Escaping boredom in your online courses

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If you’re like most people, when you remember your school or university days, you’ll agree than the biggest obstacle in getting good grades was not some innate learning deficiency or a lack of skills in some particular subject but simple lack of attention.To put it bluntly most of the time you were bored out of your mind.It’s ok. We all were. Escaping boredom though is an art that we can master.

We have a tendency to blame this on the subject matter, thinking for example that Math are inherently boring, or that if we find literature tedious is because we are only interested in hard sciences. The truth is no subject is boring in itself. It’s all about how well it’s presented and how engaging the teacher is. A talented teacher armed with good course material, can get even the most disinterested student hooked.

The very first step, of course, it to acknowledge that student engagement is important, and you have to work for it, perhaps just as hard as you worked on getting your courses prepared.

A bored student is a student that not only will not try to expand his knowledge beyond the given material, but that will also easily forget what he learned. And if you’re relying on paying users for your e-learning service, a bored student is also a customer you’ll have difficulty retaining.

There are several strategies to raise student interest in your online courses. Some of those are traditional techniques that work equally well in the classroom, and others are particularly suited (or only applicable) for online courses.

It all starts with the content…

The foundation that you have to work upon is your course text. To make it interesting (or at least less boring), you’ll have to keep it short, succinct and to the point. Omit needless words; “fewer in number” just means “fewer”, “at the present” just means “now” and “as a consequence of” just means “because”. Avoid fancy words, too; why “utilize” something when you can just “use” it instead?

Read the classic reference book “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White; it will greatly improve your copy.

Strive for clarity and brevity. It takes more skill and effort to say something in 200 words than to say it in 1000 words, but the end result will be better.

Don’t be a stickler for academic completeness if you’re not targeting an academic audience. Tailor your material to your target group. You might have a Ph.D in Physics but that doesn’t mean you have to pour all your deep academic knowledge of Quantum Dynamics to young students that haven’t even mastered the Newtonian laws of motion yet. If you want to provide some deeper material for your more advanced students, keep it separate from the main text (e.g in an extra page students can optionally open and read).

Add some funny elements to your course material. It can be from simple puns and flippant references to full blown jokes and amusing anecdotes. Don’t overdo it of course; you’re not a comedian, just an educator wanting to add a touch of humor to his lessons.

Make the content relevant to your students. Don’t use abstract or tired examples (“If I have 10 oranges, and I give 3 to John, how make do I have left?”) ― use stuff that speaks to your students everyday life and experiences. If you’re doing employee training in some enterprise, use examples that are relevant to their day-to-day work. Don’t just tell your students what they need to learn ― show them how it will benefit them.

…and it continues with the supplementary content

In e-learning the written material is just the beginning. To make stuff more interesting you have a whole arsenal of tools at your disposal; from simple illustrations to video, and even down to full blown interactive multimedia applets.

Pay the same attention to your supplementary content that you pay to your course copy. It’s not something superfluous, it’s an inseparable part of your course material.

Choose interesting, engaging illustrations and images that attract the students attention and serve to further illustrate your subject.

Take advantage of the sound and video capabilities modern LMS offer. If you’re teaching a foreign language, for example, you can spice up your lessons with popular songs in that language or some comic sketch video. Check popular social media platforms and multimedia sites like YouTube frequently. An up-to-date cultural reference such as a viral video will get your students far more engaged than some contrived made-up example.

Tests and quizzes, the dread of every student, can also be powerful tools for engagement, if you add some gamification elements to them. Organize learning games and contests and try to have the students compete for something besides their final grades. Have the students work in groups and try to inspire some well-meaning rivalry between them. It’s amazing how motivational even token awards can be.

Students don’t have to be passive consumers either. Try to get them participate in creating their own material. Let them, one by one or in small teams, have a go at being responsible for presenting a particular chapter or topic to their fellow students.

Learn from the great teachers

In online courses you usually don’t have the person-to-person communication that traditional teaching has (except if they contain video conference elements), but you’re still essentially a teacher.

Go learn from great teachers; people that are legendary for being effective and engaging educators. People like Richard Feynman, or Neil deGrasse Tyson. The internet offers a plethora of content from such people, including videos of them teaching. Study how the approach their subject, and how they organize their material, and try to see what makes their teaching interesting and fresh.

Even fictional teachers can provide inspiration, characters like John Keating, portrayed by the (sadly) late Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poet’s Society.

And, last but not least, there are volumes upon volumes of pedagogical material to draw from for techniques of effective student engagement. Study the relevant literature, or at least some high level guides on such issues.

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