Student completing homework onlineA few weeks ago, I participated in a strategy swap at the Teaching Professor Technology Conference on engaging students in online courses. Everyone agreed that engagement is critical to online learning, yet we couldn’t decide how, exactly, to facilitate connection and interactivity beyond the usual tactics — video, quizzes, discussion boards, group projects.

With this in mind, I attended another session on student engagement that offered a few practical solutions. Our speakers, both of the University of Florida’s online business program, consider these the essential steps to improved interaction, engagement, and accessibility online. (It’s worth noting that most of these elements are matters of design, meaning some of our troubles might be solved by thoughtful interactions, rather than more of any particular thing.)

Include Short Videos

Instead of uploading 50-minute lectures, try organizing course content into several “bite-sized” chunks. Generally, 6- to 8-minute videos work best, but you could try longer or shorter segments. The point is to make it easier for online learners to understand and complete their assignments.

Personalize Video Content

Speaking of video, consider personalizing your lectures to help distance students feel more connected to campus. For instance, you could film lectures at your favorite spots on campus, rather than sitting in an office or studio, or you could incorporate a pet, current event, or an interesting “artifact” from your field. Most of the examples shown in this session were filmed on smartphones, so videos don’t have to be professional to be personal.

Incorporate Structured Course Layouts

If you make the course easier to navigate, students are far more likely to connect with the content. Always include a clear landing page with links indicating what students should do (e.g., start here, read, watch, do), consistent subcategories, and learning objectives written at the level of student learners.

Use Relevant External Tools

Although we encourage faculty to build most assignments in Blackboard, using external tools can help students connect with the material on a more personal level. For example, you could use Flickr for photo-based scavenger hunts or Adobe Spark for graphics and video.

Clean Up Clutter

Delete or appropriately rename files every time you build a new course (alternatively, don’t date course content). Use a clear, consistent folder structure, and remember to differentiate between overview and content pages. Always highlight essentials first and group supplementals in either a separate folder or near the bottom of the module page