Ensuring Engagement: Reaching and Keeping Students' Attention

In this new era of blended learning, colleges and universities have had to re-evaluate their student engagement process and rethink their course and program designs to meet students' needs. During Fierce Education’s recent virtual event, Higher Education: Technology - Profiles in Success, Dr. Karen Vignare, Vice President of Digital Transformation for Success at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, discussed the importance of developing flexible learning environments to reach and keep students' attention.

Transitioning back to traditional campus learning has been met with some push back from students and faculty alike. Students voice their preference for online courses and the flexibility that online learning offers. Some in the field of higher education express shock that online programs have remained popular among students and that the transition back to campus has been slight, but Dr. Vignare posited that it is clear the field must adapt and support flexible learning environments.

 Dr. Vignare shared these key ideas for developing flexible learning environments:

  • Flexible learning is geared towards increasing access to learning.
  • Students in any course modality, including in-person instruction, benefit from flexible learning.
  • Flexible learning environments are enabled through the adaptation of learning technologies that improve student success for a broader and more diverse population of students.
  • Post pandemic academic administrators realize students still want flexibility including online courses and online services. This is likely a permanent shift and changing enrollments mean designing student first environments.  

Leaders in the field are struggling with the romanticization of traditional, on-campus learning, whereas students learned early on that the flexibility of online learning allows space for other activities, commitments, and responsibilities. On a national scale, Dr. Vignare shared that enrollment is not increasing as the industry attempts to revert back to traditional learning, posing the question of how, then, do we engage students?

Higher education institutions must develop dexterity for adapting teaching and learning. Institutions must strike a balance of synchronous and asynchronous course designs. When converting course content to an online format, generating opportunities for authentic learning experiences must remain a priority. Students must learn self-direction and manage their learning. Dr. Vignare highlighted that educators must learn how to translate empathy to students and balance their needs and grant support as we move forward in this uncharted territory. 

Dr. Vignare pointed out that most institutions aren’t even yet discussing strategic policy when it comes to AI technology. What is being discussed, however, is how AI will be used in the classroom. Though important, attention should be paid to the role of academic leaders in promoting a flexible learning environment. Few universities truly integrated online and flexible learning into their core and many put online learning off to the side, but these discussions can lead to true academic transformation. 

Institutions as we know them today are at risk if we don’t embrace strategic conversations about academic transformation and where learning takes place, and how we engage the students. Dr. Vignare asserted that this idea is not new, but the reality is that our process and strategy must be improved, and shares these key ideas in driving toward academic transformation:

  • Many institutions choose the process of enacting transformational change internally to develop a systemic infrastructure for digital learning. 
  • The use of transforming-enabling technologies to deliver high-quality, long-lasting, flexible learning environments cannot succeed without effective leadership.
  • Success of the institutional model for academic transformation hinges on engagement of deans and department chairs in the continuous improvement for high-enrollment, gateway, and first-year courses. 

Dr. Vignare also urged educators to reframe the debate of the role of AI, asking them to instead strategize how to incorporate AI instead of forbidding it from their courses. She posed the questions: How do we enhance student use of these tools and harness the power of AI as an educational tool? In first year and gateway courses and learner variability, how can AI and ChatBots be implemented to enhance student success and engage learners? AI and ChatBots can be used in writing and English courses to help students critique writing, in algebra and math courses to work out problems, even in chemistry to provide virtual simulations of reactions. 

Educators must prioritize implementing data informed teaching strategies. The pandemic gave the field a treasure trove of data for online learning, providing us with the information to foster opportunities to engage students. Dr. Vignare believes that we have the tools to reach personalized learning and that strategic thinking within a changed management process in higher education will lead to transformation. The university must be designed for our students.