Getting students to connect in the digital space can be a challenge for faculty teaching entirely online as well as for those who are using online tools to supplement traditional classroom teaching. Most students expect that there will be some interaction online, but getting them to truly engage with and learn from the material that we provide online can be difficult. There are some proven ways, however, to stimulate engagement and create a vibrant online community. One critical point to remember is that engagement feeds on reciprocation—if you want engaged students you have to be engaged. So here are a few ways to get students involved in the online educational experience:

Connect early and connect often.

Norms for engagement are set early, so if you want for students to feel connected to the community and participate, you have to start the process with maximum engagement on your end. I strongly suggest that you respond to each of the students in the first week of using an online assignment. Every time that you respond to their work online, you are reaffirming that you are paying attention and you value their contributions. I also suggest that you continue to connect throughout the semester. While you don’t have to connect at the same rate you did at the beginning, you should still check in regularly to continue to reinforce the sense of community.

Provide clear, detailed guidelines for expectations.

If online engagement is low, it is often because expectations are unclear. I strongly suggest that you provide very detailed rules for what you expect from students online. For example, I have a list of precise rules for participation on the discussion board that includes information specifying the minimum and maximum length of posts, what constitutes a quality post, and how many posts they need per week, as well as information on what not to post (i.e. trolling not allowed).

Make things as interactive as possible.

Students often say that they don’t participate in online activities because they feel like the task is boring or that little attention is being paid to what they are submitting. You can fix both of these issues by creating a more interactive environment. In this case I am talking about interactivity not with the tool but with the professor and one another. You can have students comment on the work of others on many platforms, from the university LMS discussion board to tools like  Twitter or Blogger. You can bring interesting examples that students post/tweet about online back to the class discussion. You can even have students take what you did in the classroom to the tool you are using online— such as having students create an infographic about what you discussed in class that day. The more you blend these things together, the more likely students are to immerse themselves fully in the community.

Find tools that have a low start-up cost.

There are thousands of neat tools being used in education. I have tried many myself and have a few tips about what you should choose. First, I suggest using tools that are free. Second, I suggest that you pick tools that are easy to use so that students don’t get discouraged by the process of learning how to use the tool. A tool that is difficult to learn can quickly kill engagement. Third, even easy to use tools require some investment in learning if they are new to students, so I suggest you point out the benefits of learning such a tool. For example, students use tools that will be valuable in their career or for use in other classes. If you are looking for the tools that many students already use frequently and won’t require a learning curve, you can check out Twitter, Instagram, iTunesU, Pinterest, YouTube, and Vimeo.

Gamification is a great way to step it up.

If you are ready to create a more immersive experience, you might want to try gamification. Gamification is using components of gaming (such as rewards and leveling up) to engage and motivate students to achieve educational goals. Gamification can be as simple as giving students points for responses to other students’ posts or for completing online quizzes. Gamification has been so successful in creating engagement and enhancing learning that many companies, such as Best Buy, Cisco, and Google, are using gamification for training and development.

If you’re looking for a good starting point, I’ve listed some of my favorite tools for creating engagement and community below.

  • Twitter: Twitter is easy to use and students can respond to one another. The nature of tweets (limited to 140 characters) frees up time to interact that used to be spent on individual work. Twitter is quick and easy to master and allows you to disseminate information as well as create opportunities for students to interact.
  • TED Ed: You can build a community around TED talks (and other videos) that you pick. You create a lesson and pick the things you want to students to do —they can answer questions (multiple choice and open-ended), discuss the content, and provide links to their own materials.
  • Piktochart: Piktochart is a resource for creating infographics online. The learning curve is a little steeper than for many tools, but I have found that students like to use this in other classes later because they enjoy it so much.
  • Pinterest: Pinterest is great for students who are creating visual material or creating collections. It allows for interaction by liking or commenting on work.
  • Kahoot: While this tool was originally created for K-12 education, it is rapidly being adopted by college professors because of its ease of use and fun interface. It combines gamification and teamwork into one neat tool. If you
    think that your students are too advanced to benefit from playing a Kahoot game, you can challenge them to create a Kahoot game and have them judge one another.

Tracey Rockett

This article was written by Tracey Rockett, Department of Management, Entrepreneurship, and Leadership; Koehler Center Fellow for Distance Education, for the Fall 2016 Issue of Insights.