Engaging Long-Distance Learners: Personalization, Communication, and Application Integration

This is my second presentation at the upcoming MLA convention. Enjoy!

If we can ground ourselves in the hopes that we can be the superhero educators of our dreams,
then our fear of dealing with the minutia that zaps our energy
 and robs us of precious classroom time will easily subside and melt away.
Only the product of our hope, and engaged classroom
of personalized learning, will remain. – John Hardison

While my title is quite the mouthful, to be sure, the question at the heart of my presentation, and indeed at the heart of each paper on this panel, is, at its root, the same: How can online educators most effectively “reach” their students? What does “reaching” an online student mean, anyway? And how can an online teacher combat the tendency for their students to “check out” of their courses? I place all of these inquiries under the umbrella of student engagement, an alchemical and mysterious thing which is indelibly linked to increasing student reward, or benefits, by highlighting 1) what students value (per Mary Bucy, “Engaging Students: Lessons from the Leisure Industry”); 2) teaching “to the man on the street,” so that every student, no matter of background or intellectual capacity, can learn (Walter Lewin); 3) emphasizing the application of material in students’ lives and the judgment making process (College Study of Engagement); 4) asking intriguing questions and posing problems that inspire students (Ken Bain); 5) establishing strong instructor presence through multiple modalities of communication (Marcia D. Dixson); 6) making an investment in your students (Ken Bain again); 7) not boring our students (Grant Wiggins); 8) asking the students themselves what engages them (John Hardison); and 9) investing in active teaching (Joel Shapiro)—which understands the specific needs of each individual student, and tweaks the course accordingly. Whew!

So. Based on three years of teaching online, seven in the face-to-face classroom, and 10 years of pedagogical research, today I want to explain three primary ways I employ technology to create a sense of “presence” (employing Lehman and Conceição, 2010), and to connect with my students. Personalized and consistent connection is the primary way that we as educators can combat the MOOC mentality (if there is such a thing) of quick and easy access to information without the hard and rewarding work of forming human relationships. I consistently seek to forge with my students an “intercorporeal narrative” (to borrow Laura Doyle’s term from Woolf studies). I encourage you all to do the same.

First, let’s define our key terms. “Engagement” is defined as “something that serves to engage; a pledge”; a “promise or agreement”; while “engaged” means “employed, occupied, busy”; “committed, as to a cause”; “meshed”; “built in, or attached to another part.” I especially like this last image, because it gives us our identity as online educators, our task and our goal all at once: we are builders, and we are to build something. We are to take each isolated individual and, from the singular, create a whole, create a new artifact. Choose your metaphor: we are building a wall, and every student therein is a brick. We are weaving a tapestry, and every student therein is a thread. And every semester, we get the honor and the challenge of building, and weaving, afresh.

So, how to write your own intercorporeal narrative? First, perhaps the most essential aspect of student engagement is course Personalization: to personalize an online course, it is crucial that students learn about one another. This is obvious, but making this connection rewarding enough so that the students will consistently engage in connection on their own all semester long is extremely challenging in the online classroom, where we are all hiding behind our respective computer screens. There are applications one can integrate to assist in speaking with one another—Google Chat, for example, VoiceThread, or Second Life. I will get to application integration in a few minutes, but first I want to share a few personalization tricks I’ve found successful over the years. 1) My students post lengthy personal introductions, and I respond to each one (if I have time; sometimes, the semester will just not allow this). I also ask students to respond to one message that is not their own. I ask students to comment on everything from their favorite movie to their favorite book, any hobbies or pastimes to clubs, sports, and organizations they are involved with, majors to hometowns, dream jobs to what they did over the last break. Cast the net wide. Beginning connections are primarily formed through shared interests. You want each student to see his or her peers as not names, but individualized people.

2) I rotate the picture on the home page, once a week or once every 2-3 days, using student pictures of pets, family members, or travels. My original request is for a “class mascot,” for I have found that nothing brings out the class love and adoration, and the sense of being united in a common cause, more than sharing the love of our animals. I ask for quirky, I ask for inspiring. I always ask for permission to post the photos, and to include the student name. I have had students report that they log in to the class sometimes just to see if there is a new picture posted; then once they are there, they end up resuming their work. The trick is to try as many different approaches as humanly possible, in an attempt to reach every unique student in your class in his or her preferred way. Make each student feel as if he or she is an integral part of the whole.

3) I employ a “Chit-Chat” forum designed for informal conversations, and as part of their participation grade, I ask students to post in this forum at least once a week. Students can also make informal class posts to Twitter as well, using the class hashtag provided that semester. (Connecting with students via Twitter is a topic for another day, but I strongly recommend you all try it! It’s great fun!) As always, I find that specific prompts work best when luring students to post on an informal forum; therefore, I ask a different question depending on the day of the week (this specificity works well with Twitter also). Monday: what did you do over the weekend? Give me one specific story. Tuesday: share one favorite quote from the reading this week. Wednesday: what is one specific thing you learned from class lecture this week, or something that surprised you? Thursday: tell the class about one of your favorite books and explain why we must read it. Persuade us. Friday: grab-bag. My “grab-bag” questions I pull from the wonderful cube of questions, Table Topics ($25 from Amazon) and range from “What view would you most like to have from your front porch?” to “What do you think is the optimal age?” These questions also work amazingly well in the classroom as small group activities and ice breakers.

