How to Engage Online Learners in a Virtual Environment

by Haleigh Cadd | November 17, 2020
How to Engage Online Learners in a Virtual Environment

My name is Haleigh, and I’ve been taking classes at Wake Forest University online since March 2020. I’ve witnessed firsthand how engaging online learners is a feat. I’m also a senior and have been able to experience the learning environment both in-person and online. Thus, like many other students, I’ve had several months' worth of experience in the virtual learning world.

We’re three months into the fall semester, and I have a feel for what makes up an optimal learning environment. This optimal learning environment has less to do with what happens in a Zoom class and more to do with how your school approaches engaging online learners on a broader scale.

This blog contains a list of things your school can do to ensure that you're engaging online learners beyond the three hours your professors may Zoom their classes. If I were to ever talk to a staff or faculty member about how to engage online learners – aka, my classmates and I – these are the four chief things I would strongly recommend:

1. Encourage professors to set up virtual one-on-one or small group meetings with students.

2. Transfer your campus resources online.

3. Communicate what online resources are available to students.

4. Foster accessible communication channels between staff members, students, and faculty members.

Encourage professors to set up virtual one-on-one or small group meetings with students.

For any degree of academic success that I’ve had in my time at Wake, I largely attribute it to my individual meetings with professors. We refer to these meetings as office hours. It’s in these meetings that I can ask questions that affirm what I already know. This, in turn, builds my confidence in my grasp of the material. Also, these meetings readjust my thought process regarding a concept.

With this said, I love online learning for one reason and one reason only: I have more time and more access to have one-on-one meetings with my professors.

Meaning, instead of setting aside thirty minutes to brush my teeth and put on my shoes before I march fifteen minutes to an academic building for a professor’s office hours, I can simply ask my professor for a few minutes of her time at some point that week. I can send the Zoom invite and login into my Google calendar. Neither of us has to leave our chairs.

More often than not, my professors are happy to accommodate. As a result, I’m more engaged with the concepts we discuss in class. Also, I'm more engaged with the professor because I have the opportunity to connect with him or her.

However, the student-to-faculty ratio may be too large for one-on-one meetings to be feasible at some schools. If I were enrolled at a school where this was the case, I'd suggest that my professors schedule small group meetings. This is so that my classmates and I could come with questions about concepts covered in class.

In short, engaging online learners is hard, but it’s less so if you’re willing to meet them halfway. One way you can do this is by encouraging professors to schedule one-on-one or smaller meetings with students.

Transfer your campus resources online

I’m a writing and journalism double minor. With this said, before COVID, I spent at least an hour per week in Wake’s writing center. I did this to edit my papers with a writing tutor.

When I didn’t have writing-intensive semesters, I was still taking advantage of Wake’s learning resources. For instance, I'm allergic to math. Thus, when I took a statistics course, I camped out in the math center to work with a statistics tutor. engage online learners

In short, the COVID-induced online learning environment cut these resources out of my semester for a few weeks. That is, until Wake moved these resources online. As someone who considers herself dependent on resources such as the writing center and math center when I’m working on an assignment that I’m less than confident about, I’m grateful that these resources were moved online.

If any students are like me, they’ll say the same thing. Thus, I highly recommend moving as many of your campus resources into the virtual environment as you can.

Communicate what online resources are available to students

At this point, you may have decided to move your campus resources to the virtual environment. It's at this point that I recommend that the availability of these resources is communicated to students.

If these resources’ availability isn’t communicated, then students won’t take advantage of them. As a result, the online learning struggle will be unnecessarily more difficult than it already is. From here, you may lose an opportunity of engaging online learners.

In other words, my writing-minor-self would love to know that Wake has online writing center appointments. Although, I would assume that these aren’t available if I’m not on the receiving end of this knowledge. This is why I would appreciate receiving communication from staff members about what online resources are available.

Foster accessible communication channels between staff members, students, and faculty members

Students are just as confused about what’s going on as you, who may be a staff member tasked with making the impossible COVID-era-education possible. For instance, I feel more confused during this era because I’m not aware of when registration is, how academic advising is going to happen, nor when I should register for graduation.

That is, I felt confused until I received a communication revealing the dates for these crucial events. It wasn’t until after I received the information regarding these key events that I started doing the legwork and made a list of classes I need to graduate on time. I also communicated with my academic advisor and reached out to the registrar’s office to register for graduation.

In short, I see communication as the key to opportunity. And I won’t have the opportunity to graduate until I receive the communication of how and when to do it.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about how to engage online learners, register for our online learning webinar here. Additionally, download our online learners ebook below if you’re interested in a detailed overview of strategies that you can implement to support online students.

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