Reaching Out: Techniques for Engaging Students at a Distance
Setting up a small group of single-student locations.
Creating Social Presence
Call-in office hours
Set aside a period of time each week to answer students’ questions or just to chat. Use of an audioconferencing bridge will allow you to speak with more students at a time, and will allow you to speak with one another. Use of a toll-free number eliminates the obstacle of excessive phone bills and permits students and the instructor to participate from a convenient location. Alternatively, use the real-time “chat” feature that is available on certain electronic mail or computer conferencing systems.
Introductory letter/Instructor information form
Students at a distance benefit from an increased flow of information about both the class in which they are participating and the participants. Often the distant student will have no contact with the instructor other than over the audio/video link. It is beneficial to personalize the experience with a short welcome letter and an interesting and informal profile of the instructor. The letter should address pertinent interests or concerns of the student, and the profile should seek to personalize you as individual.
Although a class newsletter is not often a part of the “traditional” classroom, it provides an opportunity for the instructor to take advantage of the rich geographical diversity of the class participants. It also offers another avenue for participation and a way to further personalize the distance education experience. It is a time consuming and difficult effort to incorporate.
Have students send you a specified number of postcards throughout the semester. Students can ask specific questions about the course, elaborate on topics covered in class, or share information about themselves or their region of the state. Taking a few minutes during class to read and show the postcards can be a very effective way to respond to questions, introduce “real world” applications, and nurture a sense of community.
Student information form
An instructor has the opportunity to learn a great deal about students which might otherwise be assumed through personal contact. Student information forms allow a student to communicate with the instructor and share not only their reasons for taking the course, but also some personal characteristics and concerns which may impact on the teaching-learning experience. These information forms may also be used to share interesting information with the class as a whole, and leads to interesting resources for future pertinent class discussions.
Without the benefit of two-way video, students are unable to associate a name with a face. Asking students to send photos of themselves (perhaps engaged in a favorite activity) can add a new dimension to learning at a distance. Photos can be shown when students call in. One instructor shows students’ photos alongside a map of the state on which the students’ home town is indicated. Depending on the technical setup at your origination site, showing pictures of students electronically may require additional resources-technical and human.
Access to student services such as advising and referral
While as the instructor it is not your responsibility to provide student support services, when distance is involved you acquire certain responsibilities for this element unnecessary in a single-location classroom. Student support services are often taken for granted, being an assumed part of the environment on a campus or off-campus center. Such is not the case when multiple sites are also concerned. If you, as the instructor, face that situation, be available to fill the gap either in a reactive or often in a proactive effort.
Use of students’ names to greet callers on ITV
We all like to be addressed by name. The same applies in an interactive class. Have your technician, using the class enrollment lists, create a “name tag” for each student. Also include the student’s location. Then when a student calls, he or she is identified by name and not the “caller on the line” notification. It helps to personalize the experience a bit more. Additionally, as the instructor becomes more familiar with his or her class, seeing who is calling prepares the instructor for what to expect.
Use informal, more “personal” language in course materials
Students rely heavily on prepared course material in a distance education situation. The more personal and informal those efforts are, the more personal and encouraging of interaction the results. If you, as the instructor, are comfortable doing so, prepare your course materials in the first person, and strive for an informal feeling in the presentation of materials. The result is a more conversational-sounding tone.
In-course progress checks
Students at a distance do not have as many avenues available to determine how they are progressing in class responsibilities. It is more difficult to “stop by” before or after class to offer explanations of past performance or issue promises of better performance. In place of the posting of grades on class requirements, consider the use of a computer generated “semi-personal” form letter to inform a student of his or her progress. Include the invitation to discuss any questions or concerns directly with you. Even consider taking the initiative and requesting that the student make contact with you. A good way to show you care. As an alternative, you might consider providing students a form on which they can record their own progress, letting them know that you’re available when they want to talk about how they’re doing.
