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An article on the Times of Malta, published on the 6th of July 2020, read,” One in five teachers say few students logged in for online classes”. A worrying headline confirming that many local educators are concerned that current eLearning initiatives due to COVID-19 have not had the desired level of engagement from their students. There is no one simple explanation to this concern. In all probability it is due to a number of different factors.

COVID-19 and the resulting social distancing regulations have forced us to deal with a new reality that few of us would have expected just months ago. We are living in truly unprecedented times, and once of the casualties of these times has been our traditional  education infrastructure. Our system seems to have served us relatively well for generations, with regular upgrades to the physical infrastructure and continued investment in staffing and curricula. Yet, the basic pedagogy has remained relatively  untouched for generations. Development of physical locations of learning, equipping these with the right facilities and amenities, staffing them with qualified personnel and hosting students to learn what has been defined in a relevant curriculum.

In the space of relatively a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic forced policy makers and educators alike to scramble to find feasible alternatives to hosting students at school. The situation was challenging not only for the educators but the students themselves. It had a major impact on parents  who had to change their own daily routines to accommodate arrangements for the online education of their children, through processes that most were unfamiliar with. With all these disruptive factors in play, and, minimal time provided for thought processing, planning, and proper consultation, the wheels were set into motion to shift all traditional learning towards online learning. Although, overall one can say that it has been relatively successful, headlines like the one displayed above shows the lack of information and education present in engaging students further into online education.

This article identifies some key elements that need to be taken into consideration when planning to develop more engaging online programmes and courses. 

1.Gamfication

There are multiple ways in which gamification elements can be added to online course, without the need to re-invent the educational wheel and building a fully-fledged game-based course from scratch. As a more achievable step, educators can seek to add incentives to students through the form of badges, recognizing the accomplishments of students in their learning objectives. Badges that are rewarded on the basis of achieving particular competencies can be offered as a way of rewarding student performance and encouraging continued engagement.

To date best practices in gamification in education can be summarised as the Introduction of Collectibles serving to motivate students to work through various routes and collect “rewards” as they complete the various milestones along the educational path. Integrate Point-based Rewards to motivate students to complete the required learning elements. These are generally perceived as being easier to accumulate and equate with learning challenges. Focus on positive reinforcement of learning through Grading via Accomplishment ensuring that grades are given only on completion of the relevant coursework within the terms and conditions set our for that coursework. The grading process needs to be transparent, with grading rubrics made available to students prior to grading, and it needs to be fair. Students need to be motivated to demonstrate what they know. Flipping the classroom to have traditional class lectures prepared as self-learning elements which are themselves the basis of point rewards on successful completion. The traditional homework then becomes the basis for online review and discussion in forum chats or live tutorial workshop sessions. Introduction of the element of Competition for Participation in the various learning activities. This could take the form of a review of coursework with the best coursework submitted being promoted amongst peers. Introduction of Games to allow for the utilisation of the powerful world of online resources that elearning can harness. There are extensive libraries of online games for all ages and interests and integrating a number of these in the learning activities of a programme increased student engagement. Integration involves far more than the mere provision of a link to an online game. It calls for the review and discussion of the gaming activities to ensure that the learning objectives of participation are achieved

2.Tracking Performance

There is an old adage in management which states that “if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” To improve learning performance educators must be able to measure the impact and effectiveness of each of the learning activities involved in a programme. This calls for a careful monitoring and tracking of a student’s progress on a programme. In the case of video learning objects, this can be easily done to track the progress of students within their course. Specified dashboards can be set up to track a student’s progress within a course, with some examples of key metrics being;

  • Which students are watching the self-learning videos?
  • How much of each self-learning video presentation have they watched?
  • When do the watching the self-learning videos (as soon as these are assigned, or do they wait until the day before the exam?)
  • Quiz results – individually, and as a class
  • Build a Community

Building a sense of community with the faculty as well as the students can prove to be an effective way of keeping students engaged. Online courses simulate these interactions through discussion forums and live tutorial/workshop sessions. 

Online forums encourage discussion and debate. Educators can direct and encourage students into asking questions and receiving the appropriate feedback from their peers. This can also be useful in the long-term, as these discussion boards not only build relationships and encourage continuous participation, but also, through the consistent uploading of informative and relative material, these discussion posts can act as a resource library. This resource library can be utilized both by the students, and educators alike.

Developing discussion spaces is another part of building a community. Discussion spaces includes formal schdeulled tutorial/workshop events or ad hoc, faculty/student, or student/student interactions. Just as in the real world, teaching staff cannot isolate themselves in the staff room, but must communicate with their students, so too must online Faculty. The online interactions need to be genuine efforts by Faculty to support and assist students in the pursuit of their studies. The need for mentoring and encouraging is often more pronounced in online activities as students do not have the camaraderie of the physical classroom to keep up their spirits.

Elearning calls for strategic investments and development

COVID-19 exposed the poor use of elearning technology in local educational institutions. Teachers, students and parents all had to cope with a steep learning curve in a very short time. In a matter of weeks, plugging in a video conference system became the obvious solution to educational service providers, and lo-and-behold within weeks we had elearning all over the island. The success, of lack of success of this approach is best reflected in an article also carried in the Times of Malta on the 25th August 2020 titled “I am 10. I hope we don’t go back to online learning” penned by Ms. Hannah Mae Gruppetta. At ten years of age, Hannah’s experience of elearning is negative. The deliverables provided were not up to her expectations and she dreads having to go back to it. This experience will likely impact her involvement in elearning activities in the future – a future which internationally, at all levels, will see more online learning activities than ever before.

These are truly unprecedented times for all of us, even experienced online educators and learners. Our recent COVID-19 experiences of online learning has forced us to question some of the very core principles on which our traditional learning module has been based. Post COVID we may need to  completely re-vamp and re-structure the way in which education is provided and pursued. It is not a matter of choosing between online learning and onsite learning. The reality is that we need to optimise our resources at a national, and local level to get the best return from a continued investment in the education and development of our people, young and old. Lifelong education has become a reality of our times and combining elearning and traditional learning activities provides tremendous scope for continued development of life-long learning opportunities for our nation.

Effective elearning calls for an upfront investment to ensure that suitable learning elements and developed and made available to engage students effectively. It is the flexibility of the medium which makes it so powerful. The use of  online video conferencing for live classes is just a small part of what a full elearning platform can offer.

Above all, educators should focus on bringing the same passion, energy, and engagement that characterises a well-run physical classroom to the virtual classroom—students pick up on this energy, and it sets an important foundation for learning – online or onsite!