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Cindy Cook

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Focus on Engagement, and the Outcomes Will Follow

Posted: 10/23/2012 10:11 am

The education industry, like many others, is always chock-full of buzzwords. From MOOCs to Adaptive Learning to the "flipped classroom," new movements arrive overnight and the vocabulary evolves. Technology seems to be at the crux of each of these conversations, as if on its own it is the silver bullet that will one day resolve all of the issues in how we educate our youth.

One buzzword that has persisted for decades is "outcomes," which nobly focuses on student performance, often measured through assessment and directly tied to objectives assigned by an instructor, an institution, or even a government. The concept is simply that for every input there should be a measurable output that has value and can be measured.

In theory measuring learning outcomes should be easy, but in truth, there are so many factors influencing outcomes that are beyond our control. Educational software companies can provide trusted content, sound pedagogy and the highest quality technology solutions, but the "other" factors still weigh heavy on actual outcomes and student success. For example, isn't it the instructor who can turn that piece of content into a morsel of knowledge -- something that the learner can truly understand, apply and remember? Would students engaging with a textbook, absent any discourse, come to the same result -- without fail?

Learners interact with content and technology for a good portion of their educational careers. It goes without saying that the content needs to be credible and relevant and the technology needs to work, be well designed, and be accessible. The key, however, is to make it all work together to effectively promote student engagement. The "Community College Studies on Student Engagement" reports that:

The findings from 20 years of research on undergraduate education have been unequivocal: The more actively engaged students are -- with college faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study -- the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals.

Positive outcomes have repeatedly been linked to specific measures of engagement -- time spent on task, student involvement and overall quality of effort (see Astin, 1984, 1999; and Braxton, Milem and Sullivan, 2000, among others). Chickering and Gamson (1987) summarized the evidence into seven effective practices in undergraduate teaching and learning, viz.: student-staff contact; active learning; prompt feedback; time on task; high expectations; respect for diverse learning styles; co-operation among learners.

How can an educational software company influence student engagement? First, the services offered must relieve instructors of administrative burdens so they can focus more on engaging their students in coursework. If manual tasks such as grading, LMS integration, searching for content and connecting concepts and tracking progress can be made more efficient, instructors will have more time to work directly with learners and engage them in discussions, activities and tasks that help them apply concepts. Secondly, there have been numerous studies pointing to the fact that student learning styles vary and that personalized learning has merit. Technology can make it easier for instructors to customize lessons, include a variety of content types (multimedia, current articles and library readings, activities) -- which is often the desire but not always the practice. Finally, technology can be used to improve efficiency and track engagement to promote early intervention for students who need more support to succeed. While some technologies claim to be able to adapt and do this on their own, the reality is that instructors have the power to do this most effectively -- they just often lack the capability or time to do it.

Our approach toward education, collectively, needs to focus on an amalgam of wins -- not one solution. The instructor will always be core to the process and educational software providers and publishers need to be honest about their true capabilities in improving student outcomes. By working directly with instructors, giving them the tools and time needed to keep learners engaged, we can come closer to developing the silver bullet for improving education.

 
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