Involving Students in the Learning Process
This technique is useful for creative group problem-solving. The thoughts of one individual may stimulate new directions of thought in others; thus, the communal effort is likely to be more productive than the efforts of the individual members separately. You will need someone to record all ideas. Start by carefully defining the problem or objective of the session. Set a time limit, and record all contributions without criticism or objection to any contribution. Once the time limit is up, follow up with analysis, criticism, evaluation, and organization. A particular advantage of brainstorming is that during the early stages, at least, less confident students are able to participate in a non-critical environment.
A type of stimulation technique in which students may participate as role players or observers. Students are given descriptions of the situation and of the characters that they will portray. Follow the role play with a debriefing session in which students are encouraged to reflect on how it “felt” to be placed in the role.
Ask students from different sites to read different parts of a piece of literature. Useful in drama or literature courses, for example.
Present the most dramatic or important part of a situation. The participants must then solve the conflict or problem. The facilitator has all the data about the total situation but shares it only in response to direct questions.
A short scenario is presented on video and the video is turned off before a “resolution” of the problem is reached. Students are asked to identify the problem, identify possible courses of action, and make a recommendation. The video is then turned back on, and the “resolution” on the video is compared with the students’ responses. Use a provocative film to introduce a topic or focus discussion.
Debates encourage the exploration of both sides of an issue. One approach is to have students support a viewpoint with which they do not personally agree.
A fishbowl is a discussion group divided into two parts: the inner circle, consisting of four or five people who discuss a topic, and the outer group, consisting of up to 20 people who observe the interaction of the inner group. The technique is especially useful for observing group process.
Interactive study guides
The interactive study guide includes a variety of activities to accompany classroom instruction and for students to do at home. Include copies of the graphics that you be using (you will have to obtain copyright clearance for published material). This will allow students to concentrate better and elaborate on the content, as they will not have to devote their attention to writing down everything that you say.
Instructors and students question a guest on a previously-selected topic. In some cases the guest is sent the questions in advance.
The element of competition can be motivational. Games are also useful for team-building. Popular board games and game shows can be used as models.
Students are asked to keep a journal between class meetings to help reflect on course content. Ask students to focus their writing on how they might apply what they have learned in class. Ask students to share their journal entries as appropriate.
Prior to a lecture, panel discussion, student presentation, or film, divide the class into several listening teams. Give each team a specific listening task. At the conclusion of the presentation have each team ask questions or give reactions related to the area they were responsible for tracking.
This technique is useful as a “warm-up” exercise before presenting data. For example, before presenting the results of a survey, ask students to make predictions based on their own experience and understanding of the material. When presenting the actual findings, have students compare their predictions with the actual results. Ask if there were any surprises (and why?) in order to generate further discussion of the issue involved.
Divide the class into small groups and present a problem or a description of an incident. Ask each group to propose alternative solutions to the problem or alternative actions in response to the incident, then to list the consequences of each solution or action. Follow up discussion.
A group of “experts” present different perspectives on an issue. The panel can be moderated by the instructor or by a student. A question-and-answer session can follow. The panel might be composed of guest speakers or students who are reacting to a current topic.
Peer teaching and Peer tutoring
Students are responsible for presenting a short segment of instruction. This requires some advance preparation to make sure that any graphics arrive at the broadcast site on time and are clearly legible over television. This technique can also be effective when students who feel especially confident about the subject matter are paired with those who feel less confident. Meetings can be held using a telephone bridge or via computer conferencing.
Practice exercises/Ungraded progress quizzes
Provide an opportunity for students to practice skills. Exercises can be multiple choice, fill-in-the-blanks, true/false, problem solving, etc. Instructor provides prompt feedback to inform students of their progress and to stimulate further questions. Try to anticipate the variety of responses that students are likely to make, and prepare feedback accordingly. Consider the process by which a student would arrive at an inappropriate solution to a problem and be prepared to provide guidance for each “step” in the process.
The student progresses at his or her own pace to meet specified objectives. Little support from a “live” teacher is required. Possible media are student manuals, audiotape, videotape, computer-assisted instruction, or combinations of these. A special advantage of programmed instruction is that it frees up the instructor’s time to work with students with special problems or with special learning goals. Additionally, programmed instruction is an effective means of meeting the diverse needs of students with different prerequisites, ability levels, and learning styles. Instructors may adapt pre-produced materials or may develop their own materials. Though developing materials requires a significant time investment, in some cases the special advantages of this method may outweigh the disadvantages.
