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Motivate and Engage Online Learners All Semester Long

These 10 strategies can help keep learners on track to successfully finish your online course.

Motivate and Engage Online Learners All Semester Long

Recently I remembered the summer when I took swimming lessons with my grandmother. One hot day in July, she asked me to jump off the side of the pool and swim to her. I knew she would be there to catch me, so I jumped all in. As I swam closer to her, she began to move backwards, encouraging me to continue swimming until I reached her. Just before I thought I would drown, she picked me up out of the water and said how proud she was of my accomplishment. I only then realized I swam the entire length of the pool. It was her encouragement that allowed me to achieve a goal I thought would be impossible.

For many learners, taking an online course can be like diving into the pool. They may feel they require a whole new skill set to stay afloat, and it's important that you help guide and motivate them from that first splash to the finish line. How will you encourage them to continue achieving the goals that they may think are too challenging? Here is a set of techniques and strategies that can be used all semester long to get your learners swimming with ease.

In the Beginning

The start of the semester is exciting and nearly everyone is motivated and ready to engage in the course content and its activities. But what is most important to the overall success of your course is to quickly establish a community of online learners. Research on the importance of social interactions tells us that the sense of community plays a key role in student success. When learners are connected in your course, that dangerous sense of isolation is minimized and retention levels dramatically improve.

First impressions count, so here are three ways to get your learners started on the right foot:

Create an icebreaker. Marko Teräs, researcher in immersive virtual environments, gamification and authentic learning at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, begins every class with an exercise to break the ice and help learners get to know one another. Teräs asks that the icebreakers be fun, simple, not too time-consuming, inclusive, not requiring of technological skills and conducive of anywhere/anytime participation. "More importantly," said Teräs, "icebreakers should start to focus toward the topic of the course." For example, he said, "In a short course designed for the 21st Century Educators [teacher education] program, I shared with the participants the newest NMC Horizon Report 2014 and asked them to introduce themselves [and explain] why they are taking the course, what interests them in teaching and learning and how they see the Horizon Report impacting/affecting (or not) their work. It is important to start from the learner's beliefs, assumptions and biases. Instead of ignoring them, let's try and see if they are barriers for unlearning and relearning."

Create a "Welcome" video. Matt Acevedo, instructional designer at Florida International University, strongly believes that learning is promoted when the new knowledge is integrated into the learner's world. This integration makes the course content relevant to the learner. "If whatever you're teaching isn't integrated into your students' world(s), it's meaningless," said Acevedo. "They're going to forget what you teach them. It doesn't have to be that way." Consider creating a "Welcome" video that relates the course content to prior interest or experience, shares the present worth of the subject matter and relates it to future experiences that your learners may have. "Also important," said Acevedo, "is to model enthusiasm for the subject and provide your learners with meaningful choices during the learning process."

Share course expectations. As instructors, our expectations about learner performance are publicized in the syllabus. Consider having learners create expectations, goals and commitments for your course and share them with their course cohorts. You could use a discussion board or your course's blog or wiki, but how about creating a free virtual "wall" at where learners can post their commitments, add media, include links, etc.? You could also suggest that each learner create his or her own wall. Padlet will generate a unique URL allowing you or your learners to share that wall with the class. Have your learners revisit the wall over the course of the semester. As the course unfolds, incorporate self-assessments of the goal, or have peers evaluate the learner's progress.

These walls can be quite helpful for end-of-the-course reflections or serve as a portfolio of the activities and learning that took place over the semester. When students meet the goals they have set for themselves, there is a real sense of accomplishment that goes beyond the grade they receive.

In this bonus tip, Beaudoin explains how a course newsletter can have a stronger impact on students than a generic e-mail.

Stuck in the Middle With You

Once the enthusiasm of the first few weeks has waned the challenge begins. Learners are concerned about their grades, they worry about their progress or they feel that they "are drowning" for myriad reasons. Research informs us that successful steps, no matter how small, go a long way toward unleashing creativity, motivation and engagement. This is the time to regain the momentum of your course through incentives and low- or no-risk activities.

Ungraded course discussions. Geralyn Stephens, associate professor at Wayne State University's (MI) College of Education, finds that as the semester progresses, learners feel increasingly comfortable with each other in online discussions. "I provide students an opportunity to further expand their application of the content by soliciting input on related real-life scenarios," said Stephens. In her Education Technology course, she uses the discussion board of her LMS to reflect on the educational impact of technology found in automobiles. One "scenario" Stephens uses is this:

"Earlier this month, we were driving north on I-69 and we passed many, many cars with children watching video on the car's individual DVD players. It got me to thinking about riding in a car as a child. We did not have DVD players, MP3 players, Game Boys or other electronic devices. We simply had the radio (which was usually not on one of our favorite stations) and our imagination. I can remember helping my younger sister learn the alphabet by pointing out letters, such as K for Kmart, on our travels. I can remember talking with my parents about the sights along the way. All of this contributed to our Prior Knowledge and Experiences bank."

