Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Power of Connections: What Is Student Engagement?

Julie Lindsay: Social Entrepreneurship Student Workshop
Student engagement is something we talk about all the time. But what are we really talking about when we’re talking about student engagement?
What we’re talking about, simply put, is how to get students to be more active in our courses.

We want to see evidence that students are participating in ways that are meaningful to them, but I think we struggle with understanding what makes participation “meaningful,” particularly in online and hybrid courses.

We need to ask some fundamental questions about student engagement – why it’s important, how to design for it in our courses, and who is ultimately responsible for making it happen. Specifically, we need to ask:

  • What is the relationship, if any, between student engagement during the course and learning that endures beyond the course?
  • Can meaningful participation be tracked through assignments and recorded in a gradebook? If not, how do we measure it and design for it? 
  • If we define student engagement as network activity and/or connectedness with other learners, learning communities, and information sources, how do we measure that engagement? 
  • Is meaningful student engagement about designing better assignments, aligning those closely to course objectives, and working to get students to complete those assignments? If so, what do we need to do differently in our content design to foster greater student engagement? 
  • What role does the instructor or facilitator play in student engagement? 
  • Who bears the responsibility – or the greatest responsibility – for student engagement in a learning experience?
One of our purposes with Power of Connections is to ask these questions and to build exploratory, collaborative models to help us begin framing answers to them. Naturally, we want to ask our course participants and teaching colleagues – we’d be crazy not to take advantage of crowdsourcing opportunities – but most of all we want to ask ourselves these questions.
Personally, I’m sympathetic with institutions and their emphasis on measuring student engagement by hard data points – attendance, measurable participation in class activities, and grades. Institutions are not teachers. They’re trying to solve macro problems such as retention.

And yes, student engagement can certainly be an important factor when we’re talking about retention, but there are other factors as well. From my experience, discovering new ways to increase student engagement doesn’t come from macro analyses. There are too many dynamic elements and too many personal ones, and they simply can best be discovered and cultivated in the day-to-day teaching and learning “weeds” of a course. 

So now let’s come back to the question, “What is student engagement?” or, better yet, “What do I think student engagement is?”

To be honest I’m still working on my final answer, or at least my next iteration of it, but here is the foundation for my thinking and exploration – student engagement is about helping learners grow their personal learning networks.

In other words, I believe we should replace our course-centric model with a learner-centric one.

We should think of each learner as the center point of a vast network of nodes. Each node in that network represents a connection to a person or a source of information. The learner’s network can also intersect with other learner networks and communities. And perhaps most importantly, these nodes, if student engagement has been successful during the course, those nodes will evolve and expand over time.

Our proper role as teachers and facilitators is to foster the greatest possible increase in connections within each learner’s personal learning network that will benefit the learner over the course of a lifetime. That will lead to the biggest impact on learning.

And that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about student engagement.

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