What Does Engagement Mean?

Our library now has an Inclusive Pedagogy Community of Practice (CoP) spearheaded by my excellent colleague, Emily Deal. Next week we’re meeting to discuss Not Enough Voices, a chapter from An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. It’s such a rich chapter that I fear I won’t do it justice by summarizing it. But one part of Morris’ chapter has stuck with me this week:

Today most students of online courses are more users than learners. The majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines…We believe that efficiency is a virtue…But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

Sean Michael Morris, Not Enough Voices

I think about these lines, and the ways in which Morris, himself an instructional designer and teacher, ties so much of instructional design to operant conditioning. We want so desperately to set up the right conditions for learning– the settings, learning management systems, virtual classrooms, and online learning experiences that will best help the greatest number of students engage in learning and succeed. In working towards what we think is best for all we have a tendency to standardize, to teach towards the “average learner” (whoever that might be). Yet learners are not a uniform body, nor is it possible to create a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.

By approaching our teaching using universal design for learning principles, we attempt to make learning environments, systems, and experiences as accessible and positive as we can for as many people as possible. But is it enough? We’ve created space for greater numbers of learners to engage in learning, but what does it mean to engage?

In the forward to An Urgency of Teachers, Audrey Watters writes:

We all spend much of our day now clicking on things, a gesture that is far too often confused with “engagement.” (“Engagement” — a word that has come to mean “measurable” and “marketable.”)

Audrey Watters

This hit a little too close to home. As an instruction coordinator and teacher I’m building asynchronous lessons, videos, research guides, and other teaching materials. I strive to be inclusive in my creation of these materials, but what kind of engagement am I hoping to achieve? Does making something interactive and clickable automatically make it engaging? Do we measure engagement by how many students watched a video or went through a lesson? Are they truly “engaged” when they do so or are they just going through the motions. Click here. Watch this. Submit your answer. Repeat.

Those who see learners as users as Morris mentions in his chapter would have us focus on fostering engagement by eliminating barriers to entry, ease of use of interfaces, and simplifying actions like accessing course materials and submitting assignments. An LMS with a good user interface is helpful, but it’s not all that’s needed for learning. Learning isn’t a UX problem to be solved. It’s not about personas. It’s too complicated to generalize because it is so individual. Engagement is individual. The way one student engages with material, with their instructor, and with their peers may be radically different than the next student. One student listens intently, another asks questions, still another writes and draws and ends up with copious pages of notes. Engagement can be so many different actions–some visible, some not.

My team and I have invested hundreds of hours over the past 6 months on creating online learning experiences that we hope will engage students, make them think and help them clarify their own thoughts and knowledge. Yes, we wanted to make them interactive, but we also wanted to give space for students to reflect, digest, and brainstorm. This has meant relying on offline methods like worksheets, reflection questions, and pauses to brainstorm. Sure, they can turn these in to their instructors for “proof” that they did the work, but that’s not what’s important. For us, what’s important is that they spend the time engaging with the material in a meaningful way. It’s probably not always going to happen, but we want to create the space for it to happen.

One thing we’re still wrestling with is how to foster engagement among students in an asynchronous library world, because there is so much students learn from one another in synchronous learning. We’ll continue to ponder this as we strive to make our online learning experiences more inclusive, more robust, and more engaging than just clicking.

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