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Profs Build Connections in Online Classes

Student Engagement Fosters Success

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Engineering Prof. Sammy Shina says fostering interaction and participation is key to creating a positive learning experience.

By Jill Gambon

After teaching engineering for more than 40 years, Prof. Sammy Shina made his foray into online education in the spring of 2013. At the time, Shina wondered about interacting with students whom he might never meet face-to-face and creating an engaging classroom environment for students scattered around the globe.

Fast forward to a year later and Shina marvels at the myriad opportunities for classroom interaction, whether it’s students sharing stories of how they apply what they’re learning to their jobs or participating in chats to deepen their understanding of course material.

“It’s been an excellent experience,” Shina says. “I’ve been pleased with how completely engaged and motivated the students are.”

For Shina and other faculty, getting students involved and interacting is a key to creating a positive learning experience, especially in online courses where there is usually no in-person contact.
“Student engagement contributes to student success,” says Pauline Carroll, the Division of Online and Continuing Education’s senior executive director for academic and administrative services. “We are always looking for ways to enhance that. We want to provide the best possible learning experience.”

The subject of student engagement is of such high interest it was the theme for last semester’s faculty convocation hosted by the Division of Online and Continuing Education. Several faculty members, including Shina, presented ideas for optimizing student engagement.

“Communication is absolutely essential in fostering student engagement,” says Mary Duell, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology, who teaches both on campus and online. Sharing some details of her personal background to build rapport, using online chats to foster interaction and having students post responses to different topics on class discussion boards are some of ways to encourage communication and cultivate student engagement, says Duell, who began teaching online classes 10 years ago.
“You know students are engaged if they are willing to participate,” she says. “The online discussion boards are a wonderful way for students to get to know each other and share ideas. It’s amazing sometimes to see the back and forth on those boards.” 

Nationally Recognized Program

Since the University launched its first online course in 1996, enrollments have steadily climbed, with total enrollments in online undergraduate and graduate programs for the 2013 academic year topping 32,600. At the same time, the number of courses, degrees and certificate programs offered have continued to expand. Some of the newest programs include fully online bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and business administration.

UMass Lowell has been recognized as a national leader in online learning, earning awards in recognition of excellence in teaching, faculty development and leadership from The Sloan Consortium, or Sloan-C, an international organization promoting quality in online education. Students have registered their satisfaction with their online courses, too. According to student evaluations, 89 percent report satisfaction with the quality of instruction.

Ryan Josselyn, who is working toward his master’s degree in engineering and has taken two of Shina’s online courses, says the digital classroom provides a unique experience because of the interaction that takes place on the discussion boards.
“It’s good to see what other people are thinking. When you read the posts, you can see how people arrive at their answers. It gets you exposed to more ideas,” he says.  “In a classroom setting, you might just hear one person’s idea.”

Shina and Duell agree that students sometimes open up more and share ideas more freely online than they would in a classroom.

“In some ways, feel like I know the online students much better,” Shina says.