Maintaining student engagement and attention online: insights from the latest WUN webinar

Every university in the Network has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and has had to adapt at pace. However, these common challenges have taken diverse forms and prompted distinctive solutions, with each university responding to a specific and locally grounded set of dynamics. This discussion of student engagement during remote learning is the second in a series of webinars to help members reflect on their experiences and learn from each other. The first, held in June 2020, was on student mental health


SUMMARY

Bobbi Moore, Senior Learning Designer and Team Lead of the Digital Learning Team at the University of Southampton, shared insights from the Common Framework for Online Education that she developed with colleagues at Southampton. The framework advocates four lenses on good design for online learning: visibility, flexibility, engagement and clarity.  Moore explained how teachers can use the four lenses to ‘consider if they have included the elements that make for a high-quality experience for students, and then make adjustments where needed as well as look to build an open dialogue with their students to see what’s working well and continue to enhance their course.’  Given the uncertainties still shaping the pandemic response, she indicated, this responsiveness is all the more vital.

Speaking about the importance of ‘active pedagogies and interactive technologies,’ José Escamilla provided practical examples of ways that staff members can encourage student engagement. Escamilla is Director of TecLabs – Learning Reimagined, an education innovation unit at Tecnologico de Monterrey, and Chair of the WUN Global Higher Education and Research Global Challenge Steering Group. He outlined how using active pedagogies, such as problem-based learning, collaborative learning, and applying material to real-world challenges, can help to maintain attention. Interactive technologies can then help to lift student engagement: online polls, immersive technologies such as virtual reality, digital presentations, and virtual office hours can all be facilitated by communications technology to promote student interactions with their peers, instructors, and course content.

Joan Saab, Director of the Visual and Cultural Studies Program and Vice Provost of Academic Affairs at the University of Rochester, encouraged teachers to experiment beyond their comfort zone. She acknowledged that ‘maintaining student engagement is a difficult thing to do even in best of times, and these days presents particular challenges, and how to address them can be very difficult.’  Nonetheless, she argued, the pivot to remote learning during isolation has also created an opportunity to embrace new tools. Citing examples of digital mapping and augmented reality, she emphasised that students are often able to adapt to or even lead their teachers on new technologies. Saab concluded by reminding teachers to make full use of the expertise of their colleagues, including learning technologists and librarians.

Damon Salesa, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Pacific) at The University of Auckland, described efforts to keep up connections with groups of students who are persistently challenging to engage, focusing on Māori students and Pacific students. Based on the belief that ‘good engagement is reciprocal and it is mutual,’ the University of Auckland’s engagement approach is grounded in culturally responsive pedagogies and the Māori wellbeing philosophy of Hauora. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, this led to a program of phone calls to check on the wellbeing of students whom the university could identify as not engaging remotely. Salesa noted that behind disengagement can sit other challenges and inequalities, such as the digital divide confronting those without devices or connectivity, which COVID-19 amplified.

Colleen Doyle, Student Adviser for Engineering, Architecture and Landscape Architecture at University College Dublin, discussed the needs of a specific student group: undergraduates starting out on their university education. She identified a cluster of challenges first-year students face: their development of an independent learner identity; exposure to new communities and living arrangements, sometimes in tension with attachment to previous networks; the confusion that can come with being at the ‘bottom of the wheel’ in a new education cycle, after the confidence of being at the ‘top’ of their schooling cycle; and the unfamiliarity—which some staff members also face—of imagining a university education online. Applying Schlossberg’s Transition Theory, Doyle highlighted how instructors can add to and enhance students’ coping resources.

In the Q&A, discussion turned to challenges raised by blended learning (which combines remote instruction with face-to-face classes) and pastoral care. Keeping flexible and addressing the social and personal as well as educational needs of students were key themes. Speakers reiterated the benefits of conversation within and between institutions, to help explore new ideas, learn from each other’s expertise, and identify ways to improve the safety nets put in place in the first phase of the pandemic.