Every educator has faced the challenge of engaging students and building community. Today’s environment, where learning may be online, face-to-face, or a hybrid between the two, makes it even harder.  But it doesn’t have to be difficult. Digital courseware can help instructors create environments where students are motivated, interested, and invested in the course and feel connected to the class community regardless of modality. 

We’ve been poring through reports from Digital Promise, Every Learner Everywhere, and Tyton Partners (Time for Class: COVID 19 Edition, Part 1 – A National Survey of Faculty During COVID-19 and Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic) that examine how students, faculty, and institutions adjusted to the transition to remote learning during the 2020 spring semester. Student engagement was the top-cited concern for the vast majority of faculty in the reports. In fact, increasing student engagement is the number one instructional priority for 75 percent of faculty at four-year institutions and 74 percent of faculty at two-year institutions during the 2020-2021 school year.  

How to Leverage Digital Courseware to Increase Engagement and Community

Here are three ways you can use digital courseware to engage students in meaningful ways while building and fostering a sense of community:

1. Keep an eye on motivation and interest: Motivated students are likely to be more engaged, feel more part of the community, and be more connected to their academics. In a recent survey of 1,000 undergraduate students who moved to online instruction during the 2020 spring semester, satisfaction fell to 37 percent for those who cited motivation as a major problem, compared to 82 percent among students who said motivation wasn’t a problem for them. 

Instructors can encourage student agency — which directly impacts engagement and motivation —  through assignments in the courseware. One way is to leverage the repeated practice opportunities in courseware to continually check in on students. Giving students the opportunity to practice as they work through the material strengthens learning. Look in your courseware for the ability to monitor or, better yet, give students a participation grade for doing formative or low-stakes assessments. Furthermore, use reflective assignments along with those practice opportunities. Suddenly Online points out that online assignments that ask students to express what they have learned and what they still need to learn can improve satisfaction and interest in a course. 

Instructors can also help students stay motivated by using courseware to regularly communicate with them, whether students are doing well in the course or struggling. Look for features in your courseware that make this kind of communication seamless. For example, tools that let instructors set up automated messaging at the start of a term and use these to message students when they perform well on an assessment or provide study tips or learning resources when they are struggling.

Additionally, how students access materials is directly related to motivation and interest in a course. Students must have access to content in a way that does not create barriers. For example, Suddenly Online explained that “not knowing where to find help with the course” is a challenge that drives down overall satisfaction. If students are frustrated by visiting multiple websites for materials or various platforms for support, their motivation and engagement will suffer. Finding courseware that easily integrates into the learning management system that students already use and are familiar with can improve motivation

2. Identify collaboration opportunities for community building: Digital courseware can facilitate communication between instructors and students and between students with their peers. Especially in a remote setting, attention should be paid to what the academic and social community looks and feels like for students. Heightened intentionality is required to do this well. 

Digital courseware can be especially effective for creative collaboration opportunities for students since it affords faculty the opportunity to develop new ways for students to practice together. For example, using the student performance data derived from the course, instructors can identify students who are at varying levels and pair them on homework assignments directly within the courseware. Instructors can also use data to forge relationships with students – for example, examining an assessment side by side and setting learning goals together, ultimately making teaching and learning strategies more collaborative.

Courseware can also encourage deeper communication, which in turn builds a sense of belonging to the class community. Effective courseware allows instructors to embed rich discussions and dialogue into the courses and conveniently log all post-class questions and comments. In a recent survey, faculty noted that evidence argues in favor of expanding the “use of remote communication features, like chat functions, to enable quieter students to interact more confidently.” 

During a recent conversation with fellow undergrads, Kiana Pincock, Lumen intern and a student at Portland State University, spoke about her ability to interact more through digital courseware: “As an introvert, I’ve found it easier to speak up and ask questions in class because having a lot of people physically around seems to be more ‘intimidating’ for me.”

Outside of the courseware there are vast approaches to build community and engagement online from study groups to weekly online hangouts. For example, see what Steve Greenlaw, professor at University of Mary Washington, does to create community in his online courses.

3. Use features and tools that support active learning: Courseware products should include features designed to promote active learning. Interactive tools that are easy to use will increase student engagement.

Students need opportunities to learn by doing. When students are actively learning and given material to build and test their skills alongside their more passive lessons, their interest in the content increases as does their performance.

Digital courseware provides regular, repeated opportunities for students to test their knowledge and receive immediate feedback. Instructors can adapt the courseware to provide multiple points of entry for students, increasing the odds that an instructional strategy will resonate with the student and build their interest in a subject. Also, instructors can adapt pedagogies that include synchronous and asynchronous elements that encourage active learning. Students may watch a video, answer questions, participate in a poll, or communicate with peers all within the courseware.

Digital courseware can create thriving, deeply engaged communities in any type of learning environment. An effective way to learn about and practice the pedagogical techniques needed to build engagement and community in courseware is to participate in professional development. We join Digital Promise, Every Learner Everywhere, and Tyton Partners in recommending that institutions provide faculty with “professional development focused on designing courses with clear structure and routines and active learning practices to engage students in their learning.” With practice and support, courseware can help instructors improve student motivation, use collaborative approaches to build community, and leverage tools that promote agency and active learning.