Student engagement online is no more and no less challenging than in person. Set expectations for yourself at a reasonable level and explore various strategies over time as you would with an in-person format. What has worked for you in the past when meeting in person? Some group work? Break out discussion groups? Team-based assignments? Any and all of these strategies can work online.
An interesting point made in an article by Young & Bruce (2011) is that 'a successful instructor intentionally balances two types of interactions: (1) task-driven to focus on learning goals and (2) socio-emotional to support students’ well-being.' One idea on the task-driven end of the continuum is to set up a discussion board that is topic-focused and graded. Clearly task-driven. Students have a task they must complete - participate in topic-focused discussion initiated by the instructor or their peers. With this approach very clear guidelines are needed with respect to expectations. An example might be:
The expectation is that students will strive to bring high quality resources and insights to bear when crafting their posts rather than simply provide an opinion. Characteristics to strive for include:
- Quantity & Regularity: Post regularly and soon after the initial topic is posted
- Research: Provided relevant URL to web-based information; specifically refer to readings and/or other course resources
- Writing style & grammar: Post clear comments in a formal writing style
- Active participation: Respond to the topic or question posed and other students’ comments in a thoughtful and respectful way
- Critical evaluation/analysis: Provide comments or questions that encouraged discussion and/or more detailed analysis of the information and issues; Comments reflect use of good reasoning skills; Comments demonstrate ability to distinguish facts from inferences
On the socio-emotional end of the spectrum the course could open with one or more ice breaker activities and/or begin with an open discussion board item having the students explain what their expectations are of the instructor in an online environment. A summary response from you that clarifies what is reasonable and you can deliver on could go a long way to building comfort into the environment.
Much chatter exists about 'active learning' and interactive activities online yet there is evidence that the very basics of clear, frequent, and multiple channels for communication are the key to engagement. Results from research by Dixon (2010) highlight that
'there is no particular activity that will automatically help students to be more engaged in online classes. However, the results also suggest that multiple communication channels may be related to higher engagement and that student-student and instructor-student communication are clearly strongly correlated with higher student engagement with the course, in general.'
Get started in a way that is comfortable for you. After that, explore resources (articles, web sites, CFD workshops...) that might lead you to new activities and strategies you can incrementally experiment with.