Engaging students online

Original artwork by Nini-Wang, MA student at the Edinburgh College of Art

In this post, James Lamb shares his experience with fusion teaching and reflects on ways to improve student engagement online by thinking beyond the face-to-face/online dichotomy. Dr Lamb is co-programme director for MSc in Education Futures, and also teaches on the MSc in Digital Education. This post is part of the June-July Hot Topic series: Showcasing the Edinburgh Futures Institute ↗️

I’m sharing here some of my thoughts and experiences around online engagement within a fusion setting: that is, where a single course or teaching session supports students attending online, while other members of the same group are present in the physical classroom. What follows isn’t an exhaustive or ‘how to’ list, but instead combines some practical approaches with ways of thinking about engaging students online. The ideas draw upon my experience of fusion teaching (on the MSc Education Futures) and fully online teaching (MSc Digital Education) and are covered at more length in an IAD session I delivered last November↗️.

First things first. It makes some administrative sense to designate learners as either being ‘on campus’ or ‘online’, but it does not match the reality of how students connect with the university and their programme. Digital technologies are woven into the fabric of our everyday and educational surroundings, meaning that every student spends time learning in online environments. This includes, but is not limited to, using the University learning management system, attending online workshops or seminars, viewing lecture recordings and supplementary video material, streaming educational podcasts, connecting with peers through social media, and otherwise searching for information or inspiration via the Internet. Therefore, when we talk about engaging students online, this refers to all of our students, not just those studying away from the physical campus. Every student is an online student.

Thinking about our use of language – and questioning the assumptions that sit behind our choice of words – can help us to avoid symbolically deprivileging online modes of engagement. This is about talking and thinking fusion. If we use “face-to-face”, “in class” and “being present” to describe those students physically situated with us in a teaching studio, we run the risk of othering those engaging online. Instead, we need to think about how the above terms, as well as ‘arrival’ and ‘eye contact’ work differently, but also positively, for students attending online and perhaps mediated via screen.

In practical terms, this means that at every stage of the teaching design process, we need to consider what the experience will be like for online and on-site students. This is different from creating activities in the physical classroom and then thinking about how they can be ‘made to work’ for those online. It is about a fusion-first approach, as opposed to making an ‘online version’ of what happens in class. It is a way of thinking which recognises that online students being able to see and hear (and be seen and heard) is only the starting point, rather than a successful outcome. It’s the bare minimum in terms of engaging with students online, not a measure of success.

A considerable strength of online teaching is that it is less bound to the constraints of timetabling and the availability of physical classrooms: we can engage students online by playing with time. Compared with having to shape teaching to match an available classroom or hour-long segment of time, we can take longer over conversations and provide more opportunities for students to speak and to share. We achieve this within the Education and Digital Culture course (on the MSc in Digital Education) by having students spend the semester collaboratively staging an online exhibition. Within Future of Learning Organisations (MSc in Education Futures), students pitch their assignment ideas through an online equivalent of the conference poster session. In other courses, I get students to congregate around articles and book chapters as they participate in week- or fortnight-long asynchronous tutorials↗️. These activities, which happen within the collaborative whiteboard space of Miro, massively increase the number of conversations and moments of connection – that is, engagement – than could be achieved in a synchronous, timetabled, campus-based session.

A final point. It takes a bit of work to get things right when trying to engage students online (and, as with any teaching, it won’t always go to plan). It takes more advance planning, but also more attention in the moment, for instance as we to seek to connect with two audiences, and ensure these audiences are connecting with each other. But a considerable reward for taking on this challenge comes through the greater diversity of perspectives and ideas that emerge from a dispersed class or students. At least on the courses I teach, the fully online members of the class often bring with them considerable professional and life experience, which can massively enrich conversation and the wider learning experience for everyone (myself included). If we provide an engaging online environment, we can attract and facilitate the participation of talented students whose circumstances prevent them from being physically present in the class here in Edinburgh. It’s something worth working towards.

photograph of the authorJames Lamb

Dr James Lamb is co-programme director for MSc in Education Futures, and also teaches on the MSc in Digital Education. He researches and teaches around the relationship between learning spaces and digital technologies, and is a co-author of the Manifesto for Teaching Online (2020). Read more about James’ work at www.james858499.net↗️.

photograph of the authorNini-Wang

Nini-Wang, originally from Hunan Province, China, now lives in the UK. She is passionate about the visual and narrative aspects of the illustrative experience. Her illustrations are mainly inspired by life and personal experiences, and she likes to build up her creative inspiration through traditional painting, but also maintains a strong interest in digital painting. Watercolour, coloured pencil and charcoal are her preferred drawing materials, and she is also passionate about GIF animation, comics and children’s picture books.

Check out her artwork on Instagram↗️ or LinkedIn↗️.

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