Engaging Students: Online and Offline

Learning is inherently satisfying. All of us have experienced the joy of learning and discovery at some point in time in our life. Learning leads to better understanding, new knowledge, skills and expertise. Whether it is learning how to ride a bike, read a book, write code, or build something -- children are inherently excited about learning. They learn because they are engaged. And they are engaged because the experience itself is satisfying. Engaged students become passionate and determined learners. This is true for all students, from kindergarteners to college students.

How do we define engagement, and how do we engage students?

Engaging is an overused word these days. Many researchers have studied student engagement and developed instruments to measure various level of engagement. As an educator, I define engagement as action. It's that simple. Engagement manifests itself when:

  • Something captures your attention
  • You feel compelled to do something
  • You are self-motivated
  • You are involved in hands-on activities
  • You make a connection between what you are being taught and it's applications in the 'real world'
  • It feels personally meaningful
  • There is drama and dilemma

As I write the elements used to identify engagement, it almost sounds similar to someone in love. Getting engaged in a subject matter is almost like falling in love. Going to school is like walking into a museum full of artifacts. There is history, biology, technology, culture, art and civilization. As you walk around, you find something that captures your attention. You want to get a closer look at it, and the exploration begins. The role of a teacher is to provide enough to capture the attention of students so they can start the discovery process. Teachers have to provide just enough fuel and inspiration to get students started. There is absolutely no need to frontload students with lot of information hoping someday they will need it. Information overload does not translate to knowledge transfer.

Many of my colleagues say it is nearly impossible to engage engineering students because we deal with equations. They think there is nothing exciting in engineering mechanics or electrical circuits. I disagree wholeheartedly. Every equation has a story, a real engaging story full of struggle, failure, humor and perseverance. I am amazed to see Professors teaching calculus with absolutely no idea why Isaac Newton created calculus in the first place (Gottfried Leibniz also independently around the same time created calculus). I am shocked we do not even talk about Galileo's thought experiments. These stories and personal narratives transform 'challenging' subject matter from cryptic and boring equations to a fun and engaging experience.

Effective teachers weave engagement elements in their classes - whether it is English or engineering - casually and effortlessly. On the other hand, average teachers try to deliver content. There is no question content is important but if a teacher is merely delivering content, there is really no difference between a UPS driver and a teacher.

Content delivery in the form of lecture is still the most widely used format for learning in schools and colleges around the world today, even though this is the least engaging form of all known educational methods. This form is dry and boring. An entertaining lecturer may be able to get students attention for a while, but most teachers do not have such skills. Many teachers and professors use Power Point presentations. Clean, nice looking presentation with impressive graphics to deliver difficult content seems like great idea. You can even share a copy of this presentation with the students. But learning from Power point is frustrating and I personally despise teaching with Power Point. I have never seen effective teachers using Power Point. Effective teachers engage students.

What about student engagement in online courses? Are online courses making learning any better? In 1999, when e-learning was still in its infancy, John Chambers, the CEO of CISCO said, "the next big killer application for the internet is going to be education. Education over the internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail look like rounding error." His prognosis has not become entirely true, but online education has become a huge business.

Online education offers some unparalleled benefits: taking a course at your own pace, at a time convenient for you from home and for free! Unfortunately, with technology becoming an integral part of education, if we think that online programs and MOOCs are making learning any better, we are sadly mistaken. Most MOOCs are mostly reproduction of same boring, classroom lectures broken into small pieces. I am one of the 90% of people who have enrolled in online courses but never completed one (except a cooking class). I am an educator myself and I am motivated to learn, but most MOOCs put me to sleep in the first 10-15 minutes. Many courses are simply glorified Power Point presentations. In a regular classroom, at least I would have some human interaction, but at home completing a course late at night, they're no better than a lullaby.

Offline or online, boring lectures are not going to kindle interest in learning. Courses offered in the traditional way remain boring unless teachers decide to change their approach from passive lecturing to active engagement. Online courses must be designed to adapt proven best practices in classrooms to engage learners. There will be no learning unless students are engaged.