To succeed on a learning path, the learner must engage and invest fully in it. However, in the context of online training, as everyone progresses in their own “time & space,” the risk of feeling isolated can affect the motivation needed to persevere. This being said, there are many ways to make online training as engaging – if not more so – than traditional face-to-face training. But to do that, we have to understand first what “engagement” is all about.
A singular-plural concept
Learner engagement is a familiar concept in education. Since it is often referred to, one might think that it is precisely defined and that its mechanisms are well understood. However, there is a great diversity of theories that try to explain it, and that often apply to particular contexts. As the authors of one study note, “engagement is a complex, multidimensional and multifactorial concept that remains difficult to define and operationalize.” Pointing out that “many studies on the engagement in training programs are satisfied with a definition of common sense, without any precise theoretical basis,” they wonder if the time has not come to have a more global definition, valid in a variety of contexts.
Researchers who have looked into learner engagement agree that it is a state and a process where multiple dimensions – cognitive, behavioral, emotional and social (or socio-emotional) – interact with each other. The emotional and social dimensions are difficult to measure, whereas the behavioral one is more suitable to be evaluated, since visible indicators can testify to the learner’s participation, thus to a form of engagement on his/her part.
Studies on engagement in online training context are still only a few, but the topic is attracting more and more interest. Despite the shortcomings – to be addressed, hopefully, in the near future – existing resources can undoubtedly help us better understand the drivers of engagement and identify ways to make it more dynamic in online training.
Its constant variables
Despite the multitude of definitions, it is commonly agreed that engagement is a form of cognitive and emotional investment that can be viewed both as a state and as a process that fluctuates in time. Speaking of this temporal fluctuation, some researchers see in it three stages: commitment-disengagement-re-engagement; while others distinguish four: point of engagement, period of sustained engagement, disengagement, and reengagement.
Authors trying to find an effective way of measuring engagement in online training have proposed the following definition: “Engagement [in online learning] involves students using time and energy to learn materials and skills, demonstrating that learning, interacting in a meaningful way with others in the class (enough so that those people become “real”), and becoming at least somewhat emotionally involved with their learning (i.e., getting excited about an idea, enjoying the learning and/or interaction). Engagement is composed of individual attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors as well as communication with others.”
It should be noted that several authors recognize as distinct the engagement in a training program -where several external variables come into play: content, platform, social context, expected results, etc. – and the engagement into the very act of learning (Axelson and Flick, 2010, Bourgeois, 2011, Carré et al., 2001).
To become involved in learning, you have to be motivated, with this motivation being defined as a “psychological process responsible for triggering, maintaining, upkeeping or terminating a behavior. It is, in a way, the force that drives you to act and think in one way or another.” Here again, there is a consensus that motivation is based on the interaction of intrinsic (or internal) and extrinsic (external) factors.
By simplifying, we can say that the intrinsic motivators are specific to each individual, that they relate to the representation they have of themselves and the situation, the pleasure and the satisfaction they derive from an activity, whereas extrinsic motivators refer to the learning context, the means that can motivate everyone to reach a goal. While some argue that the driver of engagement and learning success is in intrinsic motivation, others see extrinsic motivation as equally important for stimulating and sustaining participation, especially in online learning. Motivational factors in online courses study findings demonstrate that the extrinsic motivation factors increase the students’ motivation in an online learning environment.
In fact, there is an interaction between these two forms of motivation, which the self-determination theory (SDT) notably describes as a continuum of self-determination that goes from an external control (extrinsic motivation) to an internal one (intrinsic motivation). According to this theory, the more the individuals perceive that the situation allows them to be autonomous and to make choices, the more their feeling of self-determination – to decide by themselves – is reinforced, which enhances their intrinsic motivation. The more “self-determined” the learners are, the more competent they are, which helps to keep them motivated and persevere in their learning journey. It is the intrinsic motivation that would be the most “self-determined.”
Among the most critical intrinsic motivators, we find the task value perceived by the learners, the control they can exercise over that task, its course, and its consequences, their sense of self-efficiency, their perception of their chances of success and the quality of the challenge that the task represents for them. The more the learners feel well or stimulated on these different levels, the more motivated they should be. These factors are also evident in the contexts of online training designed as serious games.
Further, the more effective the learners feel, the higher their expectation of success is, thereby promoting their motivation. As stated by the authors of one study “motivation, commitment, and self-regulation have complementary links with one another.” Self-regulation is “the process by which [learners] manage their thoughts, behavior, and emotions in order to successfully navigate their learning experiences.”
Although extrinsic motivators appear to be less influential than intrinsic factors, they are of great interest in designing eLearning, as they can be directly impacted. Some of the most important extrinsic motivational factors include the teaching and learning process, the role of the trainer, and the online learning environment.
Regarding this last factor, studies that have looked into serious gaming are particularly enlightening, since “the quality of the experience” is at the heart of this type of training, whose playful nature aims to encourage the repetition of the learning experience. It is clear from this research that technological infrastructure in the broadest sense is important. In the same time equally important are aesthetics, interactivity, variety, novelty, the presence of feedback, as well as the possibility given to learners to feel some control over the course of their learning and their time management. It is important to note that one study comes to the same conclusion as two previous ones (Carroll and Thomas (1988) and Pausch et al. (1994)) mentioning that learner engagement tends to decline when the technology infrastructure seems to be either too difficult or too easy to use.
Emotions and extrinsic factors
Learner engagement has several dimensions, including an emotional one that is crucial for determination and re-engagement. If we immediately associate intrinsic motivators with emotional commitment, this is not the case for extrinsic motivators. However, these factors are also vectors of emotions, positive or negative, without forgetting that they are the ones on which one can intervene directly in the conception of a training program. It, therefore, seems essential to pay particular attention to these factors by designing online training that will elicit the emotions that, in turn, will encourage the learners to persevere in their learning journey.