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The Practice of Participation in an Online Course

"A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books."

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books." — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Participation refers to the ways students are engaged in the learning process and includes almost everything you do for a class. It could be said that all learning requires the active engagement or involvement of the student, as "optimum class management and effectiveness depends on students being actively engaged, supportive of each other, and civil in their exchanges." Furthermore, some online faculty members use the word ‘contribution’ instead, and this helps to clarify the term further, as ‘contribution’ more directly sets guidelines on what is expected, such as whether your involvement in the class show you have truly completed the assigned readings, shared what you learned from them, and demonstrated understanding and application of the concepts in a project or paper.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE Studies) shows that "student success is directly linked to student involvement." Participation is also one of the key ways a professor can assess learning. "Requiring students’ participation in the online discussion through regular contributions is a way to determine if students are keeping pace with the ongoing learning activities," the report stated, and "their commitment with the learning community, and their necessary involvement with course content." Therefore, it is in your best interest to take participation seriously in your online courses specifically and in your education generally.

Ways to Participate in an Online Class

One of the greatest benefits of online learning is the multitude of ways to participate. Online courses are known as a great leveler, meaning that no matter who you are — extroverted/introverted, male/female, younger/older, traditional/non-traditional student, etc. — there are ways to participate based on your preferences and without the fears that can arise in face-to-face (F2F) classrooms. Here’s a list of typical ways you may be expected in an online class:

  • Assignments. Be sure to complete readings and other assigned activities. These will give you a firm basis for the course content and allow you to be a fully informed participant.
  • Discussion Boards. Just like F2F classes, online courses feature frequent class discussions within what is typically referred to as a "discussion board" (Db) (See the sample here). The professor will post an original question based on an aspect of the course content and/or its application; each student will be expected to post a response to that original prompt. Then, students will read and reply to the posts of classmates; replying to at least two classmates is a typical requirement, but you are often welcomed and encouraged to reply to more. The discussions are usually asynchronous, meaning they are not held in real time, instead being open for a set period for completion, so look for this information carefully.
  • Seminars. Some online classes have regular synchronous (real time) seminars. These may involve audio, video, and/or chat features (audio, webinars, adobe, etc.). You will log into an online learning site (e.g., Blackboard, eCollege, or Adobe Connect), and you may be able to see the other participants, hear them speak, and type in an "instant message" chat window. Check this link to see and experiment with an Adobe Connect room: Many online learning systems operate in a similar way.
  • Chats. Some faculty may also set up "chat" areas where students can participate in synchronous or asynchronous conversations. Often these are considered "lower stakes" activities that are either ungraded or receive a minimal amount of points if you just participate. Even though these may not be worth the points of a large paper or project, don’t overlook them. Chats can be a great place to network with other students and your professors, to brainstorm ideas for those larger projects, or to get help as needed.
  • Blogs. Blogs are a discussion led by an individual who focuses on writing and sharing information about a specific topic. Then, others are welcome to post responses to what is shared. The writing style is more informal than on discussion boards, and the posts are more concise as well. Faculty use blogs in online classes for a variety of purposes — there may be a blog set up for your specific course or section that is led by the professor who may share tips for the class or information about the subject. Other students and interested individuals may also take part in the discussion. Some courses may require you to create your own blog; composition and communication courses, for example, sometimes use blogs as a way to provide students with practice writing about a specified topic.
  • Office hours. Check your syllabus to see when and how your professors hold office hours. If your online courses are associated with a ground campus, your professor probably will post F2F office hours. As an online university student, you should still take advantage of the opportunity to meet with your professor in person as needed. In fact, it doesn’t hurt to stop by and introduce yourself at the beginning of the class. Many professors also hold "virtual office hours" that may be hosted within the online learning system (e.g., Blackboard has an "office hours" feature), in AIM (or another instant messaging service), and/or by video chat (in Skype or Adobe Connect). Whatever the means your professor uses for office hours, it would be helpful to participate in them.
  • Q & As. Many online courses will have a "Question & Answer" area where you and other students may post questions about the course. It should be kept in mind that this is not the place to post private concerns like a question about your grade; rather, this is a place to post a public question about the course, assignments, or class topics. Class instructors usually check the Q&As every 24 hours during the week and at least once over the weekend. Other students may also provide responses, making it an excellent area to participate in to get a quick answer to a question or to just show your professor you are truly interested in the course and its content.
  • Labs. Some online courses may have online "labs" where students either receive a prepackaged set of materials (e.g., some rock samples for a Geology course) that they work with on their own and without synchronous support from the instructor or a link to view or work with the materials online (e.g., an instructor’s Jing video). Whichever method the course uses, be sure to take part fully in the activity, taking time to record and share your observations and interpretations with classmates and the instructor.
  • Study groups. Your school may offer the opportunity to set up a study group, and it’s also not uncommon for online students to set up their own Facebook page for the course. Other students may join, and studying may be done by means of the status update, messaging, and other available features. As Facebook and Skype are joining forces, this would be a great way to include video conferencing in your virtual study sessions.

Participation Will Help You Get the Most Out of Your Online Experience

Participating in an online class will not only help you to get better grades, but it can benefit your overall online experience as well. For example, it allows you to network. Whether you do this in person or virtually, don’t be shy about networking with professors and other students. Chances are good that some of these individuals will make an excellent part of your support team as you climb the educational/career ladder and that you will be a valuable resource for some of them. Participation should not be seen as just an assigned activity within the confines of a course. Instead, view it with a larger focus of advancing your opportunities and helping others to reach their goals, too.

In addition, participating regularly will help you take advantage of your university’s excellent F2F and online resources. Check out your university’s writing, math, and science centers; participate in any tutoring, workshops, or other resources they may offer. Check out the library for similar programs they make available to students. Most will have an orientation available F2F and online, one-on-one research help with a librarian, or even tutorials on various software and learning systems needed for a class. You can also consider joining clubs and organizations. There are organizations for online students, and many of these serve as professional networking groups. Others are also for fun; Theta Omega Gamma, for instance, is a fraternity just for online university students. If, by chance, your school doesn’t have any organizations listed, consider starting one. Often, all it takes is a few interested students to start an organization for online learners.

Try to participate before the posted deadline and be sure to save a screen shot or copy as back up. Do review the syllabus, directions, and rubrics carefully for how participation is evaluated; then, make sure to meet the instructor’s expectations. Engagement is key for student success inside and outside of the classroom, so take advantage of the opportunities presented to you to be fully engaged in your own education.


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