This post will provide some ideas on how to engage students online in a practical way. Therefore, there will be no discussion on theoretical ideas but rather some ideas for best practice that might work in your class.
An online course must be well designed and structured. This is even more important than when teaching in person because it is hard to rearrange an online course in the middle of teaching. By organized it is meant that there is a coherent and consistent layout of the course. In addition, there are clear objectives for what the students will do as well as some way for communication to take place between the students and the teacher. This will vary from institution to institution but it needs to be agreed upon and adhered to within a course.
If a course is disorganized it can be highly demotivating for students. This is because the students shave to spend all their time trying to figure out what the links do, what the directions are, how this or that works, etc. This is one reason why a course should be peer-reviewed and or beta tested by students before it is used. This feedback can help to determine what makes the course disorganized so that solutions can be developed.
Get there Attention
A course can be well-organized but boring. This is also a problem and is similar to a well-prepared lecturer who puts you to sleep with their delivery. Perhaps the next step in online course design is finding ways to engage the students. This can be done by making the course visually appealing through the use of pictures, colors, and other forms of visual stimuli. Remember that the visuals need to serve some pedagogical purposes and not only an aesthetic one.
Interaction is another way to improve engagement. This can happen through developing multimedia such as interactive videos in which students respond to questions during the video. In many LMS you can assign the responses to the videos points that count towards the grade.
One more tool that can help is developing thought-provoking questions for forums. For students, the more controversial generally the better. By developing questions that challenge students thinking it may help to get them to invest mentally in the course as they look forward not only to your response to their post but also to the responses of other students. When students discuss and learn without you is when a course can be considered motivating.
Make it Fun
Fun can happen in many different ways. Interaction is essentially one form of fun. Other ways to make a course fun can include using humor. This can happen when communicating with students or through how the course is setup. You have to be careful with humor as it can be a double-edged sword because what is funny to one person is an offense to another.
Games can also be incorporated into an online course. Some authoring tools include games that can be employed such as H5P. Another approach would be to point students to educational games at other websites that are related to the course.
Having a good time knows no age limit. However, the younger the more important that there is some joy to the learning experience. Therefore, be sure to include ways for students to enjoy themselves especially for the younger ones.
Something inline with games but not really a game is gamification. Gamification involves putting in a game like feedback into the course. Examples can include being awarded points and or medals for completing various tasks in the course. This can be highly entertaining for students and it is amazing what even adults will do to earn one more point or badge by completing a forum.
Communication may be the most important tool for motivation in an online course. Through the bridge of communication, the teacher and students can develop relationships with each other. This means that a teacher needs to send messages to students and respond to messages from students promptly. Failure to do so will be highly demotivating for many students as they are seeking guidance and not getting it.
Feedback is another critical tool in communication. When students complete assignments they need to know how they did and quickly. Therefore the teacher must communicate academic progress through marking assignments and posting grades. This allows students to make corrections to their mistakes and lets them know that someone is monitoring their progress.
The tips mentioned here are only scratching the surface of motivating students online. You must find strategies and techniques that work for you and your students. However, the ideas mentioned here will at least help to get you started.