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How to
increase student
engagement
in online learning

Author: Rose de Fremery

The impact on student engagement in online learning is a hotly contested area. Some argue students have lacked one-on-one interaction and experienced fewer opportunities for social connection than they had in traditional classroom environments. Others say it gives students more control of their own education, helping to prepare them for making their own decisions later in life.

One area of consensus is that not all students have been impacted in exactly the same way, leading educators to wonder which strategies will be most effective for increasing student engagement in digital settings. Here are a few of the key factors influencing student engagement and some suggestions for how to make online learning more engaging.

How online learning has impacted student engagement

The abrupt shift to distance learning during COVID-19 affected student engagement, though teachers and students don't necessarily agree on the degree to which it did. According to an Edweek report on student engagement in online learning during the pandemic, 88% of teachers say their students are less motivated as a result of the pandemic. By contrast, just half of students agree with this assessment. In fact, not all students are being impacted in the same way:

  • 32% of students report being a little less motivated
  • 18% of them indicate being a lot less motivated during this time frame
  • 26% of them say they are either a little more motivated or even a lot more motivated.

Some students did suffer a serious setback in their educational advancement when K-12 schools shifted to distance learning. A recent Department of Education report on education during the pandemic found that early evidence indicates the pandemic widened pre-existing disparities in K-12 education, making it even more difficult for students from marginalized communities to access educational opportunities. Even students that had the resources necessary to participate in online learning sometimes disengaged, partly because there was little to no social interaction and there were fewer opportunities to do collaborative projects with their peers.

That said, not all students found remote learning detrimental to their education. Some students have been learning more effectively in a remote context, perhaps because they are more comfortable learning in that setting or because it is a better match for their learning style or individual needs. For example, a student that is introverted or has health challenges may find it easier to remotely participate in a virtual classroom (provided they have equal access to the necessary technology and connectivity, of course) than experience the distractions of a classroom environment or struggle to attend school in person while feeling unwell.

Student engagement in online learning: What works and why

Educators who are wondering how to make online learning more engaging have several options for accomplishing this goal. One approach involves the use of cameras. The Edweek report found that 73% of students turn off the camera at least some of the time during class. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • 35% of students say they turn off their cameras because it's not required to have them on
  • 27% of them report being embarrassed about how they look
  • 13% say they are concerned about how their home looks

Acknowledging these circumstances, some teachers may request that all students at least keep their microphones unmuted if not having their cameras on, so the students can still participate in class without having to be seen.

Just as in a classroom, some students may be hesitant to speak up and answer a question. They may even feel more awkward about doing so in a remote learning setting, where it's not always as easy to notice the cues that would signal when it's a good time to raise your hand. With this in mind, some educators might find it helpful to call on students for answers to questions so that they have a chance to share their thoughts. According to TeachThought, teachers can do this by intermittently using planned and intentional "calls to action" throughout a lesson. This technique invites students' participation at regular intervals and holds them accountable to the learning process.

Educators can also grade in-class discussions according to each students' effort, informing them up-front on exactly what percentage of their grade these discussions will constitute. Alternatively, they may choose to put students into smaller groups to collaborate on an activity—an opportunity more socially oriented students will appreciate—if the video conferencing platform supports this approach. Family engagement can also boost student engagement, so teachers may also want to consider reaching out to students' parents or caregivers to offer support in using distance learning technology or seek feedback on how to make online learning more engaging.

There are also educational technology solutions that can aid student engagement in online learning. For example, some educators leverage videoconferencing platforms such as BlueJeans for synchronous instruction, so their classes can virtually meet in real time. Reliable network connectivity is essential for meaningful participation in remote learning, especially when technologies that consume considerable bandwidth are involved, such as videoconferencing and augmented reality. 5G connectivity can be of benefit in these cases, giving students the ability to connect and collaborate without having to worry about latency or sudden disruptions in access (and they can choose a virtual background if they desire).

Increase student engagement in online learning

Student engagement was already a challenge before the pandemic, and it became an even more urgent issue for educators to address once K-12 schools shifted to online learning. However, not all students had the same challenges or even the same experiences, causing teachers to wonder how to make online learning more engaging.

Regularly inviting student participation and partly grading students according to their online participation are two ways to increase student engagement in online learning. Technology can play a role, as videoconferencing solutions paired with reliable network connectivity can help to bring students closer to the online classroom experience. By proactively addressing the challenges associated with student engagement in online learning in these and other ways, educators can create more rewarding and meaningful learning opportunities for their students.

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The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.