work and childcare. Providing tools for stress management, time management, and even mental health support can keep students engaged. 
  • Tech Support – Technical issues can derail online learning. Give students access to phone support, email support, and, ideally, 24-hour chat so they can quickly resolve their issues. 
  • Career – Most students enroll with a career goal in mind. Offering career services like career advising, resume help, and online networking opportunities can help students make connections between their academic work and the goal they want to achieve. 

Start at the beginning to increase engagement

In short, if you want to increase student engagement in virtual programs, start before the student enrolls, create courses that balance synchronous and asynchronous learning, and provide adequate support services. For help building an enrollment management strategy that engages learners from the very beginning, turn to the experts at EducationDynamics.