Activity perception in an online classroom

As part of the first week of KBAI this semester, we posted our Brown Bag talk for new students in the class to watch. This spawned an excellent discussion of what explains my perception of how engaged and motivated OMS students are to drive the classes and program. Is it that OMS students are more motivated entering the program due to demographic or experiential differences? Or does the design of OMS classes actually improve students’ engagement compared to in-person classes?

During this discussion, however, a third idea emerged, based in large part on suggestions from two students (whose names are temporarily withheld until I find out if FERPA would allow them to consent to having their names disclosed here). It might not be either of the above: OMS and traditional students could be equally engaged both before and during the class, but the specific elements of the construction of the online section may better channel that engagement and motivation into visible results.

From past feedback and common sense, we know that activity breeds activity: students are more likely to be engaged when they perceive that other students are engaged as well. Similarly, when students perceive that others are bored, they are more likely to become bored themselves. How do students pick up on this engagement and boredom? In-person, students can read body language, attendance percentages, and enthusiasm during interactions, and all of these can be read either positively or negatively.

Online, however, something interesting occurs. When Piazza is the classroom, it seems to become more difficult to have these negative perceptions of activity. In-person, for instance, we can very quickly evaluate attendance percentage; online, however, there is no straightforward way to gauge how many students are participating, and thus it is more difficult to perceive that a significant portion of the class is failing to participate. Online, we tend to lack the type of “null” participation that often characterizes in-person interactions: students who would not be enthusiastic about discussions or activities simply don’t participate, and what is left over is a superficial impression of high engagement and motivation. Why? Because only the engaged and motivated individuals are participating visibly.

Of course, this may be a double-edged sword. We as instructors may perceive a class as active and engaged when in reality, only 10% of the class is interested; that 10% is simply the only 10% that we see, and there are no “empty chairs” continuously reminding us of how many students are not engaged. As instructors, we need to be aware of the activity of the class as a whole, not just of the superficial perception we get when we login each day. However, if we believe the idea that the perception of enthusiasm and engagement begets more enthusiasm and engagement, then the tendency of an online class to only show the active individuals can have a tremendous positive impact.

This idea actually builds on the ownership angle I’ve described in the past. I mentioned then that there are certain things, like proposing their own discussions, sharing articles or life experiences, and maintaining conversations that target multiple levels of aptitude, that are uniquely common in an exclusively online classroom. Those same behaviors are also visible indicators of engagement and enthusiasm that have no (in my opinion) direct traditional analogue, furthering the impression that engagement and enthusiasm is higher online. Thus, it might not be the case that online students are ever more engaged and enthused than traditional students: instead, it might simply be the case that the online environment better facilitates the expression of that engagement and enthusiasm. Of course, if that is the case, it further stands to reason that engagement and enthusiasm will increase online due to the prior note that motivation breeds motivation.

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