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How Can Universities Keep Online Students Engaged?

Institutions like the University of Maryland Global Campus, Grayson College and Western Governors University are using a variety of tech tools to maintain student engagement — a key challenge in online learning.

A student attending a virtual lecture on a laptop.
According to a recent study by the ed-tech company Instructure and research firm Hanover Research, about 80 percent of students and faculty say digital learning platforms and learning management systems play a critical role in maintaining student engagement. This can be a major challenge particularly for online students, but several education professionals have argued it’s critical to the success of online classes and tutoring. To keep online and hybrid students engaged, colleges and universities are adopting platforms geared toward providing academic support services and opportunities to interact.

Among those universities using tech tools to improve online student engagement is the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), which has adopted several platforms in recent years to give its large remote student population a sense of belonging similar to what they’d find in a physical campus experience. Matthew Belanger, vice president of student engagement and achievement, said the university also uses advanced analytics and AI to learn about student behavior, course participation and academic performance trends, and identify students who need additional support from academic coaches.

“Engagement data drives a lot of our interventions. We look at data in terms of how often our students visit our services, whether students return to our services, how often and when our students are logging into learning management systems,” he said. “It gives us an indication of when our students are available for [virtual] coaches, when to staff services, and when we need to be available for our students. We also have algorithms that help us to flag the overall index for student engagement. It’s based on prior academic behavior, current participation, whether they’re engaged in activities outside the classroom in things like clubs and communities, and other insight we have.”

As for tools used to drive student engagement, Susanna Driver, assistant vice president of student engagement and programs, cited the use of student engagement platforms such as Advantage, which offers virtual student orientation and helps connect students with financial aid support and mental health services.

Like most traditional campuses, she said, UMGC has clubs for students and faculty to network and connect, but they are hosted online, through social network platforms and CareerQuest, a private website for UMGC students to plan their careers. She said the university is also piloting InScribe, a tool to promote faculty-to-student and peer-to-peer engagement in online courses.

“We’re leveraging technology to practice a more personalized [approach to] outreach, and we’ve recently explored different types of technology to keep students engaged,” she said. “We’ve been watching participation rates for students and attrition. We’re also focusing on the first-year experience.”

At Grayson College in Texas, officials recently partnered with the instructional design company iDesign to update some of its online courses, with a focus on new methods to boost engagement, participation and interaction among online students. According to a news release about the partnership, some of the college’s instructors found success with discussion forums where they appointed students to be discussion leaders for a given week while the other students participated.

“We saw an immediate difference,” Allison Collins, an instructor in the college’s nursing program, said in a public statement. “The students connected their own experiences, observations and even hypothetical perspectives to the leaders’ critical-thinking questions.”

Grayson’s Director of Teaching and Learning Todd Ellis said other ways for instructors to maintain student participation and engagement online include interactive videos and game-based learning platforms like Kahoot!, which students also use to help study for exams.

However, Ellis said the issue of student engagement is largely a pedagogical challenge. He noted that in order to make the most of ed-tech tools and platforms to drive engagement, teachers need to stay connected with students and structure courses in a way that encourages active participation as often as possible. He added that this is particularly important in asynchronous online learning.

“There are tools that help it greatly, but what helps the most is teachers understanding that the difficult part of online education is [maintaining a] teacher presence,” he said.

At Western Governors University, an online university that serves about 140,000 students, professors and faculty use email, texting and conferencing tools like Cisco’s Webex to stay connected with one another and host student organization events, according to Margaret Simonis, vice president and dean of WGU’s School of Business. By making use of several communication channels, she said, higher-ed institutions can keep students connected with mentors who will help them stay engaged and provide academic support as needed.

“We assign every student a program mentor from the time they start. Typically, they have worked in the field that the student is studying. They’re helping the student determine how quickly they’re going to [complete courses], what resources they are or aren’t going to use based on what type of experience they already have,” she said. “And I think having that relationship is key.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.