Include a variety of question types, from recall and comprehension to application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The instructor poses and redirects questions to maximize interaction. A variation is to describe the differences between levels of questions, give examples of each type, and ask students themselves to pose questions at various levels.
Build in deliberate periods of silence — after asking a question or at critical points during the class session. This gives students an opportunity to process the course content at a meaningful level (higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy).
Small group projects
Each site works on a project and reports back to the class. Students at single-student sites can be linked through the videoconferencing system, while those at sites with a critical mass of students to form a group work “off-line.”
Have students use camcorders at the receive sites to produce short presentations, role plays, speeches, skits, etc. Videotapes are sent to the instructor to play for the rest of the class.
Case studies are real-world descriptions of problems with all accompanying data. Students are asked to resolve a problem within a given time limit, and to make recommendations. Avoid “contrived” situations-try, as much as possible, to make the case study represent “real-life.” In most cases, there will be more than one possible solution. Follow up with a debriefing session which analyzes students’ responses and abstracts the major “lessons” (i.e., the principles) from the case, making it easier for students to transfer what they have learned to similar situations.
Students explore and express their values on given issues through the use of values exercises. Values are then discussed among sites with the instructor acting as the moderator. A variety of formats will encourage students to explore their values on given issues: voting, rank ordering, either-or forced choice questionnaires, surveys, unfinished sentences, and focus questions, for example.
Video or film preview
Develop a list of specific questions to help students to focus their attention while viewing a videotape or film.
Sample students’ opinions on issues related to the course. In appropriate course (psychology, statistics, sociology, etc.), conduct these during several classes to develop descriptive data for use in class and to model the research process. Students are given the opportunity to express their views on course-related issues and are likely to be more interested in working with data that is familiar to them. Have students predict the outcomes of polls or surveys in advance, and have them compare their impressions to the actual data.
Certain laboratory exercises may be completed at home. Students in a human biology course, for example, are completing the majority of the laboratory activities using a student guide, a videotape, and a package of laboratory materials. The laboratory includes a fetal pig dissection. Students are encouraged to work together whenever possible.
Before starting a unit of instruction, take some time to ask students what they already know about the subject. You may be surprised! Their responses will likely reveal common misperceptions that you might want to clear up. Or they may tell you that they already know quite a bit about what you’re going to teach. In any case, the time is well-spent. Both you and your students will be better informed.
Study and review sessions
Some faculty hold study or review sessions prior to a major exam or assignment due date. These sessions can be held over a telephone bridge to permit students and the faculty member to participate from their homes. Students can ask questions of the instructor or they can interact with other students to discuss major points and get clarification on information that they still find confusing.
It may be helpful to periodically ask students for their impression of how the course is going. Either formally or informally, gather information on what student think is working well, what they think should be changed, and what students are having trouble understanding. This can provide you with useful information before it’s too late to make changes in the course. Such mid-course checks can result in more positive final evaluations. Assure students that their responses can be made anonymously and will have no effect on their grades in the course. By making the attempt to take students’ opinions seriously and to use their feedback, you will not only improve the structure and delivery of your course, but you will also communicate to students your genuine concern about their progress.
A seminar format requires students themselves to take on significant responsibility for discussing course content. The instructor is placed in the role of facilitator and provides guidance and direction. One approach assigns specific roles at random at the beginning of the class session (requiring all students to be prepared). Three students are selected to introduce the major topics/issues for the session. Following their presentation, two students respond to the presentations. An open discussion follows. Two students then comment on the process itself and provide a “synthesis” of the session. The instructor concludes the session with a wrap-up. Prior to the seminar, all students prepare by reading assigned literature on the seminar topic and/or reflecting on personal experiences, and writing a brief reaction paper in which they respond to the issues. It is crucial to the success of this strategy that the roles and tasks are clearly described in advance.