Increasing Student Engagement in an Online Course with Pictures

Challenges of Teaching Online

As an adjunct instructor at a community college teaching an online economics course, the two biggest problems I have are students missing assignment due dates and having a number of students disappearing during the term. A few students officially drop the course but others just stop signing in and doing the work.

Unlike a traditional class with a regular meeting schedule, online classes are accessible 24/7 during the term. While convenient for busy people, this lack of fixed times makes it easy to put off signing in and doing the work. Also with all interaction between students and between students engagement between students and between students and instruction becomes more difficult.

Despite My Efforts Students Regularly Miss Due Dates

With each new course I provide a detailed list of assigned readings, homework, quizzes and tests with due dates both in the syllabus and as in a separate document.

Both of these are available within the online Learning Management System (LMS) module as well as being emailed by me to each registered student both prior to the start of class and again at the start of the class. In addition to these documents, I have set all due dates to appear in the Learning Management System’s calendar which appears on the homepage every time they log in.

Despite this students routinely miss due dates.

Our Dog Reminding Students of Work Due on September 1st

Our dog, Chika, appearing in first reminder in my online course of assignments due.
Our dog, Chika, appearing in first reminder in my online course of assignments due. | Source

A Magazine Article Gives Me an Idea

At the start of this past term I read an article (Motivate and Engage Online Learners All Semester Long, by Mark Beaudoin, in Campus Technology Magazine, August 2014) that suggested using pictures or short videos as a way to engage with students.

The suggestion was to find ways to use pictures not as a teaching tool but rather as way to encourage and motivate students to continue their efforts in the course.

After giving this some thought I decided to experiment with pictures and a little humor as a way to remind students about upcoming assignment and test due dates.

A Reference to Aesop's Tortoise and Hare Fable

A tortoise and reference to Aesop's "Tortoise and Hare" fable used for Second Week's Assignment due Reminder
A tortoise and reference to Aesop's "Tortoise and Hare" fable used for Second Week's Assignment due Reminder | Source

I Had a Large Photo Library Available to Draw Pictures From

Since the course I was teaching had started a week or so before I read the article, I had to improvise quickly.

Thanks to digital photography and my writing for HubPages for the past eight years I have taken and built up a huge library of photos that I could turn to for this purpose just as I do for HubPages and other web publishing.

With the first assignments coming due soon, I had to move fast and here again my HubPages experience came to the rescue.

I Chose Ckika With a Serious Pose for the Third Week

Chika returns for the third week's reminder posing as a serious student.
Chika returns for the third week's reminder posing as a serious student. | Source

This is Not the First Time I Have Relied on Help From Our Dog with Online Projects

In February of 2010 I accepted a challenge from fellow Hubber Darlene Sabella to join her in the 30 Hubs in 30 Days challenge.

The challenge was to write and publish one Hub each day for 30 consecutive days. I had tried this the year before and had failed to make the goal. But this time I accepted and, needing to publish a Hub that first day, I quickly wrote a humorous Hub telling of being very busy (just as now, I was working full time and teaching part-time) and needing help but supposedly being turned down by my wife and children when I asked for their help in writing for the challenge.

Continuing the no help theme, I wrote that the solution to this dilemma was to draft our dog to help me produce the necessary content.

I Add a Little More Humor With Chika in a Nurse Costume

Chika in nurse costume gives a prescription for good grades.
Chika in nurse costume gives a prescription for good grades. | Source

Despite what I wrote about my wife declining to assist me, she immediately joined in the project. Grabbing the camera and some dog treats we set up an impromptu studio in the living room. While coaxing and bribing Chika (our dog) to pose she began taking pictures of Chika and me pretending to work at our computers typing Hubs. When she finished, I selected and uploaded the pictures and published the Hub.

That Hub with its pictures of Chika and me working diligently together on laptops was a hit.

While I published daily Hubs on a number of different topics I decided to finish the challenge with a Hub describing Chika resigning and getting paid.

I also concluded each of the Hubs I wrote during the challenge with a picture of Chika and me typing away. Darlene and I regularly posted comments to each other’s Hubs during the challenge and she routinely posted humorous comments accusing me of cheating and exploiting Chika by making her write the Hubs and then my taking credit for Chika's work.

At Mid-Point of the Course A Reminder to Wake Up and Get to Work

Half way through the course a call to wake up and keep going.
Half way through the course a call to wake up and keep going. | Source

I Post Reminders Using the News Tool That Appears on Home Page of LMS

The News Tool in the LMS appears in the center of the home page and I used that as the place to post my pictures and notices.

