Driving Digital Engagement

by David Shrier

How can instructors make virtual courses better?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many higher education institutions have closed their physical campuses and moved the delivery of their main courses, as well as professional executive education, to remote learning. With this sudden shift away from the lecture theatre, some academics are wondering whether the adoption of online learning will continue to persist in 2021 and beyond, and how such a move would impact executive education. More immediately, instructors are being asked to quickly move to virtual instruction.

We have heard the same story many times over. With minimal time, preparation, or assistance, instructors are expected to deliver virtual courses as opposed to a face-to-face or blended learning approach, as was the case pre-COVID. I have been told that faculty are being guided to simply deliver their lectures over Zoom instead of in the classroom. This presents a complete recipe for disaster for academics like myself. It’s similar to telling the Titanic’s Captain to continue straight on after already spotting the iceberg!

‘Faculty are being guided to simply deliver their lectures over Zoom...it’s similar to telling the Titanic’s Captain to continue straight on after already spotting the iceberg!’

Beth Porter, the co-founder of our company, Esme Learning, and I wanted to do something about this. Although Esme Learning provides a unique approach to digital courseware (i.e. a ‘natively digital’ approach, with significant production values, interactive exercises, and more), the principles of cognitive and neuroscience we have incorporated into our programmes can be translated to the newly created buzzword ‘Zoominar’. Consequently, the question is, ‘How do you create a better user experience with a Zoom classroom?’

The Scramble

Not to pick on Zoom – people are scrambling across a hodgepodge of digital platforms for delivery, from Microsoft Teams to Google Meet, and other similar platforms. All of these collaboration tools and platforms began as a form of videoconferencing software and are gradually being forced into double-duty to function as a virtual classroom. Admirably, the development teams at many companies have recently added features to provide a better learner experience, such as breakout rooms and other digitisation of the classroom.

The ‘scramble’ isn’t for the platform, per se. We could argue there’s a better way to do breakouts, but that’s for a different discussion.

The bigger issue is that a videoconference environment is different than a face-to-face classroom in many ways. When a learner enters a physical campus, they build a certain set of expectations in their mind. Physically attending a lecture theatre induces a trained feeling of focus on the ‘sage on the stage’. Peer pressure, as well as losing credibility prevents one from being side-tracked by things such as checking emails, talking to friend/s, falling asleep (!), or other similar distractions.

In the ‘Zoominar’, you may be on your couch or in your dining room - you’re effectively isolated. Instead of a 360-degree surround sound experience with the social cues of people around you, you have a little flat box with a glowing screen. Sometimes this can be described as a multi-sensory or peripheral sensing experience. It's not just sound... it's all the senses. Years of television co-browsing has taught us to sit back, relax or play with our interactive devices while a voice drones on the screen. This is not what I would call optimal learning. I had one brutally honest professor at a top university tell me that in 2020 he fears his students achieved around 20% of the learning value between April and June, as they did between February and March.

Therefore, the key question here is, how do you create better engagement in digital?

‘How do you create better digital engagement?’

Brain Hacking to Engage with Digital

Beth and I engaged in a brainstorming session to see how we can make these ad-hoc ‘virtual’ classes more entertaining. During this year’s Spring, I was surprised when students from MIT and Oxford told me the virtual classes I was running were just like being in person.

Using many of the same principles of cognitive and neuroscience that we embed in Esme Learning’s natively digital classes, we have created a pedagogical framework for pedagogues, a systematic approach to improve how people engage with content and how academics can construct more dynamic lesson plans. We’re offering a toolkit to help instructors to ‘hack the brains’ of their students to improve learner performance and outcomes.

A lot of work has been done to creatively re-imagine how virtual and hybrid courses should be run with modern tools and thoughtful application of pedagogy. There are literally hundreds of professors worldwide who prevail over successful live, digital courses, and offer their students meaningful experiences. However, it's not the norm because resources are plentiful but scattered; almost all of the courses are in written form, and it's hard to know where to start. For example, some universities send daily emails providing more resources around digital learning, and this can be too much content to digest. Our course, on the other hand, is short and focused on live digital delivery, given in the form of videos, enhanced with templates and further resources, and based on sound pedagogy.

You may or may not already be familiar with many of these ideas. Accordingly, we have created a flexible navigation structure for you to make your way through the Driving Digital Engagement course, so you can quickly grab the information you need.

One of our beta testers looked at the course outline and said that even though she thought some sections of the course were redundant, she was still surprised to learn more about her instructional style by going through them. In hindsight, she found the modules highly useful and essential.

As opposed to vendors, Esme Learning is a company built around partnership with faculty and institutions. Our mission is to help world-class academics drive outstanding educational innovation. In sympathy with the many incredible instructors we know who are now stuck in the ‘scramble’, we’re offering a complimentary Driving Digital Engagement short course. Help is only a click away.