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The e-Learning Rules of Engagement

By Mark Notess / November 2008

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The word "engagement" is often used in connection with e-learning—so often, in fact, that it has come to represent a general, warm fuzziness that everyone wants but which proves elusive. But what does engagement really mean? Let's examine some of the ways the term is used in connection with online learning.

A property of materials. Promotional literature for learning materials often makes claims about how engaging a particular product is. This can refer to anything from pictures to animations to simulations, or to some supposed relevance of the materials to the learner. When we say materials are engaging, we are saying they have properties intended to stimulate use or interest by learners. But can engagement reside entirely in materials? If an e-learning course is engaging, but no one takes that course, where is the engagement?

Learner attentiveness. Imagine yourself evaluating a traditional classroom teacher. One of the checkboxes in your list of evaluation criteria is engagement: Do students appear to be engaged during the lesson? Are their eyes open? Do they appear to be listening and taking notes? Are they yawning, texting on their cell phones, or checking their Facebook page? Apart from doing actual observations of e-learners, which is something that isn't done nearly as often as it should be, attentiveness is harder to judge in an online course. Instead we tend to rely on outcome assessments, which presume engagement to have previously occurred. If students login frequently, perform well on the quizzes, post relevant comments in the discussion forum, or say they liked the course, we guess that perhaps they were suitably engaged.

Interaction.As the instructor you login to your online course environment. You note with delight the 40 new forum postings: If each of the 12 students had written one post and then replied to two others, there would only be 36 new postings (the due date was five minutes ago). So that means there might be at least four postings that were not required, indicating the possible presence of student interest, or at least of brown-nosing. You read the postings and reply. Student-student interaction was required. Teacher-student interaction happens as well. Is this engagement? The mere presence of interaction may indicate only the dimmest flicker of engagement, but we more readily recognize engagement in the quality of the interaction rather than in its quantity.

Increasingly legitimate participation in a community of practice.In the past two decades, some writers and researchers have taken a more holistic view of engagement. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger are among those who have written about learning as movement from the periphery toward the center of a community of practice. Newcomers are initially unengaged in the community, but become increasingly engaged as they learn how to participate in the work of the community. Their notion of participation is a different kind of engagement than we have described above. Engagement is the result of learning as much as the means of learning.

This broader social view of engagement is also present in the work of George Kuh and other researchers who pioneered the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This survey looks at a range of important attributes in student life related to learning, including time spent studying, discussions with professors, internships, and many other factors beyond content mastery. One could connect this model with the community of practice concept, considering the university, for example, as the community.

Some rules of engagement:

  • Materials may promote engagement for certain learners in certain learning contexts. The level of engagement can only be ascertained by looking at learner behavior, not by looking at the materials in isolation. For instructorless e-learning, it is particularly important to study and understand learner behaviors because the most commonly used outcome measures (satisfaction rating, quiz score) give little insight into the learner experience.
  • In e-learning, learner attentiveness is difficult to gauge. However, some measures such as number of logins to the learning environment, length of sessions, or other variables can be useful as proxies to indicate at least the possibility of engagement. It's the online equivalent of showing up for class.
  • Quantity of interaction is another necessary-but-not-sufficient proxy for engagement. Ultimately it is the quality of the interaction that matters, that makes the difference between busy work and online learning. Much of being a good online teacher is knowing how to stimulate interest, to challenge disengagement, to demonstrate relevance, to invite and scaffold participation.
  • For better or worse, a lot of online learning is directed at achieving legal compliance or moving students toward a formal credential. Participation in a career-relevant community of practice may occur separately or subsequently. Participation in the community of scholars faces additional challenges when that community is virtual. I am not aware of a Survey of Online Student Engagement analogous to the NSSE survey mentioned above, but something along those lines could be quite helpful to distance learning institutions. Some thoughts from Kuh about distance learning have just appeared in a comment on a USA Today article about NSSE (scroll down to the comment by Mary Beth Marklein).

What and how do you think about engagement in e-learning? Please post your comments below!


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