Engaging learners with technology

How do you ensure that learners engage with the technology?

This is the second question from my list and my immediate response is similar to my initial thoughts about the last question. My primary concern, as a teacher, is to engage learners with learning. Technology is only a tool – a means to an end.

Most of my career has been spent in teaching face-to-face and I have taught all ages from four year olds to fifty-four year olds and older. I like to think that I have been a successful teacher, although teachers are never satisfied with their work. But I was never a ‘performer’ type of teacher – so I didn’t engage students through the sheer weight of my personality. So how do I engage my students with learning?

Sometimes we just can’t engage our students – we and they for some reason are together in the wrong place at the wrong time. But mostly I think teachers can engage students through their own passion and enthusiasm for and expertise in the subject, through always having the students’ learning interests at the forefront of everything we do, through recognising learners as individuals and building mutually respectful relationships (although this is tough with large numbers of students, it is not impossible) and through ensuring that the activities we plan for them are worthwhile. Humour, or a sense of fun is also very useful!

So how do we do this, if we can only meet our students online? First we need to establish an online presence and obvious though it may sound, we can only do this by being online. It still surprises me how many tutors will set up online courses and then disappear, leaving the students to get on with it. These tutors then complain that their students won’t engage online. I think it is possible for tutors to take a back seat once the course has become established but not at the beginning!

Overall we have  to be there as much as we would in a face-to-face situation. I always think that the beginning of an online course is critical – that’s the time when I work the hardest to engage the learners – I model and demonstrate (Stephen Downes’ definition of teaching – see Slide 36); I ensure that students get all the technical and ‘wayfinding’  (Darken and Sibert) support that they need (100% access throughout the course is paramount to a good learning experience), both through my actions and through the information I provide; I negotiate and so make explicit the norms of the online learning community; I socialise and build relationships and encourage students to socialise and build relationships with each other; I do a lot of ‘back channelling’, checking on students who haven’t come on line, asking if there is anything I can do to help; and I recognise that for some students they will be doing two things – getting to grips with the subject matter at the same time as becoming comfortable with an unfamiliar environment. I also have to ensure that all this happens within worthwhile and meaningful activities, so that students don’t think – this is a waste of time – and go away never to return!

Writing this has reminded me that when I used to teach school children, I would allow at least one week and sometimes two at the beginning of a new term for this process of familiarisation with my expectations – introducing the classroom norms, my expectations of how we would interact, negotiating classroom rules and learning about their expecations. When I moved on to teaching undergraduates, I would spend  the first session doing this – although sometimes their initial behaviour wasn’t a lot different to that of school children and I would need to spend more time establishing norms!

Engaging students with technology is similar to engaging them with the library, or introducing them to the students union activities, taking them on a campus tour and so on. We need to do the same things online, because without time spent on this famialiarisation process students will not feel safe enough or sufficiently comfortable to engage fully with the learning process.

So have I answered the question? To summarise – the key points for me are:

  • focus on learning before technology
  • use all the strategies that you would in a face-to-face situation

But a final additional point is  that I wouldn’t dream of using a technology that I wasn’t familiar with myself, unless I had negotiated with the students first that we needed to learn about it together – and for that to happen, the technology would need to be at least as important as the subject being taught, or enable the learning of the subject to be enhanced.

I think I have rambled a bit. Hopefully I will be more concise and succinct when I am actually asked this question!

4 thoughts on “Engaging learners with technology

  1. suifaijohnmak May 27, 2009 / 8:20 am

    Jenny, I like your approach. An open, thoroughly well planned, but flexible way of facilitating the learners would surely win the hearts and minds of students.
    I have some common aged groups of learners, except that they started from 17 to 60 plus. I should have taught some younger children, as I always love to learn with them, even as a volunteer when I was young.
    I like your freestyle writing, so touching and reflective.
    Thanks for this wonderful reflection.

  2. rheyden May 27, 2009 / 11:36 am

    HI Jenny. Haven’t visited in your blog in awhile and I’m now reminded of how much I’ve been missing. Thanks for this honest and thoughtful reflection on your teaching. Love the points you make here (and totally agree). I’m currently coaching a group of professionals in Second Life, to prepare them for a continuing education seminar. They are all new to online virtual worlds. Your advice to take the time to introduce them carefully, thoroughly, and acquaint them with all the expectations makes so much sense. Just as you would with a face-to-face situation. An excellent reminder to take the time required to do it properly and make it last. Thanks.

  3. jennymackness May 27, 2009 / 9:48 pm

    Hello John and Rheyden – thanks so much for your encouraging comments.

    John – Isn’t it great to be teaching people at 60+.

    Rheyden – I probably need your Second Life seminar. I would definitely need someone to lead me by the hand through it. The little I know of it makes it seem enormously complex – but I tend to think like that about most new technologies! You don’t say why your professionals need Second Life. As yet, I can’t think of a situation where Second Life would add to the learning I am engaged in – but I don’t know what I don’t know! 🙂

    Thanks to you both for your visit


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