Online Teaching: 15 Ways Online Educators Can Light Social Engagement Afire

January 16th, 2013 No Comments Features

Social Engagement

Social engagement may help eliminate the student retention problems that have plagued higher education for many years. Stephen Abram, author of the Stephen’s Lighthouse blog on library trends, pointed out that,

“For decades, research has been pointing to social engagement as a key factor in helping improve student retention. While much progress has been made in working toward easing students into the college experience, supporting them, and getting them active with their peers, there’s still much more that can be done, as social engagement can be a pivotal factor in whether a student sticks around to finish his or her studies.”

This is great news for educators at all levels. As the number of students who abandon their education increases, educators have grown increasingly desperate and disheartened. But social engagement may offer a solution.

What is Social Engagement?

Social engagement is defined by one’s involvement with a social group or community. In the old days, social engagement was evident in church suppers, town fairs, and community group meetings.  Before the advent of online education, social engagement was something that educators probably took for granted because it occurs naturally for students on traditional campuses, where face-to-face courses, extracurricular activities, and dorm life provides many opportunities for students to get to know their new community and their fellow students.

But for online students, who generally work alone from home computers, the chance to make connections with other students or their larger community is severely limited. It’s up to educators themselves to become creative and provide options for students.

This is especially important given the crucial impact that social engagement can have on a student’s academic success. In my own experience, Twitter reminders about upcoming exams and paper due dates have helped many of my students stay on track and prepared to meet their academic responsibilities, especially those who struggle with chronic disorganization or ADHD or other disabilities.

All over the world, online educators are exploring a wide range of new instructional techniques involving social engagement. Today, social engagement comes in many forms, from volunteer work to online chats. For example, online media is accessible, free or low-cost, easy to use, and offers multiple variations and applications—enough, perhaps, for online educators to find something that can work for a variety of different students.

There are countless ways teachers can use social engagement to help their students and enliven their classes, but here are fifteen ideas to get you started:

1. Build Relationships Through Online Or In-Person Chats

For many students, connections with faculty members can make all the difference.  I have always noticed that students who make the extra effort to attend office hours, submit rough drafts for comment, or simply discuss course material with me perform better. When I personally encourage them, they become more invested in their work. Online instructors can hold face-to-face vide chats to make the interaction more personal.

2. Assign Group Activities

Much new research contradicts long-held beliefs that students learn best through solitary study. According to studies by scholar Alexander Astin, individual students’ academic achievement is bolstered by supportive relationships between students, which are “the single more powerful source of influence on the undergraduate student’s academic and personal development.”

3. Create Study Groups in Your Courses

Law and medical school students have long known that study groups can be an effective tool for academic success. Assign students to small study groups held through Google Hangout or another live meeting application to help them learn how to work in groups, meet their fellow students, and discuss course materials.  

4. Start a Course Facebook Page

West Virginia University professor Dr. Nicholas David Bowman teaches and uses new media in the classroom, and he reports that on his class Facebook pages, “students interact with each other faster than I interact with them.

I move to more of a ‘guide on the side’ than a ‘sage on the stage’ and that brings me closer to their level (to borrow an old teaching adage). This is a good thing, as it fosters a trust environment conducive to learning.”  

5. Incorporate Service Learning

According to the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, service learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

An assignment that involves community service, such as volunteering, will provide students with the opportunity to interact with their communities in meaningful ways, and share their experiences with each other online.

6. Assign Professional Mentors From Area Organizations

Build a database of contacts at companies and non-profits that would be willing to answer student questions, via email or in-person, about different fields and careers. Students can lay the groundwork for their own career network while they get to know community leaders, and share what they learn with their fellow students.

7. Assign Student Mentors

Similar to the professional mentoring explained above, student mentoring is a helpful way to bring new students into a field or major. Graduates of the course or program can provide valuable insights to new students, expanding their opportunities to learn about their course of study and develop connections that might be helpful after they graduate.

8. Encourage Collaboration In a Course-Wide Project

Students can work together to build an archive of documents, create a poll, or track an experiment on a collaborative website, such as Google Docs, which gives them the chance to work together, confront and solve problems, and interact through interpretive comments.

9. Tweet In The Classroom

I mainly use Twitter as an announcement service to update students, but many instructors have incorporated Twitter in other effective ways.

For example, professors at the University of Texas and Purdue University ask students to post questions on Twitter during lectures, so that even shy or reticent students can participate in the course community. This can work during online synchronous courses as well as in-person courses.

10. Involve Students In a Class Volunteer Project

Nothing brings people together more than shared altruism. Whether it’s holding a car wash to raise money for a local charity or responding to an international disaster by working with the Red Cross or other community organization, volunteer activities allow students to help other people and in the process develop a broader outlook on the world.

Online fundraising is one way to do this, and there are many online applications that students can use to process payments and donations.

11. Create Community Through Pinterest

Students often yearn to be seen by their colleagues and instructors as more than just seat-filler material. On Pinterest, they can post photos that express who they are, their values, their responses to course material, etc.

Some art teachers use Pinterest as a forum through which students can showcase their artwork. 

12. Use ePals For Collaborative Activities

Seeing the foreign stamp on the letter my middle school pen pal sent me once a month told me that I was connected to the larger world and added a bit of exoticism to the humdrum routine of school, chores, homework, and TV.

Troy Tenhet of eSchoolNews reports that his incorporation of ePals into his courses has given students a similar opportunity to interact with students around the world through collaborative activities.

13. Sponsor an Online Event

Invite your students to join you for an online film screening and chat about the movie. Play an online game with your students, especially one that relates to your course material, such as This Day in History or CEOonline.

A little healthy competition can spur students to stay on top of their course materials and get to know each other.

14. Start a “Social Reading” Activity

Social reading is one of the new buzz phrases in pedagogy, but it is not only a new way to teach material, it’s also a great way to build a course community. As New York University Professor Stephen Duncombe explained to The Chronicle of Higher Education, he used Thomas More’s classic book Utopia to create Social Utopia on Social Book, an online social reading application.

His students annotated and commented on the book as they read it, sharing and exchanging new information and learning from each other. The result was a rich textual interpretation and a new way for students to engage with one another intellectually.

15. Hold an Online Focus Group

Borrow a page from corporations that test products through paid focus groups, and ask your students to provide feedback on assignments and then work together to create new versions.  

These are just a few of the many options available to online educators who wish to bring their students out of the isolation that is both a benefit and a drawback to online learning.  For online educators, it’s important to be creative and find ways to deliver curriculum to meet multiple goals, beyond the content-driven needs of instruction.

This will not only enliven your curriculum, it will benefit the social, emotional, and psychological development and needs of your students.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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