Leveraging Technology to Enhance Student Engagement

Trisha Lamers, Director, Tutoring-Learning Center, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Trisha Lamers, Director, Tutoring-Learning Center, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

As we traverse 2022, educators are wondering how our pandemic experiences, which thrust us into a fully virtual world, will influence our post-pandemic normal. Some things are certain. E-learning has killed the “snow day.” Zoom and Teams have relegated business trips and conferences as unacceptable excuses for our inability to attend meetings. And we now expect flexibility in how we (administrators, instructors, and students) “show up to” and engage in work. However, while some things changed, some have not. The tumultuous past two years helped us to see educational constants more clearly. The question then becomes how can we leverage advancing technology in new ways to deliver on those constants in a more connected world to promote student engagement?

In 2020, we trained peer educators, virtually, in how to work with their online learners.

We felt like we were building the aircraft in flight and much of our focus was on the use of technological tools and their functionality. Initially, we learned the basics together. As our understanding grew, we encouraged the use of breakout rooms, annotation, and chats to engage learners. We attempted to make it more enjoyable by encouraging peer educators and learners to utilize features to customize backgrounds, select unique pictures for when cameras were off, and to change names from system-generated to preferred. We framed out the aircraft. However, it became clear that framing was insufficient. Learners were showing up overwhelmed. They no longer understood their worlds. While we were still focusing on the tip of the Maslow pyramid (self-actualization), learners were struggling with the foundational blocks of that pyramid (physiological, safety, and love and belonging needs) -- and changing Zoom backgrounds did not help. This hierarchy of needs is an educational constant.

Another educational constant is that for learning to occur, student engagement is needed. Learning engagement, broadly defined, includes elements such as energy and effort applied to the learning process. This usually involves observable behaviors such as active participation and involvement in the classroom and time spent with the content outside of the classroom. This cannot happen until the bottom of the pyramid is solid. Assuming the first two steps are met, technology has the potential to help address the third step. However, the technology must be carefully planned and designed.

“The question then becomes how can we leverage advancing technology in new ways to deliver on those constants in a more connected world to promote student engagement?”

As we consider Maslow’s third step, another constant cannot be ignored. That constant is that today’s student is demonstrating a higher propensity to also be challenged with incapacitating levels of anxiety. This constant has been exacerbated by the social disconnect that resulted from pandemic measures and the increasingly unforgiving “memory” of the digital world. Since before the pandemic, college students have been showing up in academic coaching sessions with emails in their outboxes. Those “timely” and often well-crafted emails sit in outboxes, sometimes for weeks. Students edit and revise and save them again in their outboxes. Their fast-typing texting thumbs are paralyzed by fear. They are afraid to commit to the content of the message. They fear the message is “wrong,” is in the wrong “package,” might expose them as a fraud (imposter syndrome) or might be misunderstood. Soon, “timeliness” is erased and the opportunity to engage has passed. Engagement with the professor and an opportunity to engage deeper with the content stops before it starts, leaving “self-actualization” an increasingly unattainable goal.

Contrast this with my son’s videogaming behavior. He consistently demonstrates desire to continue, to start over, to remain engaged, and to even reach higher engagement levels when experiencing “death” in a video game. There is no pause, no worries like those experienced by the student with an email in their outbox. There is no hesitation to commit to a decision. When his decision leads to failure, he may be temporarily disappointed, but that is followed by a renewed desire to re-engage, a re-engagement partially driven by the learning that happened following the “failure.” He reflected. He has a new idea. He wants to try it out.

Two follow-up questions provide insight:

• What makes these two scenarios sodifferent?

• How do we use that understanding to leverage technology to enhance student engagement inlearning?

In the first scenario, the student is fearful of being judged by their email, a digital fingerprint over which they lose control and cannot take back once sent. Life has taught them (and us) that despite the commonly shared axiom of “better to try and to fail than to never have tried,” it is safer to never try. When one never tries, they cannot “fail,” and nonexistent failure cannot be used to judge them. Judgment is the largest looming threat to Maslow’s third step, the sense of love and belonging. In gaming, there is no looming threat of unerasable missteps, no judgment for failing, and no limit on the number of tries. The focus is on the goal, on the learning that helps us get closer to the goal. There are no barriers to engagement, no mental hurdles to overcome, no fear of an unerasable blemish.

The answer to the second question is we must create digital learning environments that remove the digital fingerprint of failure, encourage risk, provide immediate feedback, recognize and validate progress, and allow for re-engagement without a threat to an individual’s sense of love and belonging. One technological tool assisting with the removal of threat and judgment is the avatar. With personal avatars in educational gaming and virtual reality, anxiety reduces because learners may continually re-invent themselves, avoiding personal judgment and skirting the danger of unerasable blemishes. In addition, studies have gone beyond the idea of belonging, showing that gamification incorporating elements of collaboration not only remove the threat to one’s sense of love and belonging, they do more. They demonstrate the potential for feelings of competence and allow for the experience of being important to others. This idea of “being important to others” is the ultimate form of belonging; it is mattering. And mattering, believing that others value your opinion, presence, and input, is the surest route to promoting educationalengagement.

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