Dr. Elizabeth George in front of drawings of student engagement
Dr. Elizabeth Charles. The drawing were made by Marie Bartlett during the presentations

This is a post for the many instructors who have asked (especially during the pandemic): ‘But how do you motivate students to learn online?’

Student engagement symposium, Thompson Rivers University

The Bob Gaglardi School of Business and Economics at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, yesterday held a Student Engagement Symposium for faculty and staff. I was one of the keynote speakers on ‘Student Engagement and Online Learning’, but more importantly, one of the other outside speakers was Dr. Elizabeth Charles, of Dawson College and head of a Québec research group, SALTISE.

I want to report particularly on the work of Dr. Charles and her colleagues, which has much to say about the question raised above. (There were also some other excellent presentations at the symposium, but I had to leave after Dr. Charles’ presentation because of another engagement.)

My presentation

I don’t want to say much about my keynote, as most of what I had to say is already published in my open, online book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

I covered the following topics:

  • the development of online learning, and particularly the difference between cohort-based and individual (independent)-based online delivery, a topic particularly relevant to TRU’s open learning model, which is mainly independent, continuous enrolment
  • the recent growth of blended learning (the future of HE teaching is hybrid – and why)
  • the impact of the Covid pandemic on online and in-person learning
  • understanding (the context of) the online learner (especially their motivation)
  • designing online and blended learning for student engagement, with a special focus on:
    • communities of inquiry (cognitive, teacher and social presence)
    • the need for structure and the role of the LMS
    • managing student and instructor workload
  • online assessment and student engagement, in particular the need for a different approach from in-person assessment, but with the same outcomes
  • conclusions.

Dr. Charles’ presentation

Elizabeth Charles is Director of SALTISE (Supporting Active Learning & Technological Innovation in Studies of Education). SALTISE is a learning community service that brings together instructors and professional development staff from English and French educational institutions within the greater Montreal area, as well as other regions of Quebec. The main participants are from several English-language colleges in Québec.

The key goals of SALTISE/S4 are based on the ideals of implementing evidence-based pedagogy involving instructional innovations and often leveraging the use of educational technology to promote improved learning.

Dr. Charles’ presentation focused on the psychological and pedagogical foundations of active learning and how the work of SALTISE has informed this through research and practice. Among other topics, she discussed cognitive load: what it is, what causes it, and how to avoid it. She also discussed approaches and strategies for active learning, such as problem-based learning and case-based learning, and a set of design principles to ensure active learning.

SALTISE has also developed a number of tools to support active learning:

  • myDALITE is a free open-source web-based platform that promotes conceptual learning
  • The CourseFlow System (CFS) is an interactive and dynamic tool developed by the SALTISE/S4 team that allows for instructional design and pedagogical planning at the lesson level (activity or lesson plan), course level, and program level. In practical terms it may be considered an interactive and dynamic course outline and lesson planning tool.
  • Active learning classrooms: spaces designed to facilitate the implementation of active learning pedagogies by supporting collaboration between students.

Although I was not aware of the work of Dr. Charles or SALTISE before the symposium, there was a clear synergy between our two presentations. Many of the principles used for active learning in the classroom are also similar to those used to engage online learners. This should not be a surprise as both are influenced by understandings of how students learn in different contexts. They just play out in different ways in the different modes of delivery.

I believe that recordings of both presentations will be made available shortly by TRU.

Challenging misconceptions about student motivation

Let’s start by being clear that there is a false assumption in the question: ‘How do you motivate students to learn online?’

The false assumption is that students who have opted for an online course need motivating to learn. At least where students have freely chosen to take an online course, they usually come highly motivated to learn. (Indeed, all humans and most animals are naturally motivated to learn, otherwise the species would be extinct). On top of that, online students have made a deliberate commitment to add a minimum of 8-10 hours a week above their other commitments, such as work and/or family, in order to study. They would not be in the course if they did not wish to learn. If as an instructor you find your online students are not engaged – they do not do assignments; they’ve dropped behind; they don’t participate in discussions – don’t blame them. You have unintentionally done something wrong in your online teaching to de-motivate them.

This can be in a number of ways, and in particular:

  • dumping large amounts of content on them (cognitive overload), without giving them sufficient time, ways to interact with you or the learning material, or with other students
  • giving them online activities that do not seem to have meaning or urgency, especially in terms of getting better grades (‘after the lecture, read the following…..’ Why? Their time is strictly limited; how will they benefit from this extra reading?)
  • requiring them to attend online lectures at a set time, when it may be impossible if they have other commitments.

This was a particular problem during the pandemic, when students were forced to go online. They had not opted-in for online learning; they were expecting and wanting an in-campus experience. Without adjusting the design of a course, delivering lectures remotely with extra added online work was extremely de-motivating. It says a lot for students that many still struggled through successfully.

Once again, the main lesson for instructors is that the online context is different from the in-class context. It is not better or worse, just different. That means you need to adapt your teaching to the online environment. It is not rocket science, but it does mean doing things differently. If you don’t, you will de-motivate your students to learn. Your local Centre for Teaching and Learning can help, drawing on the scholarship and research of agencies such as SALTISE, and the long history of research and best practices in online learning. Or just read Teaching in a Digital Age.





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