How you can encourage self-directed learning from your students in your your online courses.
Online courses present challenges that traditional classrooms do not face. While learners in a classroom engage with their peers and instructors face-to-face, the lack of in-person contact causes many online learners to feel a sense of disconnect and isolation in their learning environment.
Furthermore, most of us understand how difficult it is to communicate emotion over the Internet. As a result, educators struggle to convey the same level of enthusiasm and humor that they would in a classroom. And while it’s often easy for instructors to pick up on non-verbal cues in a classroom situation that might indicate a learner is disengaged or struggling, the Internet does not provide the same feedback loop.
On the other hand, e-learning tends to attract a certain kind of learner. Online courses often appeal to students who want to advance in their career or learn a new skill, but who may have competing obligations during daytime hours.
They may have a very specific career incentive to drive them on, or they may be following their own curiosity. Either way, many of these learners already have strong internal incentives pushing them forward. Online educators don’t have to worry so much about generating motivation so much as sustaining what’s already there. Here’s how to do that.
1. Make it easy to start
Any veteran procrastinator can attest that the biggest barrier to success is not knowing what to do next. When something is easy, most of us get it done without worrying about it. The harder a thing is to accomplish, the more we avoid it.
Of course, that’s not to say an online course needs to be easy to motivate students. However, learners shouldn’t struggle to understand what they should do to succeed. Make it as easy as possible for learners to know where to start and what to do next. Otherwise, their first task when starting your course won’t be “watch Module 1 video,” but “find out what to do.” Which of those seems more daunting?
2. Take it one step at a time
Learners can also feel overwhelmed when presented with an entire semester’s worth of material on the first day. To encourage students to approach your course one step at a time, try drip-feeding content over the duration of your course. This will also help your learners advance together at a similar rate (useful if your course relies on a forum for class discussion).
3. Establish expectations
Communicate up-front what your learners need to do in order to succeed in your online course. Learners should have a timeline that is easy to reference showing what course work they will need to complete and when to turn it in. Other useful tools include guidelines on how much time they should plan to spend studying each week and a list of important reference material.
4. Be available
As much as you might want to make your course objectives plain as day, it’s unlikely you will perfectly communicate everything. Beyond that, some learners will have questions pertaining to their own, unique situation. A slow response time can delay a learner from moving ahead on a project and gives the impression that there’s no one paying attention to them. On the other hand, a prompt response time helps learners feel valued.
Also, be sure to respond to your learners by name in any personal communications. It’s far too easy for students to feel invisible online. Writing to them goes beyond simple courtesy; it familiarizes an otherwise formal message, and lets the other person know that you’re responding to them directly.
5. Provide accountability
Many learners lose motivation when they feel that their learning experience is not in their own hands. They expect to be lead through the learning process rather than take charge of it themselves. As you design your course, you can help combat this mindset by providing opportunities for your learners to set their own goals and determine their own learning experience.
This can happen through class discussions, team projects, or independent assignments. Instead of assigning study topics, ask your learners for feedback about what aspect of your subject they want to pursue. You can even use that information in future to develop and market new course material.
6. Offer extra credit
For some students, a course syllabus can give the impression that that’s all there is to the subject. Extra credit is an excellent way to break this perception and provide a stretch goal for your learners. It can also deliver some much-needed direction for any learners who want to explore the subject further.
7. Use gamification
Gamification is the process of applying game-like elements (such as badges, levels, or points) to an educational process. And if you think about it, it’s kind of genius. After all, many of the games we play on our phones or computers are, by some measures, tedious and repetitive. And yet, the desire to earn a new badge or beat a high score drives us to persist with a task, even as it becomes progressively harder. This is because gamification helps a task feel achievable, and consequently—fun.
Remember, it is important to be a coach (and not a boss)
As I said before, many online learners are already strong on self-motivation. What they usually lack is direction and the assurance that someone’s paying attention.
By breaking down your course into digestible pieces, you can make it easier for them to start and continue moving forward. Responsive and personal communication helps them feel that their success matters. Gamification and extra credit offer reward systems that encourage persistence. And consistent communication, feedback, and accountability help learners take charge of their education while reminding them why they signed up for your course in the first place.
Of course, many of these steps require additional effort on your part. It’s not easy to design an accessible course with a compelling reward system while also providing timely responses to student inquiries. But it’s a lot easier than pushing a frustrated or reluctant learner through your course. And it’s a lot more rewarding.