Here’s a riddle for you: I am really hard to create and sustain, and I can quickly and easily wane. What am I?
If you are in the business of online education, you know the answer: student engagement.
Whose job is it?
Sure, part of the responsibility for engagement has to be placed on the student. Is he self-disciplined? Is she a good time manager? And we, as an industry, take responsibility, as well. We are implementing great ideas to create and sustain student engagement:
- Peer-led lessons
- Interactive activities
- Discussion boards
- Learning communities
- Decreased cognitive load
- Student personas
Times they are a’ changin’… or are they?
The ideas mentioned above have definitely changed the look and feel of online education. But what is the one thing that hasn’t changed?
You know the one I mean. The all-knowing, disembodied, and sometimes punitive sage who speaks from the page in third person. Did you like that voice when you were a kid in school?
It hasn’t changed. But why hasn’t it? Are we concerned that a different voice will somehow oversimplify topics that are just, well, hard? Are we thinking that changing the textbook voice will somehow diminish the rigor of our curricula? Are we convinced that the way it has always been done is fine?
Whatever the reason to respect the textbook-voice status quo, there is even better reason not to: our students.
With all that wonderfully engaging and educational media in our online curriculum, the written word becomes the only dark spot in an otherwise luminous online landscape. And, yes, that’s where the students’ attention – and thus engagement – can take a nose dive.
Even when we utilize sound instructional design practices like chunking text into manageable segments, our online students still pick up on the disconnect between the colorful and lively digital landscape they are immersed in and the colorless and arid landscape of “old school” text.
So how do we change the textbook voice?
Start with a researched-based analysis of the audience. Then combine that with Ruth Clark’s and Richard Mayer’s Personalization Principle and Thomas Newkirk’s concept of narrative.
We know that 6th graders are different from 8th graders who are different from 10th graders who are different from 12th graders. But 6th graders share similarities with each other, just like 8th graders, and 10th graders. Looking at the psychology and the biology of these different age groups is important. Finding the differences as well as the similarities has to be the first step.
The personalization principle, according to Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E Mayer in their book, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, advocates the use of conversational versus formal style, “polite wording rather than direct wording,” and “human voice rather than machine voice” (182). They assert that “[i]n short, expressing information in conversational style can be a way to prime appropriate cognitive processing in the learner” (184). Their text with its compelling research delves deeply into how and why personalization is important for e-learning as well as the e-learner.
Textbook style, as Newkirk discusses in his book, Minds Made for Stories, is anathema to his belief that an effective writer of nonfiction (textbooks are in that category!) asks that the reader “stay with me.” Newkirk asserts that it is the writer’s responsibility to engage the reader; the writer must become an “engaging presence.” That happens most readily through narrative.
When he discusses textbook voice, Newkirk accepts that the purpose of textbooks is to “convey information in a straightforward way.” But he believes that “creative techniques” like analogy as well as the element of surprise, for example, “help in the retention of information.” How? By “satisfying a human need for causality, for fitting information into patterns, sequences, narratives…. They present us with a narrator, a human presence that is acting as our guide” (68).
Time to imagine
You are back in 8th grade. (Stay with me!) You are being introduced to the concept of inference (CCSS ELA 8.1). Which of these passages would engage you so that you would want to learn more about it?
Writers often use a variety of evidence in their work. Sometimes they state things outright, and at other times they suggest things without stating them clearly. In fact, most people use both types of communication in their everyday lives. For example, maybe you meet a friend who says, “Hey, love that color on you.” But you can tell by their tone that they are actually making fun of you. You are interpreting two layers of meaning: what is said, and what is not said. Think about what the authors state and what they imply in this lesson’s readings.
Picture this: You’re on your little brother’s bike going to a friend’s house a couple blocks from you. You are upset that you have to use his way-too-small-for-you bike, but yours has a flat tire. Your friend starts laughing when he sees you. “Nice bike,” he says. You sarcastically respond, “Nice friend,” because you know he is poking fun at you. You both laugh and head into his house to play his new video game. But how did you know he was poking fun at you? You’ve “read between the lines” of your friend’s comment! His meaning behind “nice bike” is implied—not stated—which is what reading between the lines means. Many writers want you to read between the lines too. They want you to understand at least two layers of meaning in what they have written– what is said and what is implied. Sometimes those two layers communicate very different messages. So, think about what authors state and what they imply in this lesson’s readings.
Chances are, you chose the second passage over the first. Why? Because it “spoke” to your eighth-grade self! That’s the power (and promise) of voice.
I know your curiosity has been piqued, but you might be wondering if what I am suggesting will engage kids. Perhaps not on its own. But neither do images or videos or gamification taken separately. We have to take full advantage of all of the “tools of engagement” that are under our control.
Take, for example, student personas. At StrongMind we have created and are continually evolving our student personas through ongoing research and data analysis to learn what resonates with kids. Voice is an increasingly important element in our research.
When taken all together, these tools provide the best chance for student engagement to be sustained and for learning, simultaneously, to occur.
Stay tuned for future blog posts as we share more in-depth information and research about how we can be using voice and other approaches to innovate online learning.
Valerie is a curriculum developer at StrongMind. In her previous life, she taught English and composition in a variety of online and on-ground classrooms, from middle through high school to college. She earned National Board certification while a teacher as well as her K-12 principal certification. She is co-author of a self-esteem enhancing curriculum for middle and high school students, and she remains passionate about engaging students by starting from where they are, not from where we want them to be.
Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). e-Learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia education (4th ed.). Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Newkirk, T. (2014). Minds made for stories. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.