A perennial difficulty for teachers and trainers is establishing effective learner engagement. In recent years, interest has been high in this area. Frequent engagement is seen as a powerful indicator of the success of a learning programme
Participation is a feature of dynamic learner engagement. Michele Martin recognised this through her assertion that the worth of learning in a wiki, blog or chat room is improved when learners participate through comments.
But for this to happen, the teacher/trainer must mediate in a way that initiates and maintains learner participation. In the main, learners won’t participate just because there are wonderful things to learn.
Techniques for this have been practiced and improved in the classroom for centuries. Stimulating online engagement is more difficult when the learner does not have direct contact with the teacher/trainer, or with other learners.
My experience is that there is a portfolio of techniques that contribute to successful elearner engagement. How these are applied relies on the experience and personality of the teacher/trainer and how online resources are selected for use. I summarise these techniques here.
This is a most important factor. For many learners, engagement will not be initiated if there is no teacher/trainer mediation. Initially, it must be regular, and it must be done by the teacher/trainer actively contacting the learner directly.
Encouragement and assistance when needed is provided through this mediation. The type of technology used to mediate will depend on what is available to the learner and the teacher/trainer at the time. It is not rocket science. There is often no need for sophistication.
Many younger learners still respond well to contact by landline phone or mobile – vocal or text. Use of a webcam, through Skype or other related technology, can also provide the necessary presence of the helpful encouraging teacher. But this technology does not provide the necessary intervention provided by phone.
Daily contact may be required in the initial stages and I'd recommend it. The frequency can be reduced after a while. Less often than once a week, however, is likely to be met with a decline in learner engagement.
Ease of use:
Digital equipment should be transparent when used for teaching and learning. I’m talking about barriers here. Even the keyboard can provide a barrier to some learners, so there will be basic minimum skills requirements for the learner if such barriers are to be insignificant.
The design of the learning management system plays an important part in encouraging engagement. It is the interface between the learner and the learning resources, so it must be simple to use. Getting to the learning material should involve the minimum number of screens and links to click through. A good maximum rule is three clicks from logon.
Selection of digital resources:
The term digital learning resource refers to just about anything that can be sent to a learner by email, or downloaded from the Internet, and displayed on the screen. The scope of what can be made available, from a simple data chart to a sophisticated interactive device capable of assessing student learning, is too broad for me to discuss here.
However, there are two simple rules that can be applied to their use. The first is to do with quality and appropriateness. The second is to do with how they are used.
Selection of a digital resource, or even a related series of them, has to be done carefully and with the learner in mind. It is not just sufficient to provide a resource that covers the topic or part of a topic. A learning resource that is difficult for the learner to use, for whatever reason, will discourage engagement.
It could be that the reading level of the text in the resource is above the level in the learner. When this happens, even the most colourful and attractively interactive resource will offer poor encouragement if learning relies on reading from the text.
Frequency of use:
Learners tire from lack of variety of approach and media providing learning. A large module, built entirely of digital resources, provides little incentive to progress to the next module. This applies particularly if an unvarying template is used throughout a course.
An interactive digital resource is excellent for a one-off tutorial or for revision, provided it is not exactly the same as the resource used earlier in the module.
Death by Chocolate:
I apply the good chef metaphor when selecting digital resources:
A poor chef includes chocolate as an ingredient in every dish. But it is a shortsighted one who excludes its use altogether. If the only recipe available that includes it is a mediocre one, then chocolate should be off the menu.
A good chef chooses recipes wisely.
- Timely feedback is essential for effective learning.
- Frequent teacher/trainer mediation provides support when needed.
- Encouragement lets the learner know someone is looking after them.
Though the frequency of teacher/trainer mediation can be eased once a good level of engagement has been established, infrequent mediation leaves the learner feeling abandoned. If the learner ‘switches off’, the whole cycle often needs to be started over again.
As with digital resources – variety of technique, media and learner activities all ward off boredom and make learning fun. Boredom wins the award for the greatest incentive for learners to disengage. Having fun is a natural companion to learning.