Improving Instructor-Student Engagement Online

Federal auditors assert that instructors at Western Governors University don't interact sufficiently with distance learners. Faculty members consider strategies to improve contact with online students.

September 27, 2017
 
Office Mix

FORT WORTH, Tex. -- Sherrell Wheeler scanned the standing-room-only crowd, before which she was about to begin a presentation on the video and audio tools she uses in online courses. But instead of the usual welcome, she began, “I am wondering why the room is so crowded. Western Governors is in a lot of trouble for its engagement level with its students. That’s probably why some of you are here.”

Wheeler, director of online quality assurance at New Mexico State University Alamogordo, was referring to the Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s call for Western Governors, an online-only competency-based nonprofit, to give back at least $713 million in federal financial aid. The inspector general last week cited concerns about an inadequate faculty role at WGU, which observers said could pose a problem for online education writ large.

(Click here to read experts' opinions about what the WGU decision could mean for distance learning.)

Wheeler told several hundred attendees at the Quality Matters Connect conference Monday that they could do better. “Our students expect a quality online education, not a correspondence course,” she said. “They’ve got to know that you are there for them.”

“Students need to know we are real people,” she added. “We have to have that type of engagement with them.”

One easy way instructors can elevate their presence in online courses is through video and auto clips, Wheeler said. She noted that some faculty members don't want to videotape themselves, but the technology can help build rapport with students. “You are going to hate the way you look. They would see all of that in the classroom, so why can’t they see your flaws online?”

Four Tools That Build Engagement

Wheeler and the other two NMSU Alamogordo presenters -- Karen May, adjunct instructor of business, and Noel Romero, assistant professor of information technology -- provided an overview of a variety of video-audio production tools they say can help instructors better connect with online learners.

Screencast-O-Matic

Screencast-O-Matic is a free platform that supports video creation, editing and sharing by professors and students; it integrates with the learning management systems Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle and Schoology. Wheeler said Screencast-O-Matic offers more robust features for a fee. “The paid version is amazingly expensive -- $15 a year,” she joked.

The platform is easy to learn and fast to use, Wheeler said (“all you have to do is click ‘start recorder’”), and videos can be uploaded to YouTube and other sites. (Users do need a built-in or external webcam.) She said her students also use Screencast-O-Matic, which makes dialogue between instructor and student seamless.

Wheeler provided an example of how she employs Screencast-O-Matic. She noted that many students don’t know how to provide citations in papers and assignments correctly, so she created a short video on the topic. “I did a quick screen capture, showed them all the things they needed to know and then uploaded it,” she said.

In addition, May said, she uses the tool to create a short video each week for her online students that includes announcements and assignment reminders.

Besides creating videos on course content or tutorials, Screencast-O-Matic videos help Wheeler engage more effectively with struggling students. “I can create a quick video and say, ‘John, I was just reading your assignment, and I noticed you didn’t understand the concept. I really want you to understand the material. What can I do to help you?’”

Wheeler saves her videos to YouTube because of the site’s captioning function. However, one attendee noted that YouTube captions only are about 75 percent accurate, and thus videos would not meet federal accessibility requirements. Wheeler said it’s easy to edit and improve captions in YouTube, noting her campus has a staffer who does that task.

Office Mix

Another video production tool the presenters recommended was Office Mix, a free add-on for PowerPoint that offers instructors a way to create and share video lessons that can be played on any device. Office Mix also allows polls, quizzes, simulations and interactive apps to be embedded in the videos, and lets instructors track student outcomes.

May said she uses Office Mix because she can record and edit individual PowerPoint slides. “You can start recording, pause and then listen to what you’ve recorded,” she said. “If you don’t like it, you can redo it.”

Office Mix has other helpful features. When May creates videos at home, sometimes the recordings pick up her husband’s voice or her dog barking, and those extraneous noises can be removed.

Snip

The speakers also highlighted Snip, a Microsoft Garage product that claims to allow users to communicate digitally in three steps:

  1. Click and drag any window or area of the screen.
  2. Narrate comments and draw on the "snip" with digital ink.
  3. Send snip as URL or save as MP4 video.

Wheeler said Snip allows instructors to provide “really good feedback” to online students. “I don’t spend more than a minute explaining to them what they did wrong,” she said. “I take a capture of the screen, record what they have done, and it’s done.”

Once she completes a Snip piece, Wheeler emails the recording to the student through the university’s LMS, Canvas.

Sway

May said that Sway, which lets instructors create interactive lessons, “helps support my [learning] objectives.” According to the Sway website, the platform suggests searches to help users find relevant images, videos, tweets and other content that can be dragged and dropped into a document or presentation.

“It’s great a container of all the resources you want students to use, especially in a course that doesn’t have a book,” May said. “I give them every video I think they should watch, and then I give them a short explanation about why they should use the videos.”

Sway also is an effective tool for group projects and assignments, she said.

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