Said Stephens, "this scenario provides students with an opportunity to share similar experiences, as well as reflection on the learning inside the class…. These ungraded course conversations are a way to share their thoughts and ideas on how what they are learning applies to their everyday life. This peer-to-peer exchange is an opportunity to express their opinions and/or ask for clarification from their peers in nonthreatening forums."

Digital scavenger hunt. In many courses, the middle of the semester is when research papers get underway. To make my learners aware of the vast resources of the Internet, I create a digital scavenger hunt. I evenly divide the class into groups and give each group a unique set of digital artifacts they need to find on the Web. In addition to scholarly Web sites, I have students find journal articles and resources through our library's digital portal. I have them find multimedia from reliable sources and a few blogs and wikis that offer differing opinions. All of the items in the digital scavenger hunt are related to the course and offer the learner an opportunity to find the resources that will be useful in their final project.

Learning is fun! Perhaps your course requires learners to acquire new vocabulary, memorize important dates or gain unfamiliar knowledge. Learners can feel stressed or overwhelmed as they feel the stakes for error are too high. I often confront this anxiety by employing games or "fun stuff" in my courses. These low- or no-risk activities are often ungraded or will count as "bonus" points that help boost their course grade, improve learner confidence and generally offset the risky "overwhelm" factor that often leads to learner failure.

There are hundreds of free Web tools that will allow you to generate crossword puzzles, word searches and Jeopardy-style games (just to name a few) that are pedagogically useful and engaging. One useful place to start is JeopardyLabs. The site, designed by Matt Johnson while an undergraduate at Washington State University in Vancouver, contains many Jeopardy-style templates but if none of them suits your needs you can build your own. In addition, the site contains four more applications that generate fun activities appropriate for all age/grade levels.

The End Is Near

Much like the beginning of the semester, motivation and engagement seem to suddenly return just as the final exam approaches. We have all been subjected to a beseeching student trying to eke out that passing grade. Likewise, each one of us probably has our standard "last day of class" lecture — or have at least heard one. Ending a class in the online environment is an excellent opportunity to have your learners reflect on the course and to summarize their learning in a meaningful way.

Letter to the future. One fun and potentially inspiring way to end a course is to have each learner write a letter to his or her future self. allows anyone to compose an e-mail that will be delivered to them at a future date. Imagine the advice Picasso might have given to himself as a young struggling artist or the kind of letter Florence Nightingale might have sent to ease the challenges of her calling. Writing an e-mail is an excellent way to accurately recall the Five W's. If you really like this idea, then consider using it at the start of your semester and have your learners write letters to themselves that will be delivered during the last week of class. Futureme gives the user several options on how his e-mails can be viewed — instead of keeping it within the confines of your online classroom, why not go public? When given a public forum, a learner is often eager to be proud of his achievement.

"Like" this class. Whether you like it or not, learners actually love to share about their time in your class. While there are many Web sites that promote the sharing of this information, consider creating a "Fan Page" for your course on spaces like Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn or Twitter. Have your learners contribute comments on favorite assignments, offer potentially helpful hints for future course participants, post digital artifacts that have a direct bearing on the course and so much more. Depending on the site, you might suggest that learners post exemplary work or links to resources they found valuable. Encourage learners to post reflections on how this course helped them in their "real life" or improved their professional development. Suggest future participants visit the page for an idea of the course and it will likely generate excitement about being a participant.

This information will also be useful to you. Honest feedback will allow you to track the good, the bad and yes, the ugly — all valuable feedback that will help you shape future editions of your course.

Let's be honest here. Often the kinds of surveys given in a course aren't very useful in helping to discover what did and didn't work. To effectively evaluate a course, it's important to have honest feedback and for this reason, consider implementing your own course survey. Many learning management systems like Blackboard or Moodle have survey tools that allow course learners to give feedback anonymously. A survey can include questions such as:

  • Is this your first online course?
  • How did you experience the pacing of this course?
  • What was your most favorite assignment or activity?
  • Which activity or assignment did you find most challenging?
  • Was the course organized in an easy to understand and navigate manner?
  • Rate your ability to work with the technology used in this course.
  • How "connected" did you feel to the instructor and/or your colleagues in this course?
  • Share what this course helped you achieve.

With this valuable information, you can reflect on the course and reimagine its design. I've yet to see a course that was perfect from the get-go, so don't take this feedback as anything more than constructive. More importantly, use this information to make your course the best it can be.

There Is No Substitute

While the above strategies and techniques might be shiny and new to you, don't forget one of the most powerful forms of motivation and engagement. Remember when my grandmother picked me up out of the water and said how proud she was of me? That kind of "old-fashioned" feedback from someone I valued was far more important to me than she realized. Your learners, too, will feel motivated and engaged from the feedback you give them. Tell them they did a good, great or fantastic job. Tell them you were disappointed that you didn't see their best work. Ask them to share their work as a model for other students. Anything you can do with that personal touch will go the distance in getting your learners to the other side of the pool.

What Would You Do?

It may be somewhat of a cliché, but the great thing about an open community of online learners is that we can all contribute and share our success and failures. So, having read some of the strategies and techniques here, what would you do — or what have you done — to help motivate and engage your learners? Leave your comment below and we'll continue the discussion.

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