For the first reminder posting I choose a picture of Chika slumped over a computer wearing glasses. Above the picture I posted a reminder about the work coming due soon. The next week I posted a picture of a tortoise and included a comment about Aesop's Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare, reminding the students that steadily completing work was the key to a good grade.

I Select Picture of 10th Century Horseman taken in Veliky Novgorod Russia For Exam Reminders

Statute of 10th Century Horseman by Kremlin in Veliky Novgorod, Russia announcing first exam date.
Statute of 10th Century Horseman by Kremlin in Veliky Novgorod, Russia announcing first exam date. | Source

A couple of students emailed me saying they liked the cute picture of Chike so I decided to use Chika in the rest of the announcements for weekly work due. However, for test due dates I selected a silhouette picture of a statue of a tenth century mounted horseman in Veliky Novgorod, Russia. I had previously posted pictures, although not this one, of this horseman in a 2011 Hub about monuments in Veliky Novgorod.

While it took a bit of time as well as trial and error at first (the LMS the college uses is not as easy to use as HubPages), once I got going things got smoother. One nice feature of the News Tool is that it allows an instructor to include a start and end date for each item posted. Taking advantage of this I was able to include a start and end date for each announcement.

By doing this I was able to post notices for a number of weeks at once. Since the assignment work was due by 11:59 pm on Monday evenings, I put the end date for the first one as 11:59 pm on the Monday due and then, unless there was a test due before the next Monday, I simply added the next notice and programmed it to become visible at 12:01 am on Tuesday and stay visible until 11:59 pm the following Monday.

For major exams I chose to have them available through 11:59 pm on Wednesdays of the weeks in which they were due. On weeks in which there was an exam I scheduled it to become visible at 12:01 am on Tuesday and stay visible until 11:59 pm on Wednesday after which it would be replaced at 12:01 am on Thursday by the announcement for the next Monday’s assignments.

Another Attention Grabbing Reminder

With course rapidly drawing to a close the reminders become more direct.
With course rapidly drawing to a close the reminders become more direct. | Source

I Didn't Know What to Expect When I Started This Experiment

When I started I didn’t know what to expect and, at the end, I was surprised by the results.

The vast majority of the students did most of the homework, discussion questions and quizzes.

Point wise, these assignments are small with discussions being worth 10 points, homework 20 points and quizzes 30 points. These are in contrast to the unit exams which are each worth 100 points and final exam which is worth 500 points.

As a result, many don't take them seriously and frequently feel free to ignore and not take the time to do these assignments.

However, while skipping a single ten, twenty or thirty point assignment will have little or no effect on the final grade, there are a total of sixteen of each of these assignments and the cumulative effect of skipping a number of these has an effect on the final grade. Many don't seem to realize this until it is too late.

In addition to more assignments and tests being submitted, there was a noticeable drop in emails requesting that I re-open a test or assignment for selected students. Sometimes the excuse is simply forgetting, but more often than not it is a case of having waited until the Monday evening or Wednesday evening when the work is due before studying and logging in to do the assignment.

A Warning Not to Gamble With Your Grade

As course draws to a close, Chika reminds students not gamble with grade b procrastinating.
As course draws to a close, Chika reminds students not gamble with grade b procrastinating. | Source

Procrastination Has Resulted in Problems for Many Students in the Past

Waiting until the last minute often works, but there can be problems.

When there are problems I get emails with excuses such as computer failure (on the student’s machine only- as a matter of policy, I automatically extend due dates when the problem is with the college’s system), power outage, Internet access going down, sudden illness, accident or some type of household crisis.

While all of these are real barriers to completing the test or assignment, the fact is that the student makes a choice to wait until the last minute and consciously or unconsciously gambles that things will go as planned.

Despite my providing access by students to all assignments and tests, including the final exam, available from the first day of the course for students to take, the majority seem to wait until the evening of the due date to access and complete them.

However, this past semester I only had two requests for extensions - one for forgetting to take a test and one missing due to illness.

In addition to more work being completed and practically no emails requesting extensions, a final benefit of the increased engagement due to the pictures seems to have been that most of the students who started ended up finishing the course.

Like many of my colleagues, I usually have a third or more of my students disappear before the end of the term. However, this semester over 80% of those who started ended up completing.

A final benefit occurred after posting a final good by picture with a request that students complete the course survey, I received surveys from almost every student.

Chika Celebrates End Course with Pizza and a Beer

Course over and everyone invited to celebrate with a virtual pizza and beer.
Course over and everyone invited to celebrate with a virtual pizza and beer. | Source

Conclusion

Based upon my experience this term, I plan to continue using humorous pictures in my course next semester.

