Creating meaningful online engagement

Maryville University used its model for fully online programs to ease the transition to hybrid and virtual learning experiences. Here's what other institutions can learn from them.

As many colleges and universities changed or abandoned plans to reopen for in-person classes this fall, discussions about how to effectively teach in a virtual environment have continued. Since educators have had some time to grow accustomed to virtual teaching, the emphasis now is less about how to teach remotely and more about how to teach remotely in ways that are engaging and meaningful.

Katherine Louthan, Maryville University
Katherine Louthan, Maryville University

At Maryville University, our successful model for offering fully online programs was able to provide a strong foundation to ease the transition and pave the way for campus courses to move to hybrid and virtual experiences. Our approach may serve as a guide for schools grappling with how to effectively transition to virtual learning in ways that keep their students engaged. While the needs and situations of every school and department are different, our guiding principles of innovatively using technology, strategically supporting faculty, and intentionally focusing on learner engagement can serve as a resource.

High-touch, highly-engaged online experiences

The term high-touch is used to describe experiences that are rich with opportunities for personal interactions. With so much of students’ lives being online now, implementing high-touch learning environments is critical for helping them feel more engaged, and research widely supports high-touch connection as being one of the most important components of meaningful online learning. An important factor in Maryville’s approach for both online and virtual learning is that high-tech and high-touch can and should go hand in hand, and putting this principle into practice is part of what has made us successful in online education.

There are many ways to facilitate high-touch connections in online classes. One way we ensure this high-touch learning environment is through smaller class sizes. Smaller classes promote deeper connections and authentic conversations between faculty and students as well as between students and their peers. Where smaller class sizes are not feasible, an option could be to break classes up into smaller units of discussion or study groups. This increases the level of interactivity and participation which in turn improves student satisfaction and learning. Another way to create high-touch experiences is for instructors to establish high-response expectations and encourage active class participation through a variety of ways such as creating less formal and more social environments and providing students with multiple means to engage and interact with the professor and their classmates.

Learning strategies and tools for students’ different learning styles

Learning environments that do not account for different learning styles can have higher rates of attrition due to the lack of student engagement. This is why, at Maryville, our professors employ an array of learning strategies, technological tools and applications combined with an imaginative approach to create what we call an active learning ecosystem that embraces different learning styles and assessment.

The power of our online platform provides a foundation for creativity using the latest technologies. With a state-of-the-art production studio, a highly skilled team of in-house production specialists and talented learning designers offering guidance and support for faculty, we are able to actively engage learners in ways that reach various learner styles. Some of the technology and tools that our faculty use include a green screen, Microsoft Surface Hub, and Lightboard along with custom designed content interactions. Even within a single platform for virtual learning, such as Zoom, there are many ways to bring the material to life and personalize the learning experience.

A great example of this includes the dynamic work of Dustin York, associate professor of communication at Maryville. Dr. York utilizes a wide range of media, tools, and strategies to create synchronous virtual classroom experiences on Zoom that feel more like live media broadcasts than conventional online classes. Add-ons like trailers, animations, multiple cameras, music, polls and surveys grab his students’ attention and keep them engaged.

The growing role and importance of learning design teams

The growth of online education in general, and the disruption caused by Covid-19, have increased awareness of the role and importance of learning design teams. We have found that a learning design team devoted to helping faculty members create meaningful learning experiences frees the faculty to focus on the content and teaching instead of spending all their time on how to best translate the material into an online format.

For instance, Maryville criminology professor Geri Brandt worked with our learning designers and production studio team to create an impressive investigation experience that utilizes 360-degree camera technology to create a staged crime scene that students can interact with virtually. Our criminology department has also created a “choose your own adventure” experience in which students respond to dispatch and make a series of choices that lead to different outcomes. Such creativity and innovation were possible in part because our faculty have a talented team of professionals to complement their approach and expertise.

Technology alone does not create student engagement

Engaging students is not just about having the technology; it is about wielding that technology in ways that effectively reach learners. For educators with limited access to technological resources, it’s encouraging to remember that student engagement can be enhanced by technology but it does not necessitate it. Virtual learning can engage students through many ways that do not require much more than a Zoom account by encouraging active participation, facilitating peer interactions, and actively cultivating a sense of community. Some important takeaways for virtual and online learning are finding ways to engage students, meeting them where they are, and using real applications they find interesting to inspire learning and deepen engagement and understanding.

Tech-enhanced learning is here to stay

Generally, schools that already had strong online programs in place were likely able to make reasonably smooth transitions to virtual learning. Increasingly, tech-enhanced learning can increase flexibility and inspire new and interesting learning experiences for students. Even if the pandemic were to disappear and schools could go back to being fully in-person overnight, administrators would do well to think about how they can invest in ways to use technology to complement the campus learning environment.

At Maryville, we’ve been intentional about the approach to provide access to technology that enriches the experience for students and promotes engagement, including freeware and purchased technology. For example, Nadine Ball, professor of education and Rebecca Dohrman, director and associate professor of communication, use Jamboard, an interactive whiteboard that enables students to brainstorm and share ideas. For virtual and fully online courses, it’s becoming more common to use VoiceThread and Flipgrid to promote discussions that go beyond writing to allow students to hear and see each other, on their own time. It’s this commitment to increasing digital access that has facilitated the on-campus programs’ transition to virtual learning.

There is no doubt that faculty, staff and administrators across the country have worked tirelessly to prepare for the fall semester; however, there may be a silver lining in this era of change. This environment has been a catalyst for finding new ways to use technology to enhance the learning environment and the learner experience. The collective effort to increase digital literacy, inspire collaboration across departments and across the institution, and perhaps forever change how we communicate has unified us in service to our students. That sense of community and the sharing of ideas and new approaches to teaching and learning is invaluable. While at times our work may feel more challenging than ever before, the opportunities to find new and exciting ways to meet students’ diverse learning needs are endless.

Katherine Louthan is dean of the School of Adult and Online Education at Maryville University in St. Louis.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Some Maryville University faculty use a green screen, Microsoft Surface Hub, and Lightboard along with custom designed content interactions in their online teaching. ” quote=”Some of the technology and tools that our faculty use include a green screen, Microsoft Surface Hub, and Lightboard along with custom-designed content interactions. “]

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