Leveraging AI Technology to Bolster Student Engagement

In this challenging online and hybrid learning environment, instructors are looking at effective ways to increase student engagement and ultimately their knowledge of the subject matter. As a result, many higher-education instructors are embracing Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools to help their students become more involved in class while increasing their proficiency at the same time.

Many students are hesitant to participate while in a face-to-face classroom environment. This is sometimes exasperated in an online curriculum because students are even more insecure about their written questions or posts fearing they may not come across intelligently or accurate. Here is where AI tools and programs help to guide students through this process, monitoring them and giving them immediate feedback before posting on a classroom online board.

“At HACC, we are very committed to the success of our students and the quality of engagement in our online courses, said Doreen M. Fisher-Bammer, Ed.D., and Associate Provost of Virtual Learning at HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College, during REMOTE: The Connected Faculty Summit. “Last summer, our President, Dr. Ski [John J. "Ski" Sygielski] shared with me an opportunity to participate in a national community college research study using AI for online discussions. I was very excited because this matched with our faculty commitment to high quality courses and the critical role of connection between students and professors,” she said.

At HACC, virtual learners are not achieving the same success compared with on-campus learners. As a result, Fisher-Bammer said they embraced Packback, an AI-supported online discussion platform, that enables curiosity-based student discussion for the study.

“Packback is actually based on self-determination theory. So, this theory is at the root of student motivation and drives meaningful discussions for our students,” she said. “When we create the conditions that support students' level of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, then we'll tend to create the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities such as including enhanced performance, persistence and creativity.”

If any of these three psychological criteria are note supported, it will have a detrimental effect on the student’s wellness and their ability to learn. “Recent pilot studies suggest that classes who use Packback are more likely to be engaged in discussion and are more likely to report higher levels of satisfaction and higher overall course grades,” Fisher-Bammer said.

HACC students participating in the study highlighted three main areas of concern as it relates to online discussions in a higher education environment.

  1. Students just not contributing.
  2. Students posting weak or nonsubstantive posts.
  3. Students struggling with making a quality post.
  4. Students going off track from the original discussion topic.

Fisher-Bammer said the context and the goals of the study was based off existing research and four tenets.

  1. An effective online community has been shown to impact online course completion.
  2. Students exposed to engaged peers in online discussion tend to perform better, not only in discussion, but in the course overall.
  3. The impact of online discussion is heavily influenced by an implementation interaction model.
  4. AI has shown promising results in influencing student engagement and discussion quality and supporting these results consistently.

“So, what Packback enables is inquiry driven, online discussion that drives motivation,” she said. “AI and a team of professionals coaches students on writing effectively. Packback also amplifies the impact of instructor feedback to guide and motivate students. When a student's post falls below the guidelines, a few options are available if it contains aspects against Packback guidelines.”

HACC participated with nine other community colleges across the country on research, comparing Packback to traditional LMS discussion. In this study, each faculty member had an experimental group and a control group. Faculty had one or more courses that were using Packback and then one class using their traditional LMS discussion board, according to Fisher-Bammer, who added that HACC reviewed some historical data analysis as well. “So we looked at the same faculty members teaching the same courses in fall of 18, and also looked at the student success scores and completion scores for those students being taught by those faculty with their traditional LMS discussion board from the previous semester,” she said.

There were 3 main findings:

  1. When instructor satisfaction increased due to significant increases in student engagement, then the instructors grew more engaged.
  2. When the instructors became more engaged, student outcomes improved.
  3. Students reported higher levels of motivation and a trend line of increased grades.

“So, at the end of the semester when we surveyed our students, we found that Packback successfully compels our students to find discussion points in the course material. It also encourages and motivates students to engage with the course material and resources,” Fisher-Bammer said.