Discovering New and Innovative Ways to Engage Students
As each new academic year approaches, I take a moment to identify my goals. While I have been teaching for almost twenty years, taking that moment has become more and more important to my personal and professional growth as an educator. Regardless of the goals, they all come back to just one central theme. How will I find new and innovative ways to engage students?
I have always embraced new technology; personally and professionally. From this vantage point, teaching online was a natural transition for me. I participated in numerous technology-related pilot programs on campus and enjoy learning to use new tools. This was in an effort to improve course delivery and pedagogy, not simply to add bells and whistles. Bells and whistles do not necessarily translate into enhancing student engagement or improving learning outcomes.
Today, I teach a merchandising math class online at the Fashion Institute of Technology specifically for Fashion Business students enrolled in a fully online degree program. I also serve as the advisor for this program. In my dual role, I have the opportunity to help students strive to meet their professional goals and work on the skills required for their future success. Some of these skills include math and Excel acumen, strong written communication capabilities, critical thinking and time management skills, and the ability to multi-task. Most of these students are enrolled in six classes each semester – all online. Nearly all of the students are working full-time too. As a result, my ability to engage them is critical!
I approach this class as if we worked for the same retail organization. Therefore, students need to be able to express themselves in a professional way and to articulate, clearly, what they are learning. If they worked for a retail organization they would need to be able to do just that! I am able to redirect them when industry terminology is used incorrectly which I did not experience in the same way teaching this class face-to-face. In so many ways, this modality most closely reflects the way the fashion industry functions and communicates today.
“Meeting them both where they are and in a way that works for them (and for me) is critical to their success.”
Offering a traditional office hour does not work for this cohort of students. They live locally but occasionally globally as well. Some are adult learners with small children at home. Therefore, finding time to meet can be challenging, but also simply … life. Meeting them both where they are and in a way that works for them (and for me) is critical to their success. It would be no different if we worked together in the fashion industry. FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Skype, Blackboard Connect, email or phone are all options. My time with them is rich and rewarding. Particularly when we can see one another, I know when something clicks. Instead of the usual 20 minutes I spend with students on campus, these sessions often extend to an hour and may take place at 7:30 on a Tuesday morning or 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon. And, yes, I have a life too.
Teaching online serves to enhance engagement in the face-to-face and blended classes I teach. How? I take the best of what I test and apply it in a more traditional environment. This always impacts those classes in a positive way. Developing a portfolio component for all the courses I teach, crafting more clear and concise assignments, using a non-graded discussion for course content Q&A, creating richer collaborative opportunities – all started in the virtual classroom.
One of my goals for this academic year is to develop connections across the curriculum in the online program. I predicted that this would serve to enhance student engagement and strengthen learning outcomes as we break down silos. It is only the fourth week of the semester but I am already seeing some meaningful results from a collaboration between merchandising math and textiles. Students are visiting stores, monitoring product, using key industry metrics for analysis and decision-making. At the same time and for the same product, students are responsible for identifying the fiber content, evaluating the country or origin, and method of manufacture. Students are applying what they are learning. They are gaining far more real-world experience, connecting many dots between product and consumer, and bringing the course content to life. The students are engaged. Learning outcomes have come to life. These courses are richer and more rewarding for us all.