Tuesday, January 17, 2012

6 new ways to improve student engagement

Improving student engagement has been top of mind for many educators over the past few years, especially in the online sector. Many institutions have focused on adding more active learning into their curriculum, increasing joint student-instructor participation in academic activities, and fostering greater collaboration between instructors and students overall.

But there are new, better ways to improve student engagement that go beyond this traditional approach. They center around creating a tighter partnership between instructors and students, in which instructors take on a mentoring role and students become more active participants in their educational journey.

This is particularly important for adult learners, who want to be able to adjust their education to what is relevant to their life, learning, and career goals (what's known as self-directed learning).

It's time to rethink our approach to improving student engagement, and focus on developing what I call an "educational partnership" between instructors and students that better meets students' learning needs and career goals.

I've put together a proposal containing what I think are the six core principles of this new model for improving student engagement. Here it is below. What do you think? What are your suggestions for increasing student engagement?



The New Student Engagement Model: Creating an Educational Partnership Between Students and Instructors

The following argument is developed specifically for online MBA programs, but might be relevant to other applicable online graduate degrees as well

Professional adults, entering the education system to retool their skills and revise their knowledge base, represent a fast-growing segment of graduate students. Typically, these learners are practitioners or managers who need to fit the education engagement into their busy professional and personal lives. To achieve a sustainable balance throughout the journey, the education endeavor must have a defined/contained load and be specific and focused on attainable learning objectives.

The other obvious stakeholders in the process are the instructors. Scholarly practitioner instructors are most likely the best teachers for the learners characterized above. Aside from their formal scholastic degrees, instructors share similar characteristics with their adult learners, namely significant practical work experience and the need to balance personal life with professional career and educational demands.

The flexibility and convenience of online education enables the matching between teachers and learners, the two stakeholder groups engaged in the educational process. However, the online framework, albeit necessary, is not sufficient to optimize the teacher-learner interface between the two adult professional stakeholder groups. More is called for -- a higher level of collaboration between professional adult teachers and learners. Here are some of the suggested principles of such an engagement model:

1. Defined expectations and capped load. The course expectations of learning outcomes should be clear and attainable within the pedagogical allotted load. Course load should be capped at affordable levels for both learners and teachers, as open-ended expectations (and load) might not be sustainable or affordable for either side. Passing grades should be given for expected performances, reserving higher grades for the recognition of excellence. An example of a capped load would be setting the minimum number of discussion postings to four a week on each question thread in order to assure a passing grade. Another example would be limiting assignment papers to a certain scope and length.

2. Shared learning environment and responsibility. All stakeholders sharing the learning environment should be responsible for the generated quality of education. When responding, communicating, or sharing information, teachers and learners should co-own the process of creating and sharing knowledge for all. Part of the performance assessment of all should therefore reflect this expected behavior. For example, learners should be tasked with (and graded on) developing and evolving discussions that are in line with the course objectives. This responsibility should no longer reside exclusively with teachers.

3. Adaptability and continuous improvement. Focused and customized education (as advocated in this proposal) might have an operational challenge in that it might have to be frequently updated and changed in order to keep up with evolving student needs. Practitioner adult learners must be exposed to current and relevant applications of the educational content. Learners should be asked to continuously assess the value and relevance of the program for them. As a possible application of this principle, we should respond to a mid-course student survey and change and adapt the course content on the fly as needed (while staying within the original course objectives).

4. Flexibility in scheduling -- not outcomes. Flexibility is needed and expected from all stakeholders. As the focus is on performance, not effort, the engagement purpose should be on exchanging quality deliverables and feedback, not just on grading by rubrics and time tables. Very much like a consultative agreement, the start and end dates and the deliverables and feedback should not be negotiable. But the scheduling and milestones might be. For example, drafts of major assignments and a pre-arranged modified submission schedule should be allowed. There should be, however, no compromise on performance.

5. Multi-modality teaching. The educational process must be learner-centered. This means that learners should be exposed to various learning modalities, creating controlled redundancy in the content delivered. Practically, this implies that course objectives will be delivered through multi-modality channels designed for redundancy, using written, audio, and visual contents.

6. Capstone experience. The capstone project should culminate in a collaborative engagement centered on accomplishing the learner's project. Learners should be encouraged to develop their project concepts early in the program in order to associate course learning with their project in a more efficient manner. Mentor teachers should be assigned to learners as soon as a solid concept is proposed. Capstone projects could be initiated by learners (serving present or expected/future needs) or suggested by teachers and representatives of local industry.

In summary, as more adult learners engage in the educational journey, there is a greater need to better manage their experience. Evolving the present teacher/learner engagement model to a shared-objectives educational partnership between stakeholders would present a more sustainable and better overall model to meet future challenges of adult learners.