Because I was assigned an 8 week section this semester I now have almost three full months to prepare for my course next semester and I have already begun assembling pictures and setting due dates. When I receive access to my module in January I will be in a position to upload the reminders and schedule release and end dates for all of them before the module is opened for student access.

Course ends with final exam.
Course ends with final exam. | Source

Email Exchange With Student about Chika's Role in the Course

Oct 5

Text of email from student:

Hi Mr. Nugent I just wanted to let you know that I look forward to the dog pictures every week! I find the very amusing and appreciate your humor, especially for an economics class. :)

Oct 6

My reply to student’s email

Thank you for your kind email, and I'm glad you enjoy the pictures.

My wife, who did some semi-professional modeling in her hometown in Russia years ago, likes to dress up our dog, Chika, and have her model them while I take pictures. I now emphasize with photographers complaining about their temperamental models. It takes a lot of treat bribes and coaching by my wife to get Chika into the right poses but, after taking a few dozen pictures we usually end up with a couple of good ones.

This is the first time I have tried using the News module with pictures and I have concluded that either I have a more diligent and conscientious group of students or the Chika photos are having an impact on reminding students about assignments due as more of this semester's students are completing assignments on time than has been my experience in the past.

I will share your email with my wife as she is the brains behind the modeling - I just take the pictures and try to find a use for them.

Oct 6

Student’s reply giving Chika credit for good results

Well it could be that Chika is really encouraging students! At least for me, I know I like to keep signing in for this class just to find a new picture of Chika.

Also, since it is economics the photos give a more relaxed feeling to the class, perhaps making students not so afraid of economics and making them relax more.

All I know is that it is good idea to keep up the modeling pictures of this beautiful doggy. Thumbs up to your wife! :)

© 2014 Chuck Nugent

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Comments 11 comments

KoniKodes profile image

KoniKodes 22 months ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

That is so cool Chuck. I'm afraid my nieces playing dress-up with the girls scared away their desire to be models...


Chuck profile image

Chuck 22 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

KoniKodes - the credit for the dress up of our dog goes to my wife. Years ago she made clothes and modeled them part-time back in her homeland in Russia. She is very good at modeling and when we got the dog she began buying clothes for it and teaching it to model. Given enough treat bribes, Chika, our dog, will model for us. All of the pictures I used in my class this past semester have previously appeared in some of my previous HubPages. My wife has shared many of Chika's pictures on her Facebook and http://www.odnoklassniki.ru/ (her Russian classmates site). Chika also has her own Facebook page which she rarely bothers to update.


KoniKodes profile image

KoniKodes 22 months ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

I think it's great. Your dog does make it more fun, and keeps the theme consistently engaging. I just wish my cats would play dress up too. Still, I'm going to borrow your ideas for my own programs. Thank you for sharing.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 22 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

easylearningweb - thanks for your comment. I agree with you that humor is good up to a point and helps with motivation but a teacher's job is to engage and teach students and not simply entertain them. But, while discipline and work are needed, learning does not have to drudgery.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 22 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

KoniKodes - glad you enjoyed the Hub. Sorry my dog upset your cats, but our little chihuahua tries to do her part when I need graphics for my Hubs.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 22 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

vohewriter - thanks for your comments and I hope the Hub was of use to you in your studies. Good luck with your soon to be career in education.


easylearningweb profile image

easylearningweb 22 months ago

I agree that using humor (to a point) in education is helpful, especially for younger students, and for attention grabbers. I think audiences and learners are more interested and motivated to listen and learn when things are amusing and entertaining, like when videos are used.

Voted up and useful!


KoniKodes profile image

KoniKodes 22 months ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

This was great! My cats wouldn't sit still for it, but you have inspired a new lesson plan!


yohewriter profile image

yohewriter 22 months ago from St. Louis

Online courses are certainly the education tool of the present and well into the future. Nice work with this hub in addressing the huge issue of staying motivated to stick with online work. Most people need someone to keep them accountable to show up - using pictures and inviting students into your personal life kind of gives them the feel that they want to stay engaged. I am currently in my 13th week of an online course and am doing well. I may be an exception, not sure. As a future educator, I hope to gather as much information and advice that I can to help move my soon-to-be-career into the next decade. Thank you for your efforts!


Chuck profile image

Chuck 22 months ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Graham - thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub.


old albion profile image

old albion 22 months ago from Lancashire. England.

A greatly entertaining hub Chuck. Education is so important, unfortunately so many of us don't appreciate that until it is too late.

Graham.

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