By Melissa Fanshawe and Katie Burke (University of Southern Queensland)
“Engaging online students” appears to be the perennial problem for online educators. We repeatedly hear from our colleagues about the challenges they face in getting many of their students to access core content consistently, and the number of studies into enhancing online engagement continues to grow.
The reasons for student non-engagement are immensely varied and requires us to consider a range of significant factors. These may include course design, teacher presence, constructive alignment of content and assessment, and wider support of students as socio-culturally situated learners. However, our experience shows that little things can have a big impact in encouraging students to engage with the course learning materials and their peers and teacher via the online learning platform. We have found the humble digital badge to be a powerful incentive.
Digital badges are online representations of achievement and replicate and can be programmed to instantaneously reward students as they complete the desired goal (Dowling-Hetherington & Glowatz, 2017). In online education, badges are awarded through email or the learning management systems.
We teach maths and arts subjects in initial teacher education, which are heavily “praxis-based” domains, meaning that effective learning relies on engagement through practical learning activities and critical reflection. In an attempt to enhance students’ engagement with core concepts and learning opportunities to promote praxis, we trialled digital badges, and found them a practical means to enhance behavioural engagement. We also used avatars in our badges; intended to cultivate a light-hearted, fun vibe that makes the courses a space of enjoyment and further reinforces the notion of teacher presence (see Figure 1).
Typically, when setting up an online learning space, educators focus on the cognitive content of the course, such as online content, delivery and assessment. Many also consider the social and emotional collaboration of the teaching staff and the students and between students. However, Redmond et al. (2018) argue that behavioural engagement – which is concerned with the student’s participation and effort – is equally as important as it enables students to follow expectations within the course and engage in learning. This is important in online learning as behavioural engagement has been identified as being statistically significant in predicting academic performance (Zanjani et al., 2017).
We found that the badges reinforced desired behaviours, such as viewing core course materials, participating in reflective forum discussions and collaborative activities, and submitting assessment. We consequently observed that the humble digital badge had a role to play in helping students develop the academic skills required to succeed in higher education (Cain & Fanshawe, 2021). Many of our students visibly enjoyed receiving their badges and we’ve received emails if their expected badge didn’t emerge when they thought they’d completed all required activities. The little digital reinforcement was clearly something they valued. Course feedback further revealed positive responses, such as “we got badges and emails to encourage us to keep going with the course (which surprisingly worked!)” Further, online learning analytics showed higher activity completion in course offerings with badges.
These results are similar to recent studies on courses with digital badges, which showed that students are proud of badges and feel satisfaction when receiving them (Abramovich, 2016; Jones et al., 2018). Wider research reinforces our experience: badges have been shown to play a dual role in motivating students to complete the course content while promoting behaviours desired in the course (Zhu & Mok, 2018). Gamification through the use of technologies has been shown to motivate students to complete activities similar to completing a video game (Dowling-Hetherington & Glowatz, 2017; Gamrat et al., 2014). Students are excited about moving up a level to receive the next badge, incentivising them to complete tasks (Casilli & Hickey, 2016).
Given the potential “facelessness” of online learning (Rose, 2017) and the reported higher levels of disengagement for online students, we believe badging can be a simple, automated, but highly effective strategy that contributes to an overall online pedagogy of care (Burke & Larmar, 2020). Badges also help students to feel that their progress is noted and celebrated (Fanshawe et al., 2020). Digital badges only take a short amount of time to establish in a course. They then run automatically and are a little strategy with a potentially big payoff to encourage student participation. We encourage other online educators to give them a try!
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Burke, K., & Larmar, S. (2020). Acknowledging another face in the virtual crowd: Reimagining the online experience in higher education through an online pedagogy of care. Journal of Further and Higher Education 5(45), 601-615. https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2020.1804536
Cain, M., & Fanshawe, M. (2021). Expectations for success: Auditing opportunities for students with print disabilities to fully engage in online learning environments in higher education. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 37(3), 137–151. https://doi.org/10.14742/ajet.6449
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