weekly videoblogging to improve engagement in fully-online classes

If there’s one struggle that seems to be universal to the experience of online teaching, it is anxiety about engagement. For those of us trained in the face-to-face environment, knowing whether or not students are engaging with the material in online spaces can be really difficult. Sure, depending on your LMS, maybe you can track them Big Brother-style or use tools to reward participation (or, more often, punish lack of participation). But for the most part, these strategies don’t help us retain, they just make it more easier to see when a student has disappeared.

We know that classroom community can be an insulating factor in favour of retention: when students care about the classroom environment, the people in it, the shared experience, they’re more likely to commit to attend.

I’m deep in the realm of anecdata here, I admit, but in the last few years of my online teaching I’ve seen an uptick in students checking in regularly and making it to the end of the course and the major change I’ve made is that I now post a weekly videoblog in the announcement schedule, on a regular schedule, that just runs through the week that was and the week that is to come. I talk about what they’ve just handed in, when they can expect to see marks back, what they’re about to hand in, offer any last minute tips, and give some global advice or a general look-ahead.

Those nuts and bolts aspects matter, I’m sure, but I think the thing that matters more is that once a week I am not bot-professor but instead a living, breathing, human person in meatspace who cares about them for real.

I’ve long felt baffled by the continued dominance of text-based teaching in many online environments, where students are treated to a weekly set of lecture notes and a quiz and that’s that. Students are often complimentary that I offer podcast lectures, video segments, and notes — as well as supplemental content from across the web — as ways into the material. So I’ve understood for a while that those tools help students see me as a real human being and our relationship as legitimate as any they have with a professor in a face-to-face interaction.

But something about the weekly check-in — recorded off-the-cuff in my office on my laptop webcam, with some hasty notes, a joke or two about the weather, and a smile — has humanized me to students and improved our communication overall. I often have a deluge of messages in the twenty-four hours after posting a videoblog, and often not strictly about course material: they ask about the office decor, if my scratchy throat this week means I’m getting sick, or about the weather in my part of the province.

In other words, we’re finally having the chatter I share with my face-to-face students in breaks and before class. I’m grateful.