Don’t be afraid to veer off-topic to engage your students. Your class may be chemistry or biology, but your students will always remember you for asking about their dog, including his picture on the homepage, and asking you fun questions that get them to think. Quite possibly they will discuss these questions with their friends or parents later! Don’t be afraid to have a little fun. (Note: all of these asides only work well if the content of the course is absolutely sound. Students will resent an online course if it does not challenge them and ask them to work hard.)

Next, Communication: begin communicating early, and engage in it often. 1) Send out an early “hello” email one week before the semester begins. Include your syllabus, the required texts, and your contact information. Be warm and welcoming, and enthusiastic; or, as Mary Bucy puts it, “make it worthwhile, make it inviting.” Some of my students have reported that they have taken online classes in the past wherein they received ZERO emails from their instructor all semester long.

2) I also individually email each student several times a semester, beginning with the first conversation surrounding their Individual Learning Contract: an assignment in the first week of class that asks the students to fill in bullet points answering the following questions.

  • I, [name], agree to carry out my responsibilities as a student in Modern and Contemporary Literature to the best of my ability. I understand these responsibilities to be, primarily: [leave 3-4 bullet points blank for the student to fill in]
  • Specifically, I intend to do the following things or take advantage of the following resources to maximize my learning and my performance in this course:
  • To assist me in these endeavors, I expect my instructor to do the following:
  • To be a successful student, I agree to commit to the following work, reading or study habits this semester:
  • I agree to abide by the CU Honor Code, which states that I will not cheat, plagiarize, or accept unauthorized assistance in this course: http://honorcode.colorado.edu/. Please type your name here to sign this statement:

I also ask for their alternate email address and phone number in this contract, because I have had problems contacting students in the past. This document works to establish a habit of clear communication from the get-go. I articulate what I expect from my students in my syllabus; now this is the chance for the student to articulate what he/she expects from me. If our expectations are widely disjunctive, it is essential to rectify this as soon as possible. Embarking on a long-distance learning journey can only be successful if both parties understand their joint responsibilities and expectations, and if the path of communication between them is secured. This personalized, one-on-one correspondence begins early and continues throughout the semester, setting up both a pattern of connectivity and an expectation of prompt and familiar communication.

3) Write your students a letter after each assignment, beginning with their name: “Hi, Jacob—you did an excellent job with this small paper.” For their large final papers, I ask my students to close with a “Writer’s Epilogue,” a letter at the end of their paper addressed to me, reflecting on their performance all semester long, their writerly journey, and their anticipated grade. I write back. We are like pen pals.

4) Employ “Intelligent Agents.” These are great. Depending on the Learning Management System your institution employs (mine is Desire2Learn), you can set up specific messages that will be sent to the student’s inbox, triggered by a specific action. For example, a student submits an assignment at 3am, and at 3:01am, “you” automatically send them an email: “Hi <username>, I’m thrilled to see you have completed and submitted Small Paper 3. Congratulations! I will have your grade finished by the end of the week. Great job!” Or, if a student has not logged in in a set amount of time: “Hi <username>, I’m sorry to see that you have not logged in to your online class, ENGL 3060, in over one week. It is crucial that you do so.” Employ the humble email: it is your friend! I email students if they have skipped work, or if they have done an exceptionally great job that week. (Yes, this is time consuming, but think of all the time you are saving by not doing lesson plans or holding class regularly or commuting to campus or holding office hours!)

5) Experiment with small groups. I keep my groups of 5-6 students all semester long, so that the students get to know each other by responding to each others’ discussion posts all semester long. I pair students up to work on paper drafts and writing workshops at the end of the semester. You could even do something like pair up two students for the entire semester: “John, you and Mary are study buddies. Respond to each other’s posts if no one else has yet. Ask each other first if you have any questions.” You could complete these pairs based on student interests as articulated in the introductory posts: “John and Mary, I’m pairing you up because you are both biology majors who love to ski.” It’s important in an online class that the student does not feel alone, or left out.

6) Keep notes on your students. I do this in my gradebook in Excel, in a “Notes” tab. Jot down where they are from, so if a hurricane hits New Jersey, you can email Daniel to see if his family is okay. If the mountains got a lot of snow over the weekend, you can give a shout-out to all your skiers in the Chit-Chat forum. I had a student who was a huge fan of Orlando Bloom last semester, and when I saw he was in a new production of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway, I forwarded her the article from the New York Times. It’s the little things that count.

