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On September 10, we participated in a Canvas Partner Day--a live stream event where we got to meet Canvas users in a virtual face-to-face and talk about our favorite topic: how to keep students engaged in their learning.
A big thanks to Instructure for sponsoring the session and to Mark Boothe for teeing it up. And an even bigger thanks to everyone who sent in questions, logged on, and participated live. We learn something new every time we talk to instructors who are teaching in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities. Great pedagogy is an art and a science. And while we do as much data science as we can to figure out what works best for students and instructors, ultimately, you’re the experts. When you have something to say, we listen.
And you had a lot to say. Together, we tackled everything from broad rules to live by to specific tactics instructors can use on day one to create welcoming, lively learning spaces. We pulled out some highlights below.
How do I get started?
It was still early in the semester when we solicited questions from Canvas users, so it makes sense that we had a lot of interest in some of the best ways to get started with a new learning tool (and, for many students and instructors, a new learning environment).
Michael Hakkarinen, who recently joined Harmonize as our Success Coach, advised instructors to give their students time to experiment with the discussion platform without having to worry too much about mastering content.
What’s that look like in practice? Give them something that’s easy: have them introduce themselves or prepare a fun icebreaker. Students can focus on how to post, how to comment, or how to upload a video without thinking too hard about “being a student.”
Michael’s advice to instructors learning a new tool for the first time was similar: start small. If you can, choose one class where you’ll use the discussion platform. Decide what feature will be most important to your goals in the first couple weeks of class. Maybe that’s taking a quick intro video of yourself at your desk. Maybe it’s embedding a video with a link to some content that you want your students to consider for the next class. Use that tool until you’re comfortable with it and then move on to the next features. And always remember: the tool is always in the service of your pedagogy--not the other way around.
Student voice and choice
Sometimes we think of online learning as a single mode of learning--something we do via the internet. During our livestream, we talked a lot about how “the online” experience actually provides you and your students a lot of choices for how to teach and learn. That means you have more choices for meeting your students where they are. We’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about equity in the classroom and how important it is to have tools to support students with different abilities and preferences. We’ve seen in the past year that introverted students are coming out of their shells in discussion forums where they are more able to find the space to “speak.” Tools like auto captioning open doors for students with hearing loss, but auto captioning is also a perfect solution for a student who can’t always find space at home to learn. An ESL learner uncomfortable with writing can submit video posts and comments. A dyslexic student who hates writing but loves podcasts can create his own mini episodes. We were thrilled to hear the different ways technologies work to assist and broaden learning.
What engagement strategies actually WORK?
We heard three big ideas.
1. Keep it short.
Accept that attention spans are short--especially now in the time of Covid. Today we’re all being tugged in five different directions: instructors are spending even more time in front of screens while taking care of little ones or trying to cook what feels like 20 meals a day. Students, too, whether they’re bubbling on campus or studying at home are distracted and, increasingly, depressed. So, insofar as you can, deliver your content in small, consumable pieces.
Our analysis shows that the posts that get the least attention are also the longest. So keep it short. What’s the essential question you want to ask? What can you save for later? How can you break up assignments? Some instructors are using features in Harmonize that allow them to establish multiple deadlines for a single topic so that posts and responses are spread over the course of a week and alerts can help students meet these milestones. Yes it’s a more disciplined way to manage time, but it also teaches students the value of participating across a full week rather than waiting for the last half hour before a deadline. The more you use it, the more students understand the value of participating across a full week instead of in the last half hour before a due date.
2. Use video.
There’s a reason students would rather be posting to TikTok and Insta. Video posts—even in academic discussion platforms—get more views, more comments, and more engagement. Experiment with how to use video in your discussion forum earlier rather than later. Students can make a video right from their phones, wherever they are, and post it to Harmonize where it will be automatically auto-captioned. We put a five-minute limit on video uploads, but you can shorten that. Design a contest and have your students select what they think is the most impactful video submitted for a particular top. Have a discussion about what made that video an interesting one.
3. Model the behavior you want to see.
Most of our participants agreed that one of the best ways to engage students is to find ways to make them successful. So show your students what you expect from them. We’ve seen some great examples of topic “responses” posted by instructors that give their students a very clear idea of what they’re looking for in a response. You can do this in text, in video, or in audio (but you might want to spread those examples across multiple posts). And remember to show up. Harmonize offers plenty of tools to help you track how your students are doing, who’s engaging, and how.
Taking a step back to see what’s working right is hard to do while you’re preparing new assignments, grading work, running discussions, and trying to keep up with what’s going on in your field of specialty. Analytics can help. Canvas users told us they use a number of different ways to track how their students are doing, from setting alerts and notifications to reviewing dashboards that inform them of a student’s participation to date. Canvas users can consult those analytics directly from Speedgrader, which, well, speeds grading. But it also gives you an opportunity to directly respond to a student if they need extra attention or just a friendly “well done!”. You can use the data to understand which of your assignments generated the most engagement. Do more of the good stuff and leave the not-so-good stuff behind.
That was a jam-packed 50 minutes and we hope that everyone who participated got as much out the session as we did! If you didn’t get a chance to attend, you can view the session here. If you want to join us for an upcoming webinar you’re in luck! Browse what’s on the horizon here. And if you have a suggestion for an event, please let us know!
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