Engaging learners in their education: or everything old is new again!

6. Apr 2021 | 3rd edition: Re-thinking learning, Academ & Qace Up Knowledge Bar, Articles

Given the recent move to providing online learning, or some might say, a race that has been accelerated by Covid19, student engagement has again been raised as a key objective to assist learners achieve their desired learning outcomes.

By Kim Watty
Professor Emeritus
Deakin Business School

In fact, the elements and importance of student engagement with their learning has been talked about at conferences, researched, published in peer reviewed journals and trialled in various and diverse learning environments across the globe for decades. That’s right – decades. And it is primarily about learners being active learners because they are engaged learners. They value the process and learning outcomes, they enjoy it, see the benefits, and want to achieve.

The recent interest reflects the move to a different learning environment for many educators and learners that is referred to as online learning.

Higher Education is not immune from the plethora of change that all sectors have faced and continue to face. These include: automation, technology, globalisation, widening participation and increased government regulations and accountability. And now, the Covid19 pandemic has heightened our awareness of the need for change; indeed it has driven change already.

I recently read: The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents.

The new environment has come in hurry it seems, given the constraints of Covid 19 that has in many cases eliminated or at least restricted face-to-face (f2f) interactions and learning. It has been of interest to observe the many institutions that have shared with great pleasure their speedy transition to online learning.

Agreed there has been progress – that is progress in digitising lectures and tutorials designed for a f2f learning environment – this is worth emphasising – digitising curriculum for online delivery, that has been designed for f2f delivery and engagement for learning. There is significant work urgently needed in many areas to design curricula for an online environment that has a central focus on student engagement for active learning. And from experience, this takes a whole lot of professional development, a whole lot of dollars, a whole lot of time, and hardware and software and the list goes on…..

Some say, or even lament that we can never replicate the f2f learning experience for our students. While others say, we don’t want to replicate f2f – it wasn’t that great anyway – let’s make online a better and more engaging learning experience for learners. IRL + (In Real Life plus).

In short, student engagement is key to active learning and this holds true regardless of the learning context, be it f2f, online or hybrid.

So what are the fundamentals of designing a course that engages learners in their own, often unique learning journey? Interested readers can find a plethora of articles on this topic with articles listing anywhere from 5 – 15 key elements, but here I present just three that I deem as critical to designing learning experiences to promote learner engagement.

First, learning is a social experience. That is, learning occurs within the formal learning environment and more often outside of it. A design that recognises and reflects this (for example in assessment that provides opportunities for the learner to explore their own learning context) is more likely to engage participants in learning that is not confined by units and modules, or hours or grades but truly reflects an approach to learning that is lifelong.

Second, every learner is an individual who comes to a learning environment with various levels of knowledge, interest and motivation. As a consequence, a one-size-fits-all approach to design is likely to fail at least some, and potentially many of the learners.

Third, it is the quality of the learning facilitator that will have the most significant impact on the design of curriculum that places the learner front and centre and focuses on activities and assessment designed to motivate and engage learners. Most if not all studies conclude that the critical element in designing effective learning environments that promote active learning through engagement is the facilitator- the teacher.

In an environment of uncertainty, increased expectations of students and the race towards online learning that is likely to remain in some hybrid form, it is the skills, knowledge and experience of learning facilitators that is key. As a consequence, the professional development of existing educators, as many institution move to a hybrid system, is critical.

While research prowess has often outweighed the excellence of an educator in appointments and promotions, it will be the later that ensures students enrol in universities and institutions of higher learning, in an increasingly competitive environment, where may diverse stakeholders now vie for the student dollar.

Post pandemic I see demand for online learning growing faster than campus enrolments, whether that be for an award course or a short course or micro credential. That is, any form of learning to upskill or reskill learners for the changing world of work. Designing an engaging learning environment is key, regardless of the delivery mode.

To date, this can’t be done by technology alone. We need committed educators, who understand pedagogy to design this engaging curriculum, and for the time being, we can all take some solace in that reality.


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