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The ‘engagement monitoring’ of university students in the context of blended learning

  • 26 October 2020
  • By Paul V. Smith

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Paul Vincent Smith, Head of Student Support Services, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. You can find Paul on Twitter @Paul27326740

Many universities, including my own, now monitor student interaction with a virtual learning environment (VLE) and are able to produce analytic data that work as proxies for online engagement. Although there remain understandable concerns regarding the ‘Big Brother’ potential for monitoring student analytic data, these can provide valuable support for both academic and pastoral interventions.

My argument here is that the best results of such engagement monitoring will be seen where universities are able to take into account the kinds of academic engagement that they would like to see from their students.

Since it became clear that higher education would need to be delivered in online or blended modes, lecturers in UK universities have worked to re-configure and in some cases completely re-write their courses. ‘Blended’, in the COVID-19 era, is taking on at least two distinct meanings: the first, as blended learning, is the well-established idea of instruction delivered by both IT-driven and traditional face-to-face means. A newer idea is better expressed by the term ‘blended delivery’. Many lecturers across the sector are devising courses that will need to be delivered concurrently for students who intend to study remotely, and for those who can take part in face-to-face instruction.

This presents a number of substantial challenges to the lecturer, not least in how equity of treatment is provided to students taking up their learning in different modes. How are intended learning outcomes to be fulfilled when there are two – at least – distinct student constituencies?

Clearly, these learning outcomes cannot be too attached to a presumption that students will be present in the classroom. It is also problematic to assume that students will be digitally present in any given online session, given the potential issues with internet connections, personal responsibilities outside of studying, and various interruptions occasioned by home life, among others. One aspect of good practice when planning teaching the academic year 2020/21 appears to be the provision of what might be called an ‘asynchronous alternative’ – that is, ways for students to engage with their courses when real-time contact with lecturers is not possible.

For these and other reasons, the practice of monitoring contact hours is starting to be seen as problematic, and some universities are rapidly starting to think more in terms of ‘engagement time’ and related notions. A possible side-effect of this development is that polemics over contact hours may recede, as long as engagement monitoring is carried out successfully. If it can be demonstrated that students have engaged with their studies, then the idea of attendance will be absorbed by more encompassing ideas of what it means to be involved in learning. Among other benefits, this may reassure students who have unconventional modes of engagement.

Providing a robust concept of student engagement in the COVID-19 era is clearly a challenge even for those with an established background in student support. As stated, it must take into account the models of teaching, learning, and assessment that academics are adopting, and in some cases inventing, in short order. The most successful institutions will be those in which there is a high quality of discussion between university management, academic staff, and professional services.

For instance, Lecturer A has a one-hour lecture slot for her course. She has heeded guidance that there should be no replacement of a live face-to-face lecture with a synchronous online lecture. The lecture has been pre-recorded and can be consumed in short segments. There are some questions for students to think about before the lecture. The timetabled slot consists of pre-recorded material interspersed with quizzes and reflective activities. At the end of the hour the lecturer appears live and online to answer questions, and to encourage students to write up their thoughts for use in the seminar slot, in online discussion boards, and for their notes. This advice is repeated after the lecture. This scenario incorporates various items of advice that have been circulated as good practice.

Although I have not yet been able to disentangle the idea of ‘engagement time’ from ‘independent learning time’, it is evident that pedagogical designs such as the above work on the basis of student engagement with the lecture topic both before and after the timetabled slot. It is also clear that with pre-recorded segments of lecture, a close analogy of the live or timetabled experience can be provided through asynchronous study. In such a situation, recording attendance makes less sense than considering a wider array of student behaviours.

In the case of Lecturer A, several parameters would be needed to provide a full picture of student engagement. At present I can be informed of a student’s presence or otherwise on a VLE. This can be refined by engagement with a particular course; for instance, an otherwise thriving student may find one course difficult and avoid work on it. Useful additions would be monitoring of ongoing completed work, submitted assessment, and being able to see where students have accessed feedback; in other words, where students are present in the VLE.

What would also be useful in the example above is an idea of when the student was engaging with the work. A good indication of engagement would be a VLE presence before, during, and after the timetabled session. This is not the same as consistent and visible engagement during the timetabled hour. Thus equipped, Lecturer A would be able to see any gaps in a student’s progress and would be able to make suggestions on that basis. Other models of instruction will suggest different configurations for how engagement monitoring could be carried out.  

An objection to this is that we are dealing with a temporary situation and attendance monitoring will once again make sense when there is a permanent return to campus. My contention is that once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back in. No matter where distance and blended learning go from here, we should be developing flexible and nuanced tools that will be relevant for a long time to come.

1 comment

  1. Ashley Garlick says:

    Paul Smith correctly identifies the way we define and monitor student engagement needs to change. The rapid expansion of significant blended learning in courses will simply accelerate something that had already begun. The good news is, as Paul points out, the potential for VLEs to produce high-quality data means that we have viable (and arguably better) alternatives to attendance for measuring student “time on task”. However, I suspect that the variability of how well VLEs are used to effectively do this task is high. For example, in my own practice, I have learned of the importance of creating tangible outputs for online activities that take place outside of the VLE (such as watching a video) which provides the VLE with evidence that the activity has taken place. This might be a short quiz based on the activity or the requirement to upload some kind of evidence of completion. Doing this has empowered me to confidently identify which students are completing the tasks and which are not, and direct support where needed.

    My concern is with the concepts of concurrent delivery and asynchronous alternatives. I have been immensely impressed with the lengths colleagues have gone to ensuring that students can access their learning in a way that suits their circumstances. However, personally, I have been struggling to effectively manage both a face-to-face and online classroom simultaneously when live broadcasting sessions without compromising teaching quality. While asynchronous alternatives avoid this (and seem pedagogically more effective for online learning), it seems that this is dramatically increasing the time resource required to develop two lots of content in an environment where staff are being expected to do more without any additional time – this is unsustainable in the long term. I can see a temptation for institutions to adopt this approach wholesale because of the potential gains that might be had by effectively giving all courses both a traditional and a distance-learning option. Should this be the case, there perhaps needs to be a revisiting of the traditional workloading models that have remained largely unchanged for decades. Staff need to be given the appropriate amount of time and space to develop effective content for either environment. Otherwise, we risk only exacerbating the levels of stress and workloading problems that are currently driving staff from Higher Education.

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