By Georgie Crewdson
This paper discusses the effect of implementing an engagement framework into a 7-week online accounting module. This ‘action research’ was designed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic break-out as it was designed for an already fully online bachelor’s degree targeting an international audience. It coincided however with the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, giving the researcher not only valuable insights into the challenges of online learning itself but also the challenges of online learning under abnormally stressful circumstances. The results from this study are valuable when looking at important factors affecting online learning, specifically factors affecting student engagement which is one of the most critical factors in academic success 1. The engagement of the student, i.e. the engagement framework, can be compartmentalised into 5 types of engagement: social, behavioural, cognitive, collaborative and emotional. With an inevitable shift towards online learning, it is vital that the facilitators (lecturers, teaching assistants, etc) understand and incorporate the elements that contribute to this engagement to their course/module designs, as the benefits of face-to-face engagement (that is taken for granted), will of course not be possible for the foreseeable future. This paper provides us with actionable methods to encourage all five types of engagement thus ameliorating a student’s chances of academic success.
The solution methods implemented by the author will now be discussed. As the aim of this article is to provide actional methods that aim to improve teaching methods and the student experience, this section will be broken down into actionable measures that can be applied through each type of engagement (a brief description of the type of engagement will also be provided). The actions will be primarily based on the student responses to the engagement framework implemented into the accounting module (obtained via a feedback form provided to the students by the author, comprised of both closed and open-ended questions). The actionable tasks, specific to the engineering undergraduate course are written in bold.
Social engagement refers to the social relationship between students and between students and facilitators, and can take the form of discussion forums, social media groups etc. These can be both student-led or formally managed by the facilitator (or both). This type of engagement has been proven to increase both the student’s self-esteem and their overall university experience .
Actionable Task: The author implemented a number of solutions to increase social engagement, the most successful (based on the student feedback) being the creation of a Facebook Leaning group by the facilitator. Here we see the creation of a social space by the facilitator indicating that the facilitator is encouraging a social environment (both student-student and student-facilitator). However, some of the mature students (not having a social media presence) preferred using the LMS (Learning Management System) a more formal platform, the equivalent to the MyPlace forum at Strathclyde. The actionable task proposed here is that the facilitators create multiple social hubs (catering for a range of age groups) and encourage the use of platforms suitable for all such as WhatsApp.
Cognitive engagement relates to the student’s engagement with the course content/materials. It is the valued academic practice of planning, monitoring, and evaluating learning with regard to clear learning outcomes that encourages this type of engagement. It is important to understand that cognitive engagement will come more easily to some students than others and understanding this is vital to successfully implement solution strategies.
Actionable Task The course content was presented in a scaffolding approach where students are required to watch a video, read a section of the textbook and then take part in an activity before moving onto the next section. From the student feedback, 94% of the students said that the videos were helpful and enriched the learning experience. 94% also agreed that the feedback from the facilitator was clear and timely, making them aware of their responsibilities. A high percentage of students also agreed that the course content was challenging and that a good level of understanding was required. From this we can recommend the following actions: Employ the use of videos within the course materials, create a challenging (yet structured) environment, make the students aware of their responsibilities via individual and timely feedback so that they feel supported on an individual level.
Behavioural Engagement relates to how the student perceives the course from an emotional standpoint. Successful behavioural engagement occurs when the student already displays social and cognitive engagement, and the key indicators are turning up and being present in the module. This includes self-regulation and discipline on the student’s part.
Actionable Task The behaviour of the student is influenced and modelled by the behaviour of the facilitator ((Cohen & Jackson-Haub, 2019), therefore the facilitator of the accounting module, provided individual feedback. For example, she emailed the students that had not engaged in the weekly activities mid-week to encourage them to commence the work (due on the Sunday evening). Indeed 94% of the students strongly agreed that timely feedback helped them self-assess and reflect on their learning. That being said, (and remembering that this was advertised as an online course prior to the pandemic) 78% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they are self-directed. From this we can recommend the following actions: As this article aims to implement changes into undergraduate courses (i.e. not always composed only of self-directed students), the facilitator must ensure that Social and Cognitive engagement is put into place in order to facilitate behavioural engagement. The facilitator should be present in the module, monitor the students work (via an activity log) and respond with individual email prompts when necessary.
Collaborative engagement can be put into place via most teamwork activities (formal and informal) and can prepare the students for the working environment. In the case of online learning, this implementation can be difficult, and both the facilitator and the student groups (if self-directed) must be considerate of different times zones, personal schedules etc. Collaborative engagement comes with many challenges, one of the students in the accounting module suggested that university teamwork is nothing like the real world as there is no boss or clear lines of accountability, a feeling which is strongly echoed throughout university degrees, however group work cannot be removed and can still be very valuable when implemented correctly.
Actionable Task: The facilitator of the module found that, to be successful, the group must be organised, there must be well-defined roles, everyone needs to contribute their part and there must not be over-controlling members. The groups were kept quite small (5 people) meaning that all members of the group must participate in order to a successful assignment (for a 7-week module). Most groups set up What’s App groups and self-regulated quite well (remembering that most students from this module identified as self-driven with an average age of 29). The facilitator implemented a novel degree of freedom, rarely seen in undergraduate courses: the group could choose the format of their report. It could be written, a narrated PowerPoint presentation or a video, which was appreciated by the students. Actionable tasks that could be transferred include (acknowledging the difference in demographics here): Setting a group task that can be easily divided into clear sections where each student can be held accountable for their contributions and therefore recreating more of a real-world environment (this includes setting achievable assignments and correctly sizing the groups). The facilitator must be ready to intervene if conflicts arise in the group and provide timely feedback. This could include regular facilitator-group meetings, where the group can feel both supported and structured, more suitable for an undergraduate course where the students may not be entirely self-directed.
Emotional engagement focuses on how the students perceive the course, the facilitators and their overall (in this case) university experience. Of course, successful emotional engagement is achieved when these emotions are positive. If students are not emotionally engaged, cognitive, behavioural, and social engagement will also be lacking . Tapping into the student’s personal goals is of great importance as it connects them to the course on a personal level. An important notion highlighted by the author is that not all students will display their emotions clearly and therefore, yet again individual feedback and communication is of paramount importance.
Actionable Task: The strategies employed by the facilitator to encourage emotional engagement include asking the students to share their personal goals for the module (and degree) with the rest of the group and checking the module Facebook group to gauge the interests of the students and to respond to any concerns/questions recently posted. She also encourages individual communication by responding promptly to any emails from students in order to ease anxiety regarding the module. The feedback from the students is a clear indicator of what is extremely important in order for the students to be emotionally engaged. In fact 92% of the students agreed and strongly agreed that setting goals in their studies motivates them but 50% agreed that they still felt anxiety about the course. The open-ended questions revealed that, for some, this anxiety was linked to the stress induced by the change in lifestyle due to the pandemic. Remembering that in this case, the stress of taking care of children when schools shut was an important factor for most of the students taking the accounting module. Again, considering the differences in demographics, anxiety will be inevitable among younger students and may relate to feelings of isolation. Actionable strategies may include, the facilitators finding solutions to ease anxiety by creating a social media platform (such as a online learning group) in order to create a social environment and to curate a community feel in the module. They must also be ready to answer emails from students concerning their personal involvement in the course as opposed to strictly academic questions.
To conclude, this case study has revealed that the common link between the successful implementation of all 5 types of engagement is the consistent involvement of the facilitator, on an individual level and group level, this key aspect will be vital to student success especially as engaging students will be more challenging due to the online nature of the course in coming month/years.