The notion of “engagement” has long been touted as a predictor of success in higher education. It pertains to formal learning experiences such as the classroom (physical or virtual), as well as a metric of what students are doing with their time outside of their academic time-on-task. The National Survey of Student Engagement, associated with the work of George Kuh, is administered every other year by hundreds of institutions of higher ed, the results of which are used to guide campus policies and allocate resources. According to Kuh, on a macro level engagement is a shared responsibility between the institution and the student. Wearing my course instructor hat, I see engagement as a shared responsibility between myself and the students in the course. In the moment, engagement can influence whether any learning actually occurs; over time, it can be of the best predictors of whether a student remains in a course or in college.
According to Jesse Stommel in Decoding Digital Pedagogy: (Un)Mapping The Terrain, there is no formula for digital pedagogy, and as an extension, no formula for creating an engaging course. There are, however, best practices based on research and the examples from colleagues around the country. (There’s another shout out to the value of Personal Learning Networks!) As Stommel explained, developing effective pedagogy takes years of dedication, practice, and, perhaps most importantly, experimentation. We may not know what will work, even with a particular group of students, until we try it. This does involve some risk tolerance for instructors, but this can be tempered by embracing incrementalism in evolving our teaching. Flower Darby emphasized in her interview regarding her book Small Teaching Online that making a positive impact upon our students’ learning does not necessarily entail a complete overhaul of our course. Even one small, intentional improvement can help our students succeed and learn.
I believe we also need to take into consideration the risk tolerance of some of our students when experimenting with digital spaces as part of the learning experience. There are various levels of comfort with any particular technology, as well as various comfort levels with being out there in the digital realm(s). Instructors often do not know (unless we ask) what sort of positive and negative experiences our learners have had with technology. One example is being trolled online. A few years back, I started a Google Hangout and sent the link to colleagues; the room was “open” in the sense that I did not adjust the settings to prevent it being found in the public realm. Within a few minutes of starting the conversation, someone completely unknown to any of us entered the Hangout, and began to ask questions as to why we were meeting, essentially derailing the purpose of that Hangout. As a course instructor, I see it as part of my responsibility to create a safe space for learning. This also means providing as much reasonable support (not 24/7) as I can provide for any technology platform in the course, so that the students can shift away from discomfort or anxiety about the technology to focus on the learning. This is referred to as a “good-enough holding environment” in Object Relations Theory: creating the conditions in which a person can feel safe enough to take positive risk, often incrementally.
The DigPINS# experience has already challenged me to consider making changes to my online courses. I’ll admit that I need to temper the desire (or self-imposed pressure?) to implement numerous changes at once. One idea that excited me was from the podcast How to Create Engaging Online Classes by Dr. Laura Gibbs. She spoke about having students create individual blogs to build a sense of ownership and expression of individuality, while interconnecting the blogs through a network (or as I like to think, through a learning community). This would be in lieu of some of the individual papers (uploaded to and graded within Blackboard) I typically assign. While I am not clear yet on the best pathway to achieve this learning experience, it has motivated me to explore the options and to experiment with this digital space. I am fortunate to work at an institution with outstanding Learning Designers to strive in that direction, (Dr. Damien Michaud, get ready!), and plan to do so one incremental step at a time.