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Increasing Student Engagement in an Online Course with Pictures

Updated on March 21, 2020
Chuck profile image

A part-time college economics & finance instructor who began his career in banking, Chuck frequently writes on money & economics online.

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 interactions both between students and instructor as well as between the students themselves usually being done via email or some type of messaging program. Most online Learning Management Systems do include both an internal system email and/or some type of internal messaging program within the LMS. This is good for both time flexibility for both the student and instructor but lacks the face to face group interaction found within a traditional classroom

Many Learning Management Systems do have the capability for real time video interaction but this has the disadvantage of requiring students to meet online at a specific time. Education wise this is good but many students, especially those in college or university programs take online classes because it allows them to work around work or other time constraints (I once had a student who did all of this work between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m from a city 100 miles away. When I inquired why he chose that time he said he was a long haul truck driver who had a layover at that time at a site with Internet access).

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 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 set all due dates to appear in the Learning Management System’s calendar which appears on the homepage every time they log in.

Despite all these reminders, many students continue to routinely miss due dates. Something more was needed. Fortunately, my dog came to my aid.

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 summer 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 for the current week.

This led me to the hiring of our family dog, Chika, as the course motivator. In addition to being a good candidate she came cheap as her compensation was an extra doggie treat.

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 Posted Reminders Using the News Tool 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 completed, and submitted on time, most of the assigned homework, discussion questions and quizzes.

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

In previous semesters many students didn't take the discussions, homework and quizzes seriously and frequently felt free to ignore and not take the time to do these assignments.

However, while skipping a single ten, twenty or thirty point assignment usually had little or no effect on the student's final grade. However, there were a total of sixteen of each of these assignments and the cumulative effect of skipping a number of these small assignments had an effect on the final grade. Most students didn'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 was simply forgetting, but more often than not it was a case of having waited until the Monday or Wednesday evening when the work was due before doing any studying prior to 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 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 photo 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

Chika Was The Face Of The Class Showing Up With Reminders At The Same Time Each Week

Based upon my experience using of these humorous pictures I can only conclude that the photos not only added some levity to the course but in a way also caused the students to look upon Chika as a real teaching assistant interacting with them on a daily basis guiding them through the course.

When teaching an online course all of the content has to be created and put online before the course starts. This is especially true when all of the homework assignments, study questions, quizzes and exams are available to the students from day one. While it is possible to prepare and upload homework assignments, discussion questions, quizzes and exams as needed throughout the semester I have two problems with this.

  1. I teach at an urban community college where most students work full time as well as going to school. While there are deadlines on all work, when everything is available at the start students have the opportunity to finish the course early leaving them more time to work on a course that may be more difficult for them or finish it before a time during the semester when they will have to work overtime, etc.
  2. Also, I am an adjunct (part-time) instructor with a separate full time job. Having everything in place before the start of the term gives me more time to grade and give feedback individually on homework, quizzes and tests as well as participate in the online discussion questions.

While I interact individually with students via email and comments section on work submitted this varies depending upon the student with those needing more help or emailing me with questions receiving more attention than those who don't have questions or problems. Even this interaction is simply words in an email or on a piece of work submitted from a faceless professor. Chika, on the other hand, pops up on their computer screens regularly, with different poses, backgrounds and dress reminding each student what is needed next. In effect Chika was the face of the class while I was a distant and remote figure managing the class in the background.

A Couple Of Caveats / Suggestions

As an urban community college instructor my students are usually older (most aged 18 to 30) with a full time job and a family.. Younger students (K-12) or full time university students may require a different course structure but pictures, videos or other tactics can help to keep your students engaged and motivated.

Since I saw the article a day or so after the class started I had to come up with some pictures and a theme very fast. I used my dog because I already had the pictures which my wife and I had taken previously for other reasons. I could have come up with a different theme and used pictures of myself but that would have taken more time. Ditto for creating and using a series of videos using myself or some other person or thing..

The Chika pictures and theme were a quick decision made easier by the fact that I already had photos for the project at hand. Despite this it was an experiment that could have failed. Fortunately it exceed beyond my expectations.

I am sharing this as an idea for improving attendance and engagement in an online class. Hopefully this will lead you, the reader, to find a way to improve attendance and engagement results in your online course.

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! :)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Chuck Nugent


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