7) Inspire passion, and invite relationship. At the end of the semester, I email out a thank you, including an inspiring poem and my “For Future Reading” list, a seven-page list of my favorite books, books I’ve taught in past classes, and books that are essential to the major. There is also a section for “Student Favorites” that I ask students to email me to contribute to. Students can “friend” me on Facebook (my teacher account set up for this purpose), follow me on Twitter, read my blog. I ask students to send me postcards in 10 years to let me know where they are and what they have done with their lives. I tell them I will help them in the future, to look me up if they ever need advice, a letter of recommendation, or just a good beach read for their next vacation. Again, yes, I know this is opening up the door to a lot of work, but what is teaching without relationship, and without helping our students? I know I would not be here today without the efforts of my hard-working teachers who were always willing to help me.

Finally, Application Integration: 1) I have tried everything from Facebook to Twitter to blogs to HootCourse with varying success. Commit yourself to trying one new application each semester. Here are a few that have worked especially well for me:

2) I assign a creative project, and ask students to do something digital, or write a creative paper: it can be fiction, or something like a Reader’s Guide. I had a dancer stage a ballet based on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and I have also had students transmute fiction into graphic narratives. Students can use the website Storify, which jointly engages the student’s outside interests and their creative impulses. Storify is all about “content curation” – “the act of discovering, gathering, and presenting digital content that surrounds specific subject matter” (Eileen Mulan, EcontentMag.com, Nov. 30, 2011). Think of it as a museum full of digital artifacts gathered across the internet about a specific topic. It is up to you as the “curator” of this museum of artifacts to present, frame, and explain the artifacts that you exhibit in your Storify page. Storify also allows you to be multi-modal, including audio clips, videos, and text. These multi-modal “stories” are then shared with the class, which leads to vibrant discussion of the intersections between student interests, modern technology, and the literature.

3) Encourage meta-analysis with sites like Voyant, which allows you to create word clouds and see which words are most prevalent in any given chunk of text. I have had students analyze the letters in Pride and Prejudice, noticing, for example, that Mr. Collins most likes to talk about his benefactress, Lady Katherine, and is therefore most invested in prestige, upholding class divides, and appearances. I have had students analyze each book in Paradise Lost, finding to their amazement that the words Satan uses most are “Heaven” and “God,” perhaps revealing what he most longs for.

4) Encourage students to approach the literature from an interdisciplinary point of view. They can create maps and new visualizations using Gephi, create movies using http://www.masher.com/, create digital stories in PowerPoint, or begin a database using Omeka.

5) You can integrate Twitter, as I previously mentioned, and post the class Twitter feed on your home page.

6) Students can animate a novel, or turn it into a graphic novel online, using sites like ZooBurst (which allows you to create a digital 3D pop-up book), ComicMaster.org, where you can create a digital comic book.

7) Students can annotate a text using a digital annotation tool like Bounce, Diigo, or SharedCopy. This exercise works wonderfully for team building and for generating conversations about what is essential to know when approaching a text for the first time. There are several excellent resources available online which outline specific class exercises using digital annotation.

8) Make a digital collage using Glogster (Glogster.com)

There are many, many avenues to explore with Web 2.0 application integration, and much of this gets into the field of digital humanities. For more information on any of these, you can check out Hybrid Pedagogy, an excellent online journal, or my blog, http://www.erinkingsley.Wordpress.com.

I know this was a lot, but these three areas: Personalization, Communication, and Application Integration are guaranteed to spice up even the most unenthusiastic online teacher and mundane online class. In the words of educator Mary Bucy, “create experiences that intrigue and inspire so that [students] will choose to engage” (Hybrid Pedagogy.com). It’s really quite simple: show the students that you are a human being, that you know that they are human beings, and that you care about their existence in the world. Go about this process systematically, and relentlessly.


Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.

Bucy, Mary. “Engaging Students: Lessons from the Leisure Industry.” http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/Journal/files/Engaging_Students.html

College Study of Engagement. As cited in Wiggins.

Dixson, Marcia D. “Creating Effective Student Engagement in Online Courses:  What Do Students Find Engaging?” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 10.2 (June 2010): 1-13. http://online.sjsu.edu/docs/dixon_paper_engagement.pdf

Hardison, John. “Ordering a Teacher: Suggestions from Students (Part 1).” http://gettingsmart.com/2013/08/ordering-a-teacher-suggestions-from-students-part-1/

Lehman, Rosemary M. and Simone C. O. Conceição. Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching: How to “Be There” for Distance Learners. http://books.google.com/books?id=Bff3GYtfd4YC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Lewin, Walter. Link to a YouTube video as found in the below blog post by Wiggins.

Shapiro, Joel. “3 Must-Knows on Distance Ed.” http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/09/10/essay-three-key-facts-distance-education

Wiggins, Grant. “Bored? Tough.” http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/bored-tough-hard-to-believe-this-is-published-in-a-major-ed-publication/


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Filed under Conferences, Digital Humanities, Teaching

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