Online teaching has many components, and all must come together smoothly for a productive, energetic, and enthusiastic class to result. If there is one factor more critical than others, though, it is student engagement, for without it, the entire course can be flat.
No one—not you, not the students, not the institution—wants that. No one wants to see students seldom participating in a course, late in submitting assignments, or leaving dissatisfied. In 19 years of online teaching, I have found myriad ways to keep students participating and excited.
Start with a good opening. Your "welcome to the course" announcement is probably the most important of the course, as it gives students an immediate sense of you—your enthusiasm, your approach (inviting or intimidating?), your attitude (upbeat or uninterested?), and your willingness to help them.
Unlike in face-to-face courses, in which your opening words are spoken then quickly forgotten, in an online environment they are available to your students throughout the course, 24/7. The students will return to your announcement again and again, so make sure, as you would for any of your posts and e-mails to follow, that it is clear, concise, well written, and free of typos. You're setting the scene here, and the standards.
Be first whenever possible. You set the tone for the students. When they see you as an enthusiastic member of the class, that helps to get them revved up. In an online course, they know they will be working on their own, but they also need to know that you enjoy teaching the class and have a real interest in their learning. If you're engaged, you have a better chance of keeping them engaged.
So be sure you always have the first post of each new discussion topic. Post an overview of the coming week and offer reminder announcements throughout the course so students can see you are a viable instructor at all times.
Respond to all student queries within 24 hours. You must constantly maintain that all-important umbilical cord that connects you to students. When you fail to feed the beast—offering your thoughts, reactions, and instructions online—students are wont to lose interest. One component of that is making sure you respond quickly to any student posts that shout "Help!" or "I'm confused" or "I just wanted to share this with you, Professor." Those students are reaching out to you, and your quick response tells them that you are interested in what they have to say, that you are active in the course, and that they can depend on you—three qualities that go a long way to keeping students engaged.
Be detailed and positive in your comments on their work. Even when students do poorly, they will benefit and be motivated to try harder next time if your explanations for their poor grades are detailed and encouraging.
Be sure your comments on assignments point out not only when something is incorrect but also why it is wrong and how to get it right in the future. Give your students a breakdown of how you arrived at their grades (and if it's an ungraded assignment, give them faux grades so they can get a sense of the quality of work they are submitting). Always point out a few things the student got right—especially for students who got a lot wrong. Strike a positive tone in the final sentence of two of your comments.
Respond to all—or nearly all—student discussion postings. For most courses where discussion postings are required, they become the heart of the course. Those posts are where students explore the course subject, interact with one another, and touch on topics not included in your syllabus. Your steady presence in those discussions reminds students of your interest and allows you to keep the discussions on track and moving forward.
It's important to keep the discussions fresh. So at the end of each day, try posting a major comment on a discussion topic, ending with a question for the students to explore online for the next 24 hours. On the last day that a discussion thread is "alive," end with a post that sums up the conversation.
From the beginning of the course, have ready a link to Frequently Asked Questions. No matter how much stock information you offer, students will continually ask questions about this, that, and the other thing—from the basic ("How do I post an attachment?") to the highly specific ("When did the Periodic Table of Elements add Au for gold?").
You can't avoid the specific questions. But posting an FAQ link early on can save you time in answering basic questions. And students will appreciate the care you have taken in trying to help. Keep a file on common questions students ask, and update your FAQ link regularly.
Establish an "extra resources" section of your course. Find things happening in the everyday world outside your course that relate to your subject. The more students see such connections, the more important your course will become to them, beyond a grade.
So constantly be on the prowl for YouTube clips, articles and essays, photos, and even online crossword puzzles that highlight and reinforce themes in your course. Such extras add value to the course and underscore that you are an instructor who really wants to immerse students in a full learning experience.
Require students to pitch in. Whether you do this in a discussion thread or elsewhere, have each student find three Web sites useful to the subject or to your course, and three other Web sites that are fun or unusual. Be sure each student adds a line of explanation about each of the sites. Students will feel a true part of the course, and all of you might learn something new and have fun in the process.
Steer discussion threads in the direction of students' professional needs. Ask students to comment on the course topic as it relates to their majors and professional goals. The more personal ownership they feel over the online classroom and the course content, the more committed they will remain to the work, and the more likely they will be to keep participating in discussions.
Offer live chats on a weekly basis. A live chat at the beginning of each week (assuming your course is set up for that) can serve as an overview of the coming week's assignments, musings on previous assignments, and general information. Chats (especially presented in PowerPoint or Prezi format) can bring the instructor live and in real time to the students, and offer yet another opportunity to help students "get it right" when it comes to both the course material and assignments.