FEATURE: How to keep online learners engaged
Lucia Scodanibbio of CDKN interviews Matilda Rizopulos and colleagues at the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation about best practices in transitioning learning online: with long term lessons for how we can limit carbon emissions.
We all know that people learn best when the training is relevant, when they can learn in their own way and the methods are clear and fun. In online sessions, one of the biggest challenges of facilitators is to keep participants engaged, when many will be multi-tasking behind their laptop, given everyone’s busy work and personal lives.
“Virtual learning has suffered from a bad reputation because of multiple examples of poor e-learning design in the past. We must be sharp about how to design and facilitate learning that engages participants”, says Matilda Rizopulos from Wageningen University & Research (WUR). Rizopulos works at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI), the international expertise and capacity building unit of WUR.
Here we share a number of conscious design choices that trainers of WCDI are working on – in the preparation of their online learning courses. They’re aimed at maintaining motivation and connection, despite not being physically together.
Design for mobile: content in bite-sized chunks
When designing mobile learning, choosing tools and systems which can support the learning process “anywhere, anytime” is critical. “Through a survey with the participants of our upcoming courses it became clear that many will learn and participate via their tablets and mobile phones” says Matilda Rizopulos. Learning via mobile phone is not something someone can do for many consecutive hours, therefore the content needs to be short and to the point. People check their phones multiple times a day, often only quickly glancing at it. The content offered should therefore be easy to read, with clear and simple graphics, easy to scroll through and accessible when learners have time or when they need it.
Shorter mobile-based learning modules take less time to complete, which gives learners more flexibility to fit the online learning in their daily routine and planning. For a university or knowledge institute this is however a major challenge given the extensive range of content that the various courses generally cover. Dividing the content according to ‘must know’, ‘should know’ and ‘could know’ can help to find a balance between facilitating sufficient learning about the complexity of the course content and compatibility with a micro-learning format .
In situations of poor connectivity or technology failure, breaking down sessions into bite-sized components can also help to keep the course more manageable.
Contributions and participation of learners made easy
Another challenge trainers face is to cater to the diverse digital literacy of the learners.
Digital literacy includes access to technology, having the skills to learn online, making informed choices about how to use the technology and being engaged and confident. In a world that always seems online, a high level of digital literacy is sometimes taken for granted. If learners in a course are not used to learning online and using virtual tools, they might need more time to practice these and may require more one-on-one attention and instruction.
In addition, there are diverse learning styles and preferences. Online facilitators need to curate and develop a variety of learning activities, content and tools, to provide participants with a choice according to how they learn best.
Learners who are more action-oriented and like to experiment may contribute more through working on real life cases, solving problems and testing what they learned through a quiz. Learners that like to reflect on experiences may be more actively engaged in online discussions by challenging points of view and giving and receiving feedback. Learners who form new ideas and like to work on their own, may want to focus on an independent research project or desk study. Catering for such diverse learning styles and finding the right balance between taking enough time to get all participants used to new activities and tools, and avoiding fast learners getting bored, are tricky challenges for a facilitator.
To increase learners’ participation and understanding of the content:
- Record online sessions so participants can play them back.
- Spend enough time practicing the use of the digital tools.
- Offer reference and background materials in various formats (pdf, e-book, video, etc.) so participants can access the content when and how it suits them.
- Encourage participants to contribute their knowledge and submit their assignments in various formats (such as through blogs, vlogs, discussion boards, video summaries, photos of handwritten text or voice recordings).
To facilitate the process of sharing and contributing information, it can also be worth looking into what learners already use for communication. Facebook and WhatsApp are the most popular (social media) tools that keep people connected. WhatsApp groups can therefore be effectively used to facilitate learning and engagement between participants and facilitators. For live synchronous sessions, finding tools that work in areas with less connectivity is just as essential.
Creating a clear structure and rhythm
In addition to digital literacy, online learning requires the ability to self-discipline. The process of getting started and taking the initiative to learn is an individual affair.
Not knowing where to start and feeling lost or overwhelmed by the content can make learners drop out before even truly getting started. To help learners find their way through a course it is good to think of structure and rhythm, i .e. setting up the course learning environment by showing clearly where learners can start, and what are the steps and timing involved.
Visual timelines, check-lists or steps can support learners in seeing the structure and follow a path. In the structure, a rhythm of communication or activities can support learners to feel prepared, motivated and able to plan. For example, a rhythm can be to have a zoom session every Tuesday, a new module starting on Thursdays and a question and answer (‘Q&A’) chat on Fridays.
As part of the rhythm, regular communication about the activities of the week supports motivation and interaction. These updates should encourage and nudge participants to go online, prepare for upcoming sessions, and stay there. This is especially important given the myriad distractions and competing priorities with online engagement, over a period of time (and compared to attending a three-week dedicated face-to-face course).
Creating structure and rhythm doesn’t mean that learners’ own initiative, social interaction or exploration is not possible. It means that more time can be spent on the essential learning activities.
Motivating learners through personalised learning activities
Real-world relevance of the learning experience to participants’ professional and personal lives is critical. Especially in the era of busy professionals, people are more selective in what they spend time on. Many want to be able to tailor the learning experience to support them in solving their work-related problems and tasks. If the course content is not fully applicable to their work responsibilities and personal ambitions, they may drop out quickly.
The benefit of online learning over a period of time is that learners can apply lessons learned directly in their work setting and get feedback about their attempts in real time.
Furthermore, with online learning systems, facilitators can offer personalised learning choices based on the level, interest and ambition of participants. It however requires a good understanding of the starting levels of the learners and attention to various options in the personalized learning choices. This is quite time consuming and difficult to get right.
Making a game of it: appealing to competitive and playful learners
While the certificate of completion of a course can be a great incentive in itself, people enjoy reaching goals and having fun. Incorporating game levels, rewards and challenges and topics to explore can give participants extra encouragement to make the training a priority, and be actively engaged during the sessions. Games satisfy our human needs to be challenged, to explore, to socialize and to achieve. And there are many people involved in video games, by 2023 it is expected that there will be more than three billion (video) gamers globally (Statista, 2020). Gamification (i.e. including game features in a non-game setting) enhances learner engagement and motivation.
To do this practically, the course itself can include a contest with an award system and prize at the end for the person or group that completed all assignments the fastest or in the most original way. In terms of rewards one can provide a discount for the follow-up course, a free bonus training session, a subscription to a magazine related to the content of the course, an e-book, or merely the title ‘Master of Completion’. The challenge of the facilitator (or learning designer) is to find a good balance between the fun factor and the subject matter. A quiz competition or voting for best assignment can be a first start.
In the next blog post, the topic of facilitating interactive sessions and examples of exercises or tools that can be used will be further discussed. Watch this space!
Follow this link to find out more about the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation courses.