Increasing Learner Engagement In Online Courses
Online learning is still saddled with disengaged learners, huge dropout rates, incomplete capstone projects and a nagging doubt about its efficacy and effectiveness
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The idea that technology can revolutionise education is not new. In 1913, Thomas Edison quipped “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” predicting that books would soon be obsolete in the classroom. Though motion picture has had little effect on education, a revolution is definitely underway. Online learning with its personalised approach is allowing each learner to be taught at a different speed; in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by “superstar” lecturers of one sort or another is shaping the schools of the future.
An explosion in online learning, much of it free, means that the knowledge once imparted to a lucky few has been released to anyone with a smartphone or laptop. Online education technologies claim to make education cheaper, more convenient and more effective – a format that makes it especially suitable for working people where learning has become a continuous lifelong necessity. These claims are not entirely false; some bright, motivated learners did use online learning to learn things they would have missed otherwise. But they did not transform learning in the way their boosters predicted. Online learning is still saddled with disengaged learners, huge dropout rates, incomplete capstone projects and a nagging doubt about its efficacy and effectiveness. It is wise, therefore, to be sceptical about the claims; yet there are also reasons to believe that a profound shift is occurring and a need to pinpoint different strategies to fix the gaps can’t be undermined.
For online learning to become engaging, it needs to start with engaging content. A course should contain a variety of content formats – videos, text, audio, quizzes, games and more. Several educators have experimented with different video formats - slideshows, live instructors, light boards and animations. Interactive videos, which allow learners to interact with the video content in the form of in-video questions, have taken the engagement level a notch higher. Practice quizzes with instant feedback allow learners to test their knowledge. Games like crossword puzzles, treasure hunts etc. which concentrate on components of the subject matter make learning interesting.
Personalisation and differentiation are needed not to make things easier but to tap into individual abilities and motivations; some grasp the concepts faster than others. Adaptive learning technologies allow courses to be designed to suit a heterogeneous mix of students. A 2015 study of 11,000 students at 62 schools by RAND Corporation and Gates Foundation found that schools who tried personalised learning made greater progress in mathematics and language.
Interactive learning includes tools and software that help students interact with their learning content in real time - both to learn new concepts and to test their knowledge. Emerging technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) provide limitless opportunities and are being used today to make learning exciting and interesting.
Gamification applies the concepts of game design for the achievement of learning objectives. It converts the course into a game where learners earn rewards for completing various milestones like watching a video, reading a file, taking a quiz or submitting an assignment. Learners also earn badges and compete with each other like a typical computer game, thereby keeping students motivated and engaged.
Humans are social species; we perform better when working as teams. Online or mobile forums and Q&A platforms can be integrated into online learning modules so that learners learn from each other and share their knowledge. When combined with gamification strategies, collaborative learning can lead to greater engagement amongst the learners. Course creators should also explore mind mapping, a practice of representing ideas in the form of diagrams. Such visual representation of tasks and ideas allows learners to better understand the concept while collaborating with each other. Learners can also utilise collaborative editing and writing tools such as Google Docs to jointly create a document, spreadsheets and presentations. Increased collaboration amongst learners makes them feel as being part of a group with common objectives and bridges the physical distance that online learners often experience.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Over the last decade, AI and ML have progressed well to address several challenges to learning including language processing, reasoning, planning and cognitive modelling. Intelligent systems are able to track the learner’s comprehension of the domain, provide feedback, explanations and timely guidance and can promote productive learning behaviours, such as self-regulation, self-monitoring, and self-explanation. AI is letting machines learn about the pupils by studying the data produced in the process; and research drawing on psychology, cognitive science and other disciplines is providing practical insight into the “science of learning”. Machine learning, a branch of AI that allows computers to pick up on patterns they were not explicitly programmed to perceive, lends itself well to this approach. It can even prescribe the learning activity and its difficulty level and go on to suggest the content that is most appropriate for the learner.
Online learning is the here to stay and it is imperative to implement strategies, tools and techniques to make it more interesting, engaging and fruitful. Supporters and sceptics of the new model will continue to argue, but if schools can combine personalisation and rigour it is hard to imagine learners failing to benefit. India continues to slip down the international rankings in education. Education technology could reverse this trend—if it is not jinxed by politics, bureaucracy and outdated institutional structures; now is the chance to